Mel Shields, a retired businessman from Toronto who took the cruise because “Myanmar sounded exotic, forbidden and exciting,” bought the Bagan tour. The highlight was climbing one of the pagodas — barefoot, out of respect.
“The sight was breathtaking as I circled around the pagoda level by level and viewed the vast plain dotted with multicolored, multilevel pagodas, shrines and temples,” he told me in an email after the trip. “Black birds flew past, adding a dimension of unexpected mystery.”
Back in the National Museum in Yangon sat the magnificent Lion Throne, the only surviving throne of the eight once found in The Glass Palace in Mandalay. The museum has a miniature model of the palace, which stretched 2.5 miles on each side and was ringed by a moat.
Some passengers bargained in Bogyoke Aun San Market (formerly Scott’s Market), with hundreds of shops selling everything from fine jewelry and abalone trays to lacquerware and wood carvings.
Yangon’s colonial center is near the dock where Aegean Odyssey tied up. A couple blocks away, on Strand Road, the 1901-built Strand Hotel remains one of Southeast Asia’s grand colonial lodgings. One night I went to the bar, a hangout for expatriates sipping lemon-grass martinis.
My most memorable meal was at Monsoon Restaurant, a few blocks away on Theinbyu Road. I loved the crunchy tea leaves salad, a traditional afternoon snack of green tea leaves, peanuts, chillies and garlic (2,500 kyat or $2.92). I chose lemon-grass tea, which the menu said “helps digestion, cures an upset stomach and lifts your mood.”
Stomach filled and mood lifted, I strolled back to the ship. On Strand Road, an older man politely asked “Is there anything I can do for you?” Just a few years back, that would never have happened.
Historian Justin Wintle, an Aegean Odyssey lecturer whose books include a biography of Aung San Suu Kyi, had said the Burmese used to be afraid to talk to foreigners; it could get them into trouble. Now, he told us, “People will want to talk. Do it.”
Thi Thi illustrated that point. She told how the violent crackdown on pro-democracy student rallies in 1988 had parents selling everything they owned to buy passports and get their children out of the country. People are still blacklisted and can’t return, Thi Thi said, her voice cracking with emotion.
Recently, Internet access and the arrival of greater numbers of tourists started to “open people’s eyes” to the outside world, Thi Thi related.
“Things are getting much better, but even today, we are not 100 percent sure about this democracy. The military can shut down this country any time. You never know.”
I can’t forget her sobering words. Myanmar was dazzling, but I realize the gold leaf conceals some hard history.