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Asia’s ‘golden land’

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).

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.

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.