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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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Venice

September 7, 2014 – Sunday – Austria to Venice, Italy

After parking in the Tronchetto parking area of Venice, we get our bags off the bus and take the Vaporetto (water bus) to the Academia area. Jennifer previously warned us that an historical regatta was happening along the Grand Canal, which means some bridges and portions of the canal are closed to traffic. We schlepp our bags through the crowds, but when we reach the Academia Bridge, it is completely jammed and is complete chaos. At this point we can no longer roll our bags as we squeeze through the crowds. It takes us about 20 minutes to carefully cross to the other side and regroup before continuing our rather stressful walk to our hotel.

The Hotel Serenissima is located just four blocks from St. Marks Square, and not much further to the Rialto Bridge area. My room is the tiniest hotel room I have ever stayed in, however it has a bathroom and a single bed, and is comfortable and quiet, since it faces the inner courtyard instead of the street.

Gondola ride on the Grand Canal at night in Venice

Gondola ride on the Grand Canal at night in Venice

We don’t have much time, but I manage to get cleaned up before we go out for a group dinner at Trattoria alla Madonna. The food and service is very good. The dinner includes salad, main course, wine, dessert, and some entertainment from a trio that wandered in from the street. They made out like bandits from all the tips our group gave them!

Another highlight of the tour comes next: a night time gondola ride through the canals, complete with a singer and accordion player! Our guide Jennifer arranges this extra cost activity for those of us who want to go, so we share in the (reasonable) cost, and end up in four gondolas. It is great to experience this with the group. It is a beautiful night, the Moon is full over the Grand Canal, and the city is alive with people as we glide by listening to our musicians. Jennifer even serves us Prosecco (Italian sparkling wine) before we start the gondola ride!

September 8, 2014 – Monday – Venice

After breakfast at the hotel this morning, we go on an early morning guided walk with a local guide. We see Marco Polo family’s square, then go to the Venice Hospital area, where we have a break. The hospital looks like a church to me. The walk continues wandering through Venice, and we eventually come to a little shop on a canal, which sells Venetian masks. Our guide takes the whole group inside to see how the Moroccan owner makes the masks. I’m not interested, although the rest of the group seem to enjoy it.

Gold decorated wall and ceiling murals in St. Marks Cathedral

Gold decorated wall and ceiling murals in St. Marks Cathedral

Our last stop on the tour is the famous St. Marks Cathedral on St. Marks Square (Piazza San Marco), where our guides leave us. Timing is important, since at 11:30AM, the lights illuminating the ceiling inside the church are turned on. This is new for the cathedral and well worth planning for, since the ceiling comes alive with the extra light, and photography of the ceiling detail is much more rewarding. I decide to pay extra to see the famous golden horses, which are upstairs in the museum part of the church. This turns out very well, since I also have access to the balcony over the main entrance, which gives an unobstructed view of the flooded St. Marks Square, the Doges Palace, and the nearby islands and canals. I skip touring the Doges Palace, since I saw it last time I was here in 2006.

I get my shoes soaked as I try to dodge the water in the square on my way back to the hotel. After a nap in my room, I go out walking around the Rialto Bridge and the Grand Canal, take some photos, and just enjoy my free time in Venice. I join a couple in the tour group for dinner at a nice outdoor restaurant with a great view of a canal near the Rialto Bridge. Now that the cruise ship passengers have left Venice, the place is civilized again!

September 9, 2014 – Tuesday – Venice to Florence

We don’t encounter any problems taking the Vaporetto back to the Tronchetto parking area of Venice this morning, since the Regatta is over – things are back to normal.

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Suva, Fiji

Port of call on a 2010 South Pacific Cruise from Vancouver to Auckland aboard the Volendam

Oct 11, 2010 – Monday – Suva, Fiji Islands

I set the alarm this morning in order to see our arrival in Suva. It brought back memories of sailing the SV Sequoia through the same channel in 2004, when I crewed the open ocean segment from New Zealand to Fiji with the Johnstons. This time my mode of transportation is a bit more luxurious!

Our arrival at King’s Wharf is heralded by the Suva Police Band – they march up and down the wharf playing some very catchy tunes. It is overcast today, so it is not as hot as Pago Pago was (our previous port of call in American Samoa). I call my Fijian friends several times this morning, but there is no answer, so I find my onboard friends and we go ashore together.

Downtown Suva & office buildings

Downtown Suva & office buildings

We walk along the waterfront to catch some views of the harbour. It is Independence Day in Fiji, so most shops and offices are closed. We meet several Fijian families who are enjoying the day off. We walk past the derelict Grand Pacific Hotel and take an obligatory photo of the guard dressed in a ceremonial uniform (including a sulu) who is posted at the Governor General’s mansion. We then wander through Thurston Gardens and see the Fiji Museum. The last time I toured this museum was in 1975. At that time, cannibalism artifacts were prominently displayed, but there wasn’t a sign of them during this visit. When I pay for the admission to the museum for myself and my friends, the guy at the desk notices my “old” bills. I had saved them from my last trip six years ago, so I guess they have updated their currency since then.

Despite the cloudy weather, we still find the walk to be hot and exhausting. We stop in town to poke around the few shops that are open. A friendly Fijian “sweeper” directs us to the shops that sell t-shirts, jewellery, and other tourist stuff. I buy a Fiji Bitter beer t-shirt for FJ$22 (CD$12). We also walk through Prouds, a high end department store, but buy nothing. After returning to the comfort of the ship, I head for the Sea View pool to cool off, and then grab some lunch in the Lido.

The Suva Police Band is once again there to serenade us before our 5pm departure. They have an incredible repertoire…not just marching tunes, but also pop and rock and roll! Their performance has to be one of the highlights of this trip. What a change from the last time I saw the band in 1975, when it was a pretty ordinary marching band. I shoot some high definition video to capture some of their wonderful performance. The ship was waiting in Suva harbour for the arrival of New Zealand customs and immigration officers. They were delayed about two hours…so we waited, and the band played on (as the old saying goes). What a show – this is no ordinary marching band!

Fiji 2010 from JoeTourist InfoSystems on Vimeo.

HINT: Click on the little four segment icon beside the “HD” in the lower right corner of the video window to view the video in high definition mode.