YANGON, Myanmar -- The sun is low as we slip off our shoes and step into a world of gold. “Shwe” means gold in the Burmese language, and at Shwedagon Pagoda, this Buddhist country’s most sacred site, we’re surrounded by 60 tons of it.
Amid monks in burgundy robes, we circle the pagoda clockwise. Golden shrines, statues, stupas and spires are everywhere. There are Buddhas with electric red, blue, yellow and green halos, some flashing. Young nuns in pink robes, their heads shaven, pour water over the Buddha at the planetary post of their birth day, a dragon.
After dark, pilgrims light candles and a sleigh-like boat draped in tinsel ferries through the air on a wire, carrying gold leaf purchased by the faithful to adorn a spire.
This is one of the most amazing experiences of my life.
With the colored lights, the mythical creatures and the strolling crowds, it feels like a serene amusement park. Even the 29-ton bronze and gold bell struck by a smiling novice monk emits a mellow tone.
“Welcome to the golden land, Myanmar,” our guide, Thi Thi, had said as we alighted from the small cruise ship Aegean Odyssey, docked in the center of the city formerly called Rangoon.
Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem Mandalay talks about elephants piling teak, the aroma of spicy garlic, sunshine, palm trees and tinkly temple bells, back when this country was known as Burma. Now Myanmar is opening after decades of harsh military rule that saw it, despite the golden pagodas, become one of the world’s poorest nations.
Democracy champion and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent years under house arrest, toured the United States in September to adoring crowds and was honored by Congress. President Obama journeyed to Myanmar in November and sounded the same bell in Shwedagon Pagoda that I saw the young monk strike.
So Myanmar was a hot ticket when I took the 12-night cruise, “Singapore & Burma: Lands of Contrast,” in December. Owned by U.K.-based Voyages to Antiquity, Aegean Odyssey was one of the first ships to chart the newly democratic Myanmar. It’s returning this year and next.
“We look to do things that the bigger ships can’t,” said David Yellow, the company’s managing director. “We can cruise right up the river into the heart of Yangon.”
I relished Aegean Odyssey’s focus on history, culture and ancient civilizations. The lectures by experts in everything from geography to military history were always packed.
My first night on board, my dinner companion in the open seating restaurant turned out to be one of the lecturers, Martin Bell, long-time BBC correspondent, former independent member of Parliament, current UNICEF ambassador and budding poet. When I asked Martin why he started writing poetry, his reply began “When I was testifying before the war crimes tribunal in The Hague ...”
These are the types of extraordinary conversations that characterized the trip. Aegean Odyssey carried 278 passengers from 11 countries. I met authors, engineers, executives, birdwatchers, photographers and professors. One woman had lived in Burma as a girl. Another was coming back for the second time in a year to find the grave of her cousin, whose plane crashed in the Himalayas during a World War II supply mission.
Aegean Odyssey sailed round-trip from Singapore, visiting interesting ports in Thailand (Phuket) and Malaysia (Penang, Malacca and Port Klang for Kuala Lumpur).