Silversea Makes Exploring Myanmar Easy

On-tour with Silversea at the incredible Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

On-tour with Silversea at the incredible Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Of all the ports of call on this Silversea cruise through Southeast Asia, it is this one that I have looked most forward to. For the next three days, Silversea’s 382-guest Silver Shadow will be docked in Yangon, Myanmar – one of the world’s most remote and mysterious countries, and one of my absolute favorite places in the world.

I first came to Yangon last year, as part of a river cruise down the Irrawaddy. Since then, I’ve always wanted to return – I just didn’t expect it to be quite so soon. Part of my reasoning for choosing this itinerary aboard Silver Shadow was because of this exciting opportunity to be in Yangon for three straight days.

This morning, Silver Shadow tentatively came alongside at her berth just outside Yangon. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

This morning, Silver Shadow tentatively came alongside at her berth just outside Yangon. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Our arrival was a tricky procedure, complicated by numerous fishing boats of all shapes and sizes directly in our path. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Our arrival was a tricky procedure, complicated by numerous fishing boats of all shapes and sizes directly in our path. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Casting our first lines ashore. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Casting our first lines ashore. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Now, Silver Shadow can’t dock right in Yangon. The river further upstream isn’t navigable by ships even half our size. Instead, we’re docked outside of town at Myanmar International Terminal’s Thilawa container terminal in the township of Kyauk Tan. It’s a very industrial port surrounded by large tanker ships, refineries, and a steady stream of gasoline trucks that queue to fuel up at the depot next to us.

My previous experiences in Myanmar taught me that this is a very difficult country to get around on your own in. If I were here on another cruise line, getting from the port into Yangon – a drive that can take an hour on the best of times – would be an ordeal. But even if you don’t want to take any of the optional excursions here, Silversea is offering guests a complimentary shuttle bus service into town from 9:00 am until 9:00pm every day for three days.

Our guide - Sheila - welcomes us to Myanmar as we set out on our full-day excursion. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Our guide – Sheila – welcomes us to Myanmar as we set out on our full-day excursion. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

This is the kind of thing that must be costing the line a small fortune – and Silversea does it to make life easier for you, the guest. After six years of sailing with the line, I’m still amazed at how all of Silversea’s small gestures add up to a remarkable guest experience. The line just makes everything easier than you’d expect.

To make the most of my time today, I booked the massive, nine-hour long Yangon Delights (RGN-B1) excursion. At $159 per person, it is only offered today, and includes stops at some of the city’s must-see sights, like the famous Shwedagon Pagoda; the Scott Market; the National Museum; and the massive reclining Buddha at the Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda. It also includes a lunch of local Burmese specialties at The Strand Hotel. Recently renovated, the colonially-themed Strand is still ten days away from its official re-opening. However, the Hotel opened its doors and its gorgeous restaurant exclusively for Silversea guests today.

Everything about Myanmar is sensory overload, from the country's crumbling rail network...Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Everything about Myanmar is sensory overload, from the country’s crumbling rail network…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

...to its diabolical traffic. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

…to its diabolical traffic. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

I remember describing Yangon’s traffic as ‘diabolical’, and today did nothing to change that opinion. Right out of the gate, a gasoline truck ahead of us got stuck in the mud outside the port, so our coach had to reverse about a kilometre back down the dirt road in order to turn around and go ‘the long way’ into Yangon. When I say the coach had to back up, what I’m leaving out is the absolutely insane amount of vehicles it had to negotiate to do this: tanker trucks on either side of us, motorcycles zipping in and out, and cars that were trying to get to and from administrative offices in the Port.

Yangon has plenty of remnants of its Colonial-era past. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Yangon has plenty of remnants of its Colonial-era past. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Alleyways criss-cross through town at random intervals; these house local shops, street-vendors and other retailers. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Alleyways criss-cross through town at random intervals; these house local shops, street-vendors and other retailers. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

It took us nearly two hours to reach the Shwedagon Pagoda instead of the single hour advertised in the brochure. Here again, Silversea does a great job of managing expectations: in the daily Silversea Chronicles and in the shore excursion descriptions, Silversea notes that the roads between the port and the city are ‘inferior’ and states that traffic jams can and do occur.

You might know Yangon better by its former name, Rangoon. The ruling military government changed the name back to Yangon in 1989, and it was stripped of its status as Myanmar’s capital in 2005 when the new capital city was formed in Naypyitaw to the north.

Our Silversea guide took us on a guided tour through Yangon's superlative Shwedagon Pagoda. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Our Silversea guide took us on a guided tour through Yangon’s superlative Shwedagon Pagoda. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

But there are still signs of Yangon’s former splendour, both ancient and colonial. Near the Strand Hotel, crumbling colonial-era buildings that have been in a state of disrepair for decades are slowly beginning to be restored. These are interspersed with a hodgepodge of utilitarian concrete highrises built during the 1950’s and 60’s, surrounded by darkened narrow alleyways filled with vendors hawking their wares.

Almost unbelievable in scale, Shwedagon Pagoda is a must-see on any visit to Yangon. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Almost unbelievable in scale, Shwedagon Pagoda is a must-see on any visit to Yangon. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

The complex as we see it today largely dates back to the mid-1400's, and the reign of Queen Shinsawbu. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

The complex as we see it today largely dates back to the mid-1400’s, and the reign of Queen Shinsawbu. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Shwedagon Pagoda contains several "birthday corners", each reflecting a specific day of the week. It is said that visiting these corners on your birthday is good luck. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Shwedagon Pagoda contains several “birthday corners”, each reflecting a specific day of the week. It is said that visiting these corners on your birthday is good luck. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

It is the contrasts that make Yangon so interesting to me. There are driving laws, but no one seems to follow them. Vehicles routinely clog up intersections well after the lights have changed, and pedestrians cross the street wherever they feel like. Newer Honda and Toyota cars share the road with rickety busses caked in dirt, their windows down and engine access compartments swung open and locked in an attempt to avoid overheating. Dogs roam the street, along with cats. At one point, I saw a rooster walking on a tin roof above a shop where one old Burmese man was cutting the hair of another; the chair was positioned out on the dirt in front of the shop, and the man having his hair cut was reading the newspaper.

Visible from nearly every corner of the city is the grandiose Shwedagon Pagoda. Legend has it that it was built around 588 BC, although that’s contested. What we do know is that the temple began to take the shape it appears in today in the late 1400’s under the reign of Queen Shinsawbu. Open from four in the morning until 10pm at night, it remains the holiest site in the country and one of the national symbols of Myanmar.

As it so happens, today is my birthday. I was born on a Friday. So, I headed to Friday Corner to participate in this spiritual ritual. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

As it so happens, today is my birthday. I was born on a Friday. So, I headed to Friday Corner to participate in this spiritual ritual. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Astrology is a big deal here, and it plays heavily into the design of the Shwedagon complex, with birthday ‘corners’ named for the days of the week. Buddhists come here on their birthday to pray at their corner, lighting incense and candles, and washing the ceremonial statues with a cup of water.

As it happens, today is my birthday. Last year, I figured out that I was born on a Friday, so I went to Friday Corner and tried my best to do as the locals do. I couldn’t figure out how many times you were supposed to bathe the stone statues of Buddha in water. Some people did it two or three times, while one lady dumped water on as quickly and rapidly as she could. I counted 16 times before I lost track.

Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

I settled on the number four: four scoops of water for each statue. Four (and multiples of it) are considered good luck in many Asian countries, so that was my rationale. And I feel good about it. I’m not religious by any stretch, but it felt important to me to be at the Shwedagon Pagoda – a place I truly thought I might never see again – 34 years to the day of my birth.

Being in Yangon on the day I turned 34 was a special occasion. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Being in Yangon on the day I turned 34 was a special occasion. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

We also got to see the massive Reclining Buddha at the...Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

We also got to see the massive Reclining Buddha at the…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

...Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

…Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Our evening closed overlooking the gorgeous scenery at Kandawgyi Lake; Yangon's "Great Royal Lake." Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Our evening closed overlooking the gorgeous scenery at Kandawgyi Lake; Yangon’s “Great Royal Lake.” Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Tonight, I arrived back at the Silver Shadow at 6pm. After nine hours ashore, I was hot, tired, and in need of a drink. I had that and more when I arrived back at my suite to see “Happy Birthday” written in a banner hanging from the ceiling. Balloons were inflated, my favorite drink – the Fruit of the Glen – was brought to me by my butler, and I enjoyed a memorable dinner in my suite, served course-by-course by my butler Catalino. My friend and former butler Karthik stopped by to wish me a Happy Birthday, and the Captain sent a nice card down.

It was more than I was expecting, and certainly more than I deserve. It was, without a doubt, the nicest evening I have had on any ship and any line in the 18 years I’ve been cruising. Much like celebrating my birthday at the Shwedagon Pagoda, I’ll always remember the kindness and generosity I was shown tonight aboard the Silver Shadow – the ship that continues to rival the destination.

A wonderful welcome home...Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

A wonderful welcome home…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

...to my Silversea home away from home. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

…to my Silversea home away from home. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Our Live Voyage Report aboard Silversea’s elegant Silver Shadow continues tomorrow as we spend a second day docked in Yangon, Myanmar! Be sure to follow along on twitter by following @deckchairblog.

DAYPORTARRIVEDEPART
October 31, 2016SingaporeEmbark1800
November 1Port Klang (Kuala Lumpur), Malaysia08001900
November 2Penang, Georgetown, Malaysia08001800
November 3Phuket, Thailand08001400
November 4At Sea
November 5Yangon, Myanmar0600Overnight
November 6Yangon, MyanmarOvernightOvernight
November 7Yangon, MyanmarOvernight1900
November 8At Sea
November 9 At Sea

November 10Langkawi, Malaysia08001500
November 11Malacca, Malaysia13001900
November 12Singapore0700Onward Journey Home
 

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