Monday 28 November 2016

From aboard Silver Discoverer: Yangon

#expeditioncruising #silverseamoments .

Location: Yangon, Myanmar

Yangon, or Rangoon as I prefer to call it, is one of those cities with a fascinating past, present and future.

Silver Discoverer at the Rangoon wharf

During the early hours of Saturday, Silver Discoverer made its way up the muddy mouth of the Irrawaddy River delta into our berth much as I did three years ago with SeaDream II. In the between time, the dock has been upgraded and a new, albeit small, terminal. It's an interesting sight as the big ship wends its way past a multitude of smaller craft up the channel, blowing its horn at intervals they cross our path.

Customs procedures were mercifully quick and after lunch, we were ready to venture out to see the religious icons like the reclining Buddha and Shwedagon pagoda, still shining majestically in the afternoon sun with its 60 tonnes of gold sheathing. Given the popularity of the sites, access was smooth and well-managed and there was plenty of time to bathe in the glory of this incredible, holiest of structures.

Shwedagon pagoda viewed across Kandawgyi Lake

Sunset was nicely timed to coincide with our arrival at the Karaweik royal barge restaurant on Kandawgyi Lake in the middle of town with the iconic view across the water to the immense, shimmering pagoda. For what is clearly a tourist-tuned event, the spread of local and ethnic foods was decent with mild Burmese curries, seafood, salads and sweets. Colourful local dancers entertained us between trips to the buffet.

On Sunday, with Silver Discoverer still comfortably berthed, we split up with most flying to Bagan for an excursion to the thousands of stupas that dot the countryside while the rest of us, myself included, boarded coaches to the ancient capital of Bago, a couple hours to the NE.

Traffic along the Strand

Rangoon has a curious ban on motorcycles in the city itself. The story is that one of the generals was spooked by a rider who trailed too close to his official car. No more motorcycles. Period. The effect on traffic flow is interesting, but our police escort, riding a 250cc Chinese twin, ensured our smooth passage. Also of note is that upon independence in 1948, the rulers instantly changed to Euro-styled right-hand side. But then there were very few cars to worry about. Now, the major source of affordable cars is Japan, who sell used RHD cars and commercial vehicles all over the Asia Pacific region. Trucks and buses require a 'spotter' to sit in the left seat to call traffic for the unsighted driver.

At Bago we visited the Shwemawdaw pagoda of similarly impressive scale as well as the Kyakhatwine Monastery, the highlight of the visit being a procession of patient monks who must endure a horde of tourists thrusting cooked rice, plastic-wrapped crackers, pencils and cash into their bowls as they shuffle past to lunch. Just how they manage the resultant concoction remains a mystery to this writer.

Several of our RAAF chaps buried here among many other
Commonwealth casualties.

A poignant stop at the Htukkyant Commonwealth War Cemetery was a bit rushed, but I did manage to locate about ten Aussies among the many hundreds laid out in neat rows. The whole Burma Campaign is often overlooked by storytellers, but was as vicious as anywhere else in the Pacific theatre. The Aussies were mainly RAAF chaps attached to the Royal Air Force units flying combat and transport duties in their intense effort to rid Burma of the Japanese occupiers.

Before sailing out on Monday, we explored the opposite side of the river to Dala town, which was effectively a journey back in time to agrarian Burma. Aboard a convoy of trishaws, we explored the wet market and soggy side roads and paddies, showing a side of Burma not seen in the city, just a boisterous ferry ride across the fast-flowing river.

I used the balance of my time wandering the crumbling colonial buildings around the waterfront, imagining the hubbub of activity that once must have once occurred here in the height of British occupation – period of more than 100 years.

Some buildings, like the meticulously restored The Strand Hotel, stand proudly on the boulevard, while just a block behind, mouldy, vine-covered ones appear to be falling apart but are still inhabited by tenacious tenants. Others, like the grand and imperious Greco-Roman-styled police commissioner's building, are undergoing restoration. If my information is correct, it will become a 229-room five-star Kempinski Hotel.

Vision of a beautified Yangon waterfront with restored heritage buildings

Meanwhile, the fate of others remains uncertain, but the NGO Yangon Heritage Trust is battling to preserve them and construct a beautified and aesthetically pleasing heritage waterfront before rampant development swallows them up forever. Heritage tours are available via the YHT and I might suggest Silversea offer them for future port visits.

Yangon/Rangoon is a city that one can easily visit time and again without becoming bored. These resilient people maintain a cheerful and welcoming attitude that belies the many hardships endured by the generations who suffered before them under a string of harsh regimes over past centuries.

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