We photographed silvered leaf monkeys and cannonball trees in Penang and zipped around the dramatic limestone karsts of Phang Nga National Park near Phuket in longtail boats, circling Koh Tapu, known as “James Bond island” for its appearance in The Man with the Golden Gun. We hopped into flower-bedecked trishaws in Malacca, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It poured so hard in Kuala Lumpur that our only glimpse of the Petronas Twin Towers was the plastic souvenir version in the Central Market where one woman paid 5 ringgit ($1.65) to stick her feet in a tank of fish that nibbled her toes for a natural pedicure.
Our three days in Yangon were the highlight.
We witnessed Buddhism’s importance alongside the widespread belief in astrology and animism. We learned about a nation with 138 ethnic groups, mind-boggling imperial grandeur, deep nationalistic pride and a brutal military regime. We were warned of the fragility of this new democracy.
A day trip to Bago, a historic city that was the second imperial capital, was included in the cruise fare, like the excursions in every port. Our 90-minute drive burst with roadside life. People strode in longyis (sarongs) and flip flops, carrying tiffins (stacked metal lunch containers). Women and children’s faces were painted with thanaka, a decorative yellowish paste made from tree bark.
We saw teak trees, fields worked by oxen and women balancing everything from bricks to papayas on their heads. People waved at our convoy of buses.
In Bago’s Kya Khat Wai Monastery, more than 400 monks silently carried bowls to their mid-morning meal of fish curry. They wouldn’t eat again until 4:30 the next morning.
Most Burmese are Buddhists, and the country is thought to have hundreds of thousands of monks. “Buddhism gives you a lot of inner peace. People are not stressed or rushed,” Thi Thi, the guide said, as we raced around taking photos and scooping up souvenirs.
Nat (spirit) worship is also widely practiced.
We pulled over beside a banyan tree that contained a nat shrine. “In your country, you have Santa Claus,” Thi Thi explained, “and St. Christopher for protection on the road. In our country, the spirit protects the road.”
Beneath the banyan, a shaman in a plaid shirt and blue longyi, his teeth red from betel juice, said an incantation and sprinkled holy water on a taxi. He motioned the car to come forward, stop, drive back, and drive forward again. The car flashed its headlights.
“It’s not the driver that has to pay homage. It’s the car,” Thi Thi clarified.
Down the road at the immaculate Allied War Graves Cemetery, Donna Melville Patterson, a Aegean Odyssey passenger from Mississauga, Ontario, found her cousin’s grave. Donald Schurr, a Royal Canadian Air Force pilot officer who flew in the Burma airlift, crashed in the Himalayas on June 8, 1945. He was 22.
“Everyone was very sad because the war was over and he would be coming home, but he didn’t,” Donna recalled.
It was her second visit to Myanmar in 2012 after an earlier two-week overland tour. “I found it magical,” Donna said.
While most passengers toured Bago, some flew to Bagan, the first imperial capital of ancient Burma, studded with thousands of 11th and 12th century temples. Others traveled to Mandalay. They had bought optional tours offered by the ship, $465 for Bagan and $495 for Mandalay.