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Myanmar (Burma)

Feb 21, 2016 – Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar (Burma)

The Volendam is docked about an hour’s drive south of Yangon in the port city of Thilawa, which is as far up the shallow Rangoon River as ships dare go.

My shore excursion into Yangon takes most of the day. Our bus is a bit dodgy, but our driver and guide are great, and the driver has a helper, so we are well-served, and we are offered lots of bottled water in order to stay hydrated in the heat. The drive from the port to the city takes almost two hours each way through very heavy traffic. As we leave the port through Thilawa, we encounter early preparations for a pagoda festival. There are circus rides, lots of food stands, and people everywhere despite the festival not starting for several hours. We cross the Rangoon/Bago River over the bridge into the city of Yangon, where we pick up a police escort. So for the rest of the day, we arrive at each location like rock stars!

Our guide explains that the change in spelling for the city of Yangon (from Rangoon) and the country of Myanmar (from Burma) was done by the past military government to correct historical misspelling of the two place names into English. She tells us land is very expensive in Yangon, development is sporadic, and is dependant on foreign investment and (in the past) sponsorship by the military regime. There are lots of homeless dogs, who obviously have to scrounge for food, however some are fed and adopted from the Buddhist temples, so they are referred to as “wat dogs”, after the Burmese word for temple.

Street vendor beside Mahabandoola Garden in Yangon

Street vendor beside Mahabandoola Garden in Yangon

First stop is the Sule Pagoda, which is right in the center of the city. We don’t actually go into the pagoda, but we get to hang around Mahabandoola Garden for a few minutes, where there are lots of street food vendors. Next is the Bogyoke Aung San (Scott) Market, where we have some time to shop or just look around this massive market right in the centre of the city. There are clothes, shoes, precious and semi-precious gems and jewelry, inlaid wood, fabric, cosmetics and all sorts of handicrafts.

I’m glad to get out of the market, and go for lunch at the very elegant downtown hotel, the Sule Shangri-La. We are served (family style) a lovely Chinese meal with our choice of beverages, including beer or wine. I have a very nice lager-style local beer, and dine with several of my fellow passengers at big round tables. After lunch, our police escort takes us to the National Museum for a quick look at several interesting exhibits, including the 8-metre-tall golden Lion Throne used by the last Burmese King. Unfortunately, no photos are allowed in the museum.

The Vane and Diamond Orb atop Shwedagon Pagoda

The Vane and Diamond Orb atop Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon Pagoda is the highlight of a very full day. One of the wonders of the religious world, this Buddhist spectacle was built more than 2,500 years ago. The pagoda is located on the top of Singuttara Hill, so it is visible from all over the city, since the golden stupa is 100 metres tall. It is topped with more than 6,500 diamonds, rubies and other precious stones; the largest diamond is 76 carats at the apex! The top three components (the Diamond Orb, The Vane and the Umbrella) consist of some 86,000 jewellery items weighing over 5 tonnes. The decorations on the main stupa were recently redone, with the precious stones coming completely from donations. The pagoda is covered in gold plate (not gold leaf).

Everyone, including tourists have to take shoes and socks off and be modestly dressed before taking the elevator from the entrance to the main plaza that surrounds this huge pagoda. Since it is the middle of the day, the tiles are hot in the midday Sun, however since they are marble, it is tolerable providing you don’t step on the black ones! I work my way around the plaza, which has huge numbers of temples and shrines on both sides of the plaza.

The faithful walk around the pagoda in a clockwise direction (as do we), stopping at shrines and temples along the way. In particular, there are Planetary Posts, or shrines for each day of the week (two for Wednesday), just like there are buddhas for each day of the week. Speaking of Buddhas, there are worship halls and temples for the many different images of Buddhas surrounding the main stupa. Free wifi is available in the southeast area of the plaza, near the south stairway entrance.

Monk, and offerings, and the Reclining Buddha

Monk, and offerings, and the Reclining Buddha

Our last stop of the day is to see the Chauk Htat Gyi Reclining Buddha. Again, we doff our shoes and socks before entering the compound. This statue is 68 metres (223 feet) long. Buddha’s feet are decorated with astrology and other symbols. There are lots of wat dogs and their pups lounging around the compound.

Our trip back to the ship uses back roads after we cross the river, since our guide and driver want to avoid the local pagoda festival being held on the main road in Thilawa. I hear later from other passengers that they were caught for almost an hour in the festival congestion. Although the back road we took was a bit rough, we were back onboard the ship by 5PM.

Feb 22, 2016 – Monday – Yangon, Myanmar

I spend most of the day aboard the ship at the dock, and leave at 4:30PM to see the Shwedagon Pagoda at night. The traffic is very congested south of the main bridge across the river, but we arrive at the pagoda in time for sunset when the lights illuminate all the gold on the structures. One benefit of visiting at night: the marble tiles on the plaza around the pagoda are cool. Yesterday, I was burning my bare feet as I walked around the pagoda in the midday Sun. The Moon is full, making this evening even more picturesque.

The main Shwedagon Pagoda at night

The main Shwedagon Pagoda at night

While walking around the pagoda, a young Burmese man strikes up a conversation with me, asking about my country, how long I am staying in the country, how I got here and where I’m going after leaving. He speaks very good English, so we have quite a conversation. Two monks also approach me later on, although they speak poor English. They have similar questions as the young man posed, but they also want me to go with them for some reason. Of course I decline, since I have no idea what they want, and I have no intention of finding out!

This evening, the Thilawa Music & Dance troupe perform traditional Burmese music, dance and acrobatics onboard the ship. Their music is kind of screechy, but the performances are very interesting and the costumes are ornate and colourful. The last number involves two guys inside a giant elephant costume! I take video of portions of the performance.

 

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Tahiti, French Polynesia

March 5, 2014 – Wednesday – Tahiti, French Polynesia

My excursion this morning is called Off the Beaten Track: Tahiti by 4-Wheel Drive, which is another tour using 4X4 trucks, but this time to explore the interior of Tahiti. We drive along the north coast of Tahiti from Papeete to the Papenoo Valley, and then head inland up to the base of one of the volcano calderas, now covered in lush tropical vegetation, with a river and waterfalls. The river is used for hydropower generation, although the dams, reservoirs and power stations are very small by British Columbia standards. We return using the same route, marvelling at the huge rough surf crashing on the rocks and shoreline. Our final stop is at an outlook over Mataval Bay and its black beach, with the capital of Papeete and island of Moorea behind.

After lunch, I venture out to walk around Papeete for a few blocks. Everything is closed today, since it is Ash Wednesday (and Missionary Day), both a civic and religious holiday. There are a few restaurants open and a few tourist shops, but otherwise the city is closed for the day. The Vaima Shopping Center was newly opened when I was here in 1978, but it is closed for the holiday like most other retail. The afternoon heat is a killer, so I return to the air-conditioned ship.

JoeTourist: Tahiti &emdash; Tahiti Ora folkloric dance troupeThis evening there is a special folkloric Tahitian dance troupe the Showroom aboard ship: Tahiti Ora. They are top-notch, high-energy performers, and the room is packed for their single performance. After the show, the rain is pouring down outside. We have been incredibly lucky during out time in French Polynesia, since this is their rainy season. We seem to have been perpetually a day ahead of serious-looking rainstorms. See my photos of our scenic cruise along Raiatea and Taha’a for some major clouds and even a funnel cloud!

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Santa Marta, Colombia

Friday, November 25, 2011 – Day 5 – Santa Marta, Colombia

I get up early to take a tour to Taroya Park, which involves walking through Colombia’s jungle. The ship arrives on time and the tour bus takes the highway out of town on the way to the park, but soon comes to a stop because there is a protest blocking the road. Police are there, and apparently the protesters are upset over not having power in their neighbourhood, despite having the wiring in place. Eventually our guide comes back with the news we can’t proceed, since this is the only road to the park. Our guide gives us three options: return to the ship and get a full refund, be dropped off for the day at the resort hotel, or take a city tour. Both the city tour and the resort option include a folkloric dance at the Irotama Beach Resort.

Like most on the bus I choose the city tour, since in addition to the folkloric dance, we will see the main cathedral in town as well as the Gold Museum. Our first stop is the Irotama Beach Resort, which is 20 minutes out of town near a resort area. They have a beautiful beach, and offer us refreshments before the show starts. I choose a Colombian beer, which tastes very nice as I sip it under the palm trees. The folkloric dancers look quite similar to the ones I previously saw in Costa Rica and Martinique, but the young dancers do a great job. Apparently all Colombian children learn three folkloric dances when they are in school.

Our next stop is the main cathedral back in the centre of the city. Santa Marta is very much a third world city with dirty ditches lining the streets, narrow sidewalks, fruit vendors and old buildings with rickety balconies overhanging the streets below. As we enter the cathedral, our guide talks about Simon Bolivar, who liberated several Central and South American countries in his time, including Colombia. He is very much revered for his selfless sacrifice, since he died in this city from tuberculosis when he was in his early forties. The cathedral is impressive, with many alters decorated beautifully, however I’m most impressed with the large plaza surrounding the cathedral. It is a lovely civic space with no cars, shade trees, and some nice shops on the perimeter.

Our final stop of the day is the botanical gardens. We see lots of native flora and fauna, include the obligatory iguanas in the trees, butterflies, and there are several monuments to Simon Bolivar. Our guide shows us an old sugar cane plantation home where Simon Bolivar died, including the actual bedroom with original furniture. I learned about Simon Bolivar in grade school, but didn’t appreciate how much the people in Central and South American countries revere him. He was someone who bucked the system and believed in people power.

Our guide has some interesting things to say about Columbia and the reputation the country has with the drug trade. He feels the major cities are safe for citizens to go about their business and for tourists, and illustrates the point by asking us a question. What are the two major industries of Medellin? The obvious answer is Drugs, but the real answer is: Shipping tropical flowers to the United States, and being a centre of excellence for plastic surgery! He tells an interesting story on the second point. Apparently the two largest markets for plastic surgery in Medellin are women from the United States and Brazil. Another major market are young Colombian women who want breast implants. Apparently they often get their parents to pay for the surgery!

Julian Gargiulo

Julian Gargiulo

After the ship departs port and we have a wonderful dinner in the main dining room, I go to see the entertainment in the main show lounge. Julian Gargiulo is a classically trained pianist and does a great job playing the grand piano centre stage. He showcases some of his own compositions along with Chopin, and finishes with a classic Beethoven piece.