Myanmar - Avalon Waterways' Yangon Tour and Irrawaddy River Cruise Log

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    Avalon Waterways Cruise Tour - Arrival in Yangon

    Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar (Burma)
    Yangon (c) Linda Garrison

    Mingalarbar (pronounced min ga la ba) is the word you will hear most frequently in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). It's a musical mouthful, but a cheerful greeting. You'll learn it always brings a smile to your face as well as the Burmese.

    This fascinating southeast Asian country has a tourism industry that is much less developed than the rest of the region. Before 2010, the government made it difficult to visit Myanmar, and not many tourists chose the country as a vacation destination. However, things are changing in Myanmar, which is terrific for those of us who love to travel. Many travel experts have highlighted Myanmar as a place to visit in the near future. I visited Myanmar for two weeks in February 2016 on a memorable tour and Irrawaddy River cruise on the Avalon Myanmar of Avalon Waterways. This 54-page photo journal provides details of our cruise tour.

    Myanmar Background

    A military government ruled for decades, but held national elections in November 2015 after implementing other changes starting about 2010. These latest elections resulted in a big win for the politial party led by the country's beloved Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize while under house arrest in Myanmar for her efforts to bring democracy to her homeland. A new president of Myanmar was elected in March 2016, and he is one of Aung San Suu Kyi's closest aides. (The Myanmar constitution set up by the military government does not allow anyone to be president who married a non-Burmese citizen, and Aung San Suu Kyi went to school in Great Britain, married a British citizen, and has two half-English children).

    Myanmar or Burma?

    Myanmar is the historic name of the country, but when the British took over in the late 1800's, they renamed the country Burma. The British, Canadians, and Australians still call the country Burma since they don't recognize the military government that changed the name in 1989, but the USA is kind of ambivalent. For example, official United States policy retains Burma as the country's name, although the State Department's website lists the country as "Burma (Myanmar)". Making it even more confusing, President Obama has used both names in speeches. I'll call it Myanmar since that's what our guide called it. However, the people are still called Burmese, as is the language. 

    History and Geography of Myanmar

    Archaeologists have found human remains dating back 400,000 years, and Homo sapiens appeared about 11,000 BC. The country was thriving by the 9th century AD, and later pages in this journal will cover this important party of Myanmar's history. The country was ruled by a series of emperors prior to the British war, and Britain colonized Myanmar after winning three Anglo-Burmese Wars (1824–1885). Myanmar has been involved in wars of one type or another throughout its entire existence.

    Myanmar has 51 million people (about twice as many as the state of Texas) and is 261,227 sq mi in size (about the size of Texas). Its capital city is Naypyidaw and its largest city is Yangon, which was called Rangoon during British times. Yangon has over 6 million residents. Myanmar has many neighbors, bordering China, Thailand, Laos, Bangladesh, India, and Tibet. Despite many natural resources like jade and precious stones, it's one of the world's poorest countries. A military regime ruled from not long after Britain gave Burma independence in 1948 until 2010, but change is slow and the military still has much of the power and control of the economy. The people of Myanmar hope that the new parliament and president elected in March 2016 will be able to take this control back before all the teak trees, gems, and minerals are gone.

    Arrival in Yangon

    After staying two days in Singapore, my friend Claire and I arrived in Yangon after a 3.5 hour flight. For a city of 6 million people, the airport seemed small. We met the Avalon Waterways' transfer representative with our luggage and boarded a van to drive to the hotel in the city center, about 10 miles away. Was surprised to find that the driver sat on the right, but the cars also drive on the right. Our transfer guide said that although they drive on the right, most cars and vans in Myanmar come from Japan where they have right hand steering wheels, but drive on the left. Because of this, all buses in Myanmar with the driver sitting on the right have an "assistant driver", who can see the traffic on the left side of the bus. Easier and cheaper to have an assistant than reconfigure the vehicle.

    Claire and I felt the culture shock before we even got out of the airport--we had gone from Singapore, a first-world Asian tourist destination to a third-world one in just a half-day. Myanmar was closed to most western countries until 2010, so the tourist industry is still evolving. After the original shock at the airport, we had another one--the traffic. Motorbikes are not allowed in Yangon (they are in the rest of the country), but cars, taxis, and buses clog the streets since there is no subway or metro train line. Six million people--all in cars, taxis, and buses. It took us two hours to ride the 10 miles into town. Good thing we had gone to the "happy room" (toilet) before boarding the van.

    The Sule Shangrila Hotel is one of the best in Yangon, and we were happy to be able to get into our room as soon as we arrived -- about 2 pm. We hadn't eaten much breakfast, so decided to just eat in the hotel dining room rather than get out into the heat and look for an acceptable place. We split a green mango salad and a noodle dish and went up to the room and rested awhile.

    Check guest reviews and prices for the Sule Shangrila Hotel in Yangon

    About 4:30, we walked the two blocks to the Bogyoke Market (Scott Market), the local market that sells everything from clothing to food. Huge, and way too dirty to buy food, but I did buy a longyi, (pronounced long-gee), which is the long wrap skirt that most women step into to wear. Burmese men wear a similar garment that is also usually called a longyi that they pull over their heads. The garments look much the same except for the patterns, and the wearer folds it to fit (one size fits all). We were told that men like them because they feel so "free", which means they don't wear underwear beneath them. Since the local toilets outside of the tourist hotels are the squat pots, we decided most women go commando, too. They have 1000's of materials used to make longyis, and most people own at least 20-30, so it's easy to find one.

    Back to the room by 6:00, and we were bushed. Guess the two busy days in Singapore, the flight, and the re-entry into a third-world country had zapped us. We were both stuffed from the late lunch, but we ate the fruit in the room and had a granola bar.

    Even though we were tired from the early flight and heat in the city, we were very excited about meeting our guide and the rest of our group the next morning to start our land and cruise tour of Myanmar.

    Use TripAdvisor to Find a Hotel in Yangon

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  • 02 of 54

    Yangon Walking Tour

    Extracting sugar from sugar cane in Yangon, Myanmar
    Yangon (c) Linda Garrison

    We had a terrific breakfast at the Sule Shangrila Hotel (included with our Avalon Waterways package) before meeting our group for a morning walking tour of colonial Yangon (the old town). Yangon doesn't have many 5-star hotels, so they try to accommodate all tastes. The breakfast had Burmese, Japanese, Chinese, and good-old American dishes.

    Our group was smaller than we expected--only 22 on a ship that holds 36. Claire and I were the only non-couples. We had 6 Americans (2 from Wyoming, 2 from Wisconsin/Florida, and us); 8 Canadians (6 from Vancouver or British Columbia, and the other 2 from Edmonton, Alberta), 4 from Australia, and 4 from the UK. Kind of odd to have more Canadians, but it was fairly evenly split. Most everyone was retired, but we did have a few still working. This well-traveled group had been "most everywhere" else. Like us, most came before Myanmar becomes more touristy, and most chose Avalon Waterways because this shallow-draft ship can go all the way to Bhamo, while most stop in Mandalay.  

    Our guide's name was Dorothy, and her English was excellent. She's been a guide for 17 years, and although she does mostly English tours now, she did Italian and German before the English speakers started showing up after 2010.

    We left the hotel and walked around the downtown historic/colonial area. I was very happy that Dorothy was using the audio devices so that we could all hear her narration. Most of the walk gave us a feel for the everyday life of people selling and buying stuff on the streets--everything from all types of food to sugar cane juice to shoes, clothing, and books. 

    One of the most interesting, popular, and disgusting products were betel nut "chew packs". The vendor put ground betel nuts and a few other fillings (made to order) inside a green leaf and folds it up. Those addicted to this "chew" put it between their cheek and gum like a chaw of tobacco. They periodically chew it, releasing the addictive juice, which they then spit on the ground or sidewalk. The juice is a reddish color that stains the teeth and the sidewalks. One chew pack costs about a nickel, and the street vendors make between $20 and $50 per day US. Dorothy stopped to let us watch the chaws being made by one guy, but after about three minutes, he grabbed his stuff and fled. She said he saw some police nearby and didn't have a license!

    We also walked by the High Court, City Hall, the local mosque and the Sule Pagoda, which sits in the city square along with a tall war memorial. By 10:30, several in our group were exhausted from the heat and the jet lag. Plus, we all were a little shell shocked by the sensory overload. We stopped at a busy café called Lucky 7 for Burmese tea and a few Burmese snacks. Their tea is usually served with condensed milk, but we skipped that and just had it black. The half-dozen snacks were all mostly fried. We tasted, but agreed the fried vegetable spring rolls were the only ones we liked at our table.

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  • 03 of 54

    Yangon - Reclining Buddha at Chaukhtatgyi Temple

    Reclining Buddha at Chaukhtatgyi temple in Yangon
    Yangon (c) Linda Garrison

    Leaving the Lucky 7, our Avalon Myanmar group rode to see Chaukhtatgyi Buddha‎ Temple, which houses Yangon's 213-foot long reclining Buddha. At first I thought the reclining Buddha we had seen in Bangkok the week before had followed us to Yangon since they were about the same size (about 200 feet long). However, the one in Bangkok was covered in gold leaf, and this one was painted almost garishly like a woman with too much make-up. The artist/sculptor had even painted the toenails and given the Buddha some eye make up and lipstick. Interesting, but a little weird.

    Chaukhtatgyi was our first Burmese temple, and we had to have our shoulders and knees covered (both women and men) and remove our shoes and socks. Those of us who usually wear shoes did not realize that walking barefoot for a while will make the bottoms of your feet tender! The temple surrounding Chaukhtatgyi had smooth tile and concrete, so the walking was easy. The tour assistant passed out handi-wipes to clean our feet before re-boarding the bus. Little did we know that day how often this process would occur over the next two weeks.
    Leaving the reclining Buddha, we re-boarded the bus and rode to Monsoon, a nice local restaurant for lunch that was located not far from our hotel. Monsoon is set in a restored colonial building near the river. We had our first taste of Myanmar, the local Pilsner beer. Very nice. Two drinks were included with the set lunch--beer, soft drinks, or bottled water. Wine was extra. The set menu was served family style and included fried spring rolls, gourd and vermicelli soup, glass noodle salad with seafood, fried beef with black pepper dip, Myanmar chicken and green curry, fried fish fillet with ginger sauce, spicy river prawns, stir fried mixed vegetables, steamed rice (of course), and a mixed fruit platter for dessert.

    After lunch, we returned to the Sule Shangrila Hotel for a rest in the heat of the day (over 90 with high humidity) and to get cleaned up a little for dinner. Some people wanted to buy longyis (local dress), so Dorothy arranged for a woman to bring a big selection to the hotel.

    The highlight of our time in Yangon was a sunset visit to the ctiy's most famous temple, the Shwedagon Pagoda.


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  • 04 of 54

    Yangon - Shwedagon Pagoda

    Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar (Burma)
    Yangon (c) Linda Garrison

    We left the Sule Shangrila Hotel at 4:30 to go by bus to the Shwedagon Pagoda, the most important religious site in Myanmar, and one of its iconic symbols. We had a lengthy tour of the temple and pagoda complex (shoes/socks left outside) of about 1.5 hours. Fortunately the hot sun was diminishing by the time we arrived, so we didn't burn the bottoms of our feet.

    Nothing was inside, but we did see many buildings and the monks and pilgrims who had traveled to see the Shwedagon Pagoda from elsewhere in Myanmar or Asia. Very impressive, with lots of gold leaf and four huge entrances, three of which must have a few hundred steps. (We went in the south entrance and rode an elevator up six floors to the mid-level of the complex, which is open to tourists). Some men (not women) can go up to the top level, which is more sacred. 

    Like elsewhere in the world, the Burmese people who have little for themselves often give some of it to their religion. In this case, it's the monk or pagoda.

    We stayed until after sunset (about 6:30), and the golden domes of the pagoda and other buildings were almost magical, especially when combined with the praying faithful almost supine on the ground and the incense, flowers, tinkling bells, and neon lights. (Just a little neon, but still looked odd.) I think we all enjoyed the experience, and Dorothy explained a lot that went over my head since I was absorbing the sights and tuned her out sometimes.

    Leaving Shwedagon, our bus drove to Le Planteur, one of Yangon's best restaurants. It's located on Inya Lake, one of two large man-made lakes in the city. The elegant colonial building dating back to the late 19th century sits on an hectare of gardens and has indoor and outdoor dining. They had us set up at two large tables outside on the terrace. The fine china, crystal, and candlelight in the evening were gorgeous, and we really enjoyed our dinner. The menu started with an amuse boche, followed by grilled king prawns, mint and Chinese cabbage salad with green oil, seared cod fish in a mild ginger crust with wok fried veggies, and Asian coriander foam, roasted organic spring chicken stuffed with Shan tea and shimeji and served with green peas puree and a chickenpea and tamarind sauce. Dessert was fried Katchin pineapple with fresh vanilla and Shan tea ice cream and passion fruit pearls. We got two glasses of wine and/or beer with the dinner. It was delicious and the setting and atmosphere perfect. 

    We learned the next day while driving to the airport that the restaurant was very near the USA Embassy complex and also near the home of Myanmar's favorite daughter (Aung San Suu Kyi).

    After dinner, we returned to the hotel about 10 pm. Another day in Southeast Asia was over, but we knew the next 10 days on the Avalon Myanmar sailing the Irrawaddy River would be very interesting, and would start with a flight to Bagan.

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  • 05 of 54

    Bagan - Land of Thousands of Temples in Myanmar

    Balloons over the temples at Bagan, Myanmar
    Bagan, Myanmar (c) Linda Garrison

    Our last morning in Yangon, we had to have our bags outside the hotel room by 7:00 am and be on the bus at 8:00 am for the ride to the airport and flight to Bagan. Although it's only 10 miles from the hotel, the ride takes about 2 hours (as we had learned when we first came to Yangon). On the way to the airport, we took a short detour by Aung San Suu Kyi's house where she had often spoke to the Burmese people, and the government had held her under house arrest for almost 20 years. It's a very nice house, but i still wouldn't want to lose 20 years of my life there.

    Our 11:00 am flight to Bagan on Golden Myanmar Airlines took about an hour and a half on a 50-passenger prop plane. The Nyaung U airport, which is located a few miles outside the historic ancient city of Bagan, had one runway and just a small terminal. Dorothy had group-checked our bags and we didn't see them again until we boarded the Avalon Myanmar river ship.

    Arriving in Bagan, we had a delightful outdoor lunch at a restaurant overlooking the Irrawaddy River before going to the ship. The previous cruise group had just disembarked that morning, so we needed to allow the crew some time to get the ship ready for us. We had to pay for our own lunch, but Avalon covered the beers and soft drinks. Claire and I split an order of stir-fried vegetables, noodles with shrimp, and barbecued chicken. All were very good, and the total bill was about $20. 

    After lunch, we rode the bus to the Avalon Myanmar and were all delighted at how gorgeous and spacious the river vessel was. We unpacked in our panoramic cabin, had a briefing about the next day's schedule at the evening before-dinner cocktail hour, and enjoyed the first of many delicious meals in the ship's dining room

    Twelve of us raised our hands when they asked who wanted to go see the sun rise the next day over the Bagan pagodas. (the ship was staying overnight at the dock for two nights). We hearty souls had to be downstairs and ready to go at 5:30 am. It was a very long, hot day in Bagan, but an amazing one.

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  • 06 of 54

    Sunrise over the Bagan Pagodas

    Sunrise over the temples in Bagan, Myanmar
    Bagan, Myanmar (c) Linda Garrison

    Don't feel too bad if you have never heard of Bagan (or even Nyaung U, where the airport is located) in Myanmar, even though it was the capital city of Myanmar from the 9th to the 13th centuries. This country has been pretty much "closed" to English-speaking westerners for most of our adult lives since the allies of Britain (including the USA) did not recommend visitors go to Myanmar until after 2010 when the military government released Aung San Suu Kyi from her house arrest. 

    Bagan has one of the world's largest collection of Buddhist pagodas, monasteries, and temples. At one time, over 13,000 Buddhist structures dotted the landscape around the former city. Today only 2,300 remain (that's still a lot), and it is considered one of the world's most significant archaeological sites. The temples, pagodas, and monasteries were built with red bricks between the 9th and 13th centuries (most in the 10th and 11th). Some were covered with plaster and painted, but most were just left with the bricks. 

    Bagan is in the "dry zone" of Myanmar in the middle of the country and is desert-like and barren today. The area was once covered with trees, but they were all cut down for the firewood needed to make the bricks used to build the 13,000 temples. They used clay from the river to make the bricks. It's hard to estimate how many millions of bricks were used. The area also had a lot of apple trees, whose sap was used to make the bricks stick together (they didn't have mortar). One of the Burmese generals, whose name means gold, had some of the temples painted gold when he was in power in the 1980's so that when people bowed down in the temples to respect Buddha, they were also bowing down to "gold". The temples painted gold are not the original color.

    Some of the temples were destroyed by an earthquake in 1975 and the piles of bricks have not yet been reconstructed. I was surprised to learn that people do not steal the bricks for their own use since they are considered sacred. People can sponsor the reconstruction of a temple and get a marker put out in front with their name. We saw many of these markers, especially on the smaller temples the size of a garage or a house.  

    I've never been to the ancient city of Siem Reap (home of Angkor Wat) in Cambodia, but those on this trip who had been said that it is in the jungle rather than the dry desert plains like Bagan. They also said the buildings at Bagan are better preserved, probably because the climate is dry. Although Bagan has more tourists than I expected, I've heard Angkor Wat is packed with people and it's much steamier/humid. Siem Reap is also a much larger site, although Bagan is so large (26 square miles) you need at least a motor scooter to see much of it. 

    Claire and I were up at zero-dark-thirty (about 4:45 am). I don't think either of us had slept well since we were afraid of over-sleeping. We decided early on this trip that we could sleep when we got home.

    Claire and some of the others on the early sunrise tour were happy to see coffee ready for them, and we were all on the bus before 5:30. Dorothy was with us, and said we had to get there early to "secure a good place" to watch the sun rise. Didn't dream we'd be joined at the sunrise temple by dozens of other tourists. 

    The ride to the sunrise temple (Shwesandaw) took only about 10 minutes, so it was still very dark when we arrived. Glad I had my phone for a flashlight, although some of the crew also brought along flashlights and lit the way for us. Since the sunrise temple was a holy place, we had to remove our shoes and socks and walk up the very steep/high/uneven steps in the dark. Fortunately, they had good railings on each side of he stairs that came in handy to prevent stumbling or falling. I'm so tender footed that was afraid my feet would be sore for a month after I got home. (They weren't). I think each step was about 16-18 inches--quite a stretch. It was still dark when we found our spot on the 4th level (about 80 feet/8 flights up according to my fitbit.) The temple has 5 levels, but Dorothy said the 4th level was less crowded and had the same views as the 5th level.

    From our vantage point, we couldn't see much at first because it was mostly dark, but very soon the sky started to lighten up and we could pick out dozens of temples on the dry, mostly barren plains. There are many scruffy trees and shrubs, much like you'd find in Texas or Kansas/Nebraska, along with a few fields of sesame and cotton plants.

    As the sky continued to brighten, more and more pagodas/temples came into view. About 6:30 am, we could see a few hot air balloons starting to pop up. Bagan's three balloon operators have 21 balloons, and all were soon in the air over the site. Each of the three companies has its own colored balloons, and we could make out red and yellow ones, but the third color wasn't apparent since it was hazy. The sun appeared within minutes after we saw the balloons. Quite a sight, and a truly magical moment shared with dozens of people from around the world.  

    We reluctantly left to go back down the steps (still in our bare feet) a little after 7, found our shoes where we left them and used a handi-wipe to clean our filthy feet.  As we were boarding the ship, we saw two of the balloons come down on a sandbar near the ship. Boats raced across the river to pick up the ballooners and bring them back to the chase truck. We had seen some of the chase trucks rushing after the balloons even before we climbed down the sunrise temple and on our way back to the ship.

    Avalon Waterways does not sponsor a balloon ride for guests or really give them free time to do one "on their own" because their insurance will not allow it. Seeing 2 of the 21 balloons almost come down in the middle of the river was enough to scare most of us off.

    Back on board by 7:30 in time to have breakfast before the 9 am departure for the morning excursion to visit the local market, the Shwezigon Pagoda, and a lacquer workshop where artisans practice this ancient craft. We all enjoyed the breakfast, especially the pomelos, which are a type of grapefruit, but larger and sweeter than the grapefruits back home. 

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  • 07 of 54

    A Day in Bagan - "Miss No Name" and Shopping in the Market

    Shopping in the Bagan Market
    Bagan, Myanmar (c) Linda Garrison

    Leaving the Avalon Myanmar river ship, we were immediately accosted by the young children selling souvenirs. This "sales attack" was a part of the routine of going back and forth to the bus at the river and at each of the archaeological sites since the same kids move around to each place using motor bikes. They all know the Avalon Waterways' tour schedule!

    We first met the young children who live near the cruise dock when we arrived at Bagan. Young girls attached themselves to us and asked our names. Claire surrendered hers to Lily, but I told Edie that I didn't have a name. She immediately started calling me Miss No Name! Can't you just hear a young girl calling out--"Hello Miss No Name" as soon as she saw me each day! They weren't aggressive, and we told them if we bought something it would be from them. They remembered our names and we saw them at least 3 times per day the 2 days we were at Bagan. I finally bought a $5 bracelet from Edie the last time I saw her, and Claire bought one from Lily. We also bought shirts to wear with our longyis from SuSu, one of their friends who also called us by name.

    Claire and I weren't the only guests approached by the kids. All the others on the ship were also adopted by one of the kids and went through the same process.

    School is not mandatory in Myanmar, and was not free until 2014. All these delightful children growing up illiterate is very sad, isn't it?

    Went to the market in "new" Bagan and wandered around with Dorothy as our leader. The market was covered, but had a dirt floor. It wasn't quite as packed with stuff as the Scott's market in Yangon, but the meat/fish area was pretty smelly. Claire bought some more stuff, including some $10 "elephant" pants almost identical to the ones I bought in Vietnam. She only had to pay $8!

    Our next stop was at the Shwezigon Pagoda.

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  • 08 of 54

    A Day in Bagan - Shwezigon Pagoda

    Shwezigon Pagoda in Bagan, Myanmar
    Bagan, Myanmar (c) Linda Garrison

    After wandering around the market and marveling at all of the various longyis for sale and all the interesting, wonderful, and disgusting scents, we drove to the Shwezigon Pagoda, one of the country's most important. It looked a little like the Shwedagon Pagoda we had visited in Yangon. Since it was almost noon, we had a few hot spots on the concrete/tiles where we had to move quickly in our bare feet. This temple had 4 entrances (most have 1, 3, or 4; 2 is never used since it is unlucky). 

    Other than all the gold leaf, monks, and pilgrims, the most interesting place was a small place on the outdoor floor enclosed by railings next to a shallow pool of water about 4 feet x 6 feet. When the emperor visited, he wanted to be able to see the domed top of the pagoda (called a stupa). However, if he tilted his head back, his crown would fall off, which was bad luck. So, they put the pool of water near the pagoda that captured the reflection of the stupa. The emperor could stand on the paving stone (the one now enclosed) and look at the reflection of the stupa without losing his crown. Seems kind of silly, but every culture has similar stories.

    Our next stop before returning to the Avalon Myanmar for lunch was one of the local lacquer shops. I've seen gorgeous lacquer boxes, jewelry, dinnerware, and decorative pieces in many of my travels, but I've never seen how the pieces are made. It takes a lot of man and woman power (cheap in Myanmar) and time to work with bamboo through the entire process. No wonder many things are so expensive. We watched young men doing the etching on plates and young women attaching tiny fragments of egg shell to decorative pieces. Very tedious work.

    All this touring made us hungry, so we went back to the ship for lunch before touring four more temples.

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  • 09 of 54

    A Day in Bagan - Ananda Temple

    Ananda Temple in Bagan, Myanmar
    Bagan, Myanmar (c) Linda Garrison

    Back to the Avalon Myanmar river ship for lunch and a rest through the worst part of the heat. Back on the coach and off to four more temple sites inside the archaeological site.

    Ananda was the first temple we visited (shoes/socks off again of course) in Bagan, and it was different and lovely. Many consider it the most beautiful, and it has four giant Buddhas inside, one at each entrance, and each in a different pose. (All were standing) It also had many old murals, most of which were very faded. All the temples in Myanmar we visited had some similarities and some differences.

    Our second stop was at a group of small pagodas one of which (Sulamani and Upali Thein) had lovely fresco paintings. Our third temple stop was at Dhammayangyi, a huge brick temple that is one of the best preserved in Bagan. We marveled at the tall passageways lined with bricks. Of course, what I remember best was all the bats living inside and destroying the temple. 

    Poor Claire got gently called out by our guide when she stepped up onto the first level of the temple (it was only one step) without taking off her shoes. Dorothy called her by name and told her to take her shoes off. Claire had been so busy listening to a musical sound from one of the vendors that she missed all of us taking off our shoes. If that's the worst faux pas we make, we'll be happy. I was scolded by Claire a couple of times for pointing at things, which is considered very rude in Myanmar. We learned several Burmese etiquette tips that we try to keep reminding each other of, but not pointing is the hardest for most of us. Touching small children on the head is also especially bad since you might be sucking out their soul. That's a difficult one when they are so precious and just about hand height!

    By now, it was about 5 pm, so we all boarded 2-person brightly decorated Brahman cow carts for the 20-minute bumpy ride to the sunset temple, Pyathatgyi. The road was very dusty, so Avalon gave us masks to wear, which were uncomfortable, but useful on the dusty road. Claire and I giggled a lot and felt a little like celebrities when several people on motorbikes stopped to make photos of our parade of a dozen ox (really cow) carts.

    This temple was already packed with people, and there must have been about 25 tourists who had set up their tripods along one level to make pictures. We still had to remove our shoes/socks and the climb to the top was dark, narrow, and low, but only about 75 steps or so. We had about an hour before sunset, and we enjoyed watching the people and also some farmers moving their Brahmans and goats across the fields under us. The sunset was spectacular, but not as nice as the one we had seen on the boat our first night. Still fun to get a last look at all of Bagan before we had to leave and to see the changing lights as the sun went down.

    Took a while for everyone at the top of Pyathatgyi to descend the one staircase, and I pulled out my phone (as did others) to light the way. Marc the cruise director did our daily briefing on the bus headed back to the ship, and it was almost dark by the time we arrived. 

    Happy hour was already in progress, so we all had a cold drink before dinner. Claire and I washed up a little, but opted to shower after dinner since nothing was planned that evening and we only had a short time. Several others did the same. 

    We were in bed by 11 pm, and our ship was sailing north for Shwe Pya Thar at 6 am. The river boat never sailed at night on this voyage since the river was low. We wanted to see another Bagan sunrise, so set an alarm to get up. 

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  • 10 of 54

    A Visit to a Traditional Burmese Village - Shwe Pya Thar

    Getting water from the well at the Shwe Pya Thar village in Myanmar
    Shwe Pya Thar Village (c) Linda Garrison

    After our busy two days at Bagan, the next day on the Avalon Myanmar was a restful one. We got up early (about 5:45) to watch the ship leave the shore of Bagan (no  dock). Our journey on the Irrawaddy River (also sometimes called the Ayeyarwady) was upstream all the way to Bhamo. No river ships catering to westerners currently operate beyond Mandalay other than Avalon Waterways. 

    We sailed throughout the morning and breakfast, arriving at the small village of Shwe Pyi Thar by 9:30. We saw a few more temples when we first left Bagan, and even got a glimpse of the 21 balloons over the old complex of temples, but from the river rather than on foot or on the bus.

    Overall, the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar was much different than I expected--it's flat and bounded by huge sandy banks that are under water parts of the year. Marc told us the river comes up 6-10 feet, so all this sand is underwater when the snow melts in the Himalayas and the rainy season starts. Occasionally, we saw see a patch of green fields growing corn or beans or other crops. Although it was dry and hot in March, the crops don't need to be watered since the water table is only a few inches down. 

    We disembarked at Shwe Pyi Thar and walked around the village with our audio devices while Dorothy provided narration. The village has about 500 residents, most of whom live in one- or two-roomed thatched roof homes with about 10 family members. (multi-generational) Cooking is done outside, and happy rooms (toilets) and showers are in communal facilities. It's kind of like a campground.

    Some of the more wealthy residents who have sold their family land or who have income coming in (like renting their palm juice trees) have brick homes. They have a school outside the village for grades 1-5 that some of travel companies including Avalon Waterways support. One woman travel agent from Yangon has built a small medical dispensary that has a nurse two days a week. This same woman is building another toilet/shower facility (a small brick building with 3 doors--men's, women's, and shower). 

    The Shwe Pyi Thar village was remarkably clean other than the Brahman cow and dog poop we had to occasionally avoid. We all enjoyed watching people going about their daily business of cooking, washing, or even chopping straw to feed to the Brahman cattle. Brahman can digest almost anything, so are very popular in Asia. Wealth in the rural areas is actually measured by the number of Brahmans a family owns. Many people had dogs, and they all looked well taken care of. 

    We wandered through the village for a couple of hours before returning to the ship and sailing north. Lunch was another good meal, with excellent salads and a pumpkin soup that everyone loved. They always have a mix of Asian, Burmese, and common western dishes.

    One funny thing happened. While walking around the village, we saw what looked like a new brick sidewalk. One of the guys stepped on the sidewalk. However, it wasn't a walk; it was bricks drying! The poor guy replaced Claire as most embarrassed on the ship. I told her she has made (thus far) the worst religious mistake (taking one step onto sacred ground with her shoes on), while the guy got the worst cultural mistake (destroying 2 bricks and causing a poor woman to have to re-do them). The lady making the bricks from clay and putting them in the sun to harden thought the whole episode hilarious, and it only took her about 5 minutes to redo the bricks and replace them in the queue to dry.

    We had the afternoon free except for a talk by Dorothy on the many different ways to wear and use a longyi and on the thanaka, the sandalwood face cream that women and men use to decorate their faces and protect them from the sun. 

    The longyis are somewhat like a sarong, and each of the 135 minority ethnic groups in Myanmar uses a different set of patterns. Both male and female longyis are "one size fits all". They are a tube-like piece of material that is about 10 feet wide and 40 inches long before it is seamed up into the tube. Men always put on their longyi over the head, while women step into theirs. The way the longyi is wrapped is different for men and women, with the men's being the most complicated. Children wear western style clothes until about age 10, but over 90 percent of adults wear longyis. The average person has about 20-30 longyis.

    It was fun for Dorothy and one of the crew on board to demonstrate how to wear longyi. Most of us women bought the "western style" longyis that are wrap skirts with a long tie. These are much easier to keep up.

    Had another nice dinner, followed by a documentary on Myanmar, "They Call it Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain". It provided an excellent overview of the history and culture of this amazing country.

    The next afternoon, we arrived in Sagaing for the first of two days in the Mandalay area.

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    Sagaing, Myanmar - Across the River from Mandalay

    View of the Irrawaddy River from the top of Sagaing Hill near Mandalay
    Sagaing (c) Linda Garrison

    A Morning on the Irrawaddy River

    We had a lovely morning cruising on the river in Myanmar. I still can't get over how dry and low it was. We even dragged a couple of times on the sandy bottom, but not a problem. The Avalon Myanmar picked up a new river pilot about every 30 miles on the river, since the channel changes practically overnight.

    Another delicious breakfast. Claire and I were both addicted to the pomelo, which looks like a giant grapefruit, but is pealed and broken into sections. Marvelous. We also enjoyed the mixed fruit and homemade yogurt, and made-to-order pancakes and omelets. The chef always had a hot Burmese soup for breakfast (the Burmese love soup), but it was a little early for me. 

    We sailed all morning and came to the historic Irrawaddy Bridge built in 1934. It was the first bridge over the river. Most of the Irrawaddy bridges were destroyed during World War II, but this one remains. Marc the cruise director appropriately read Rudyard Kipling's poem "Mandalay" over the intercom just before lunch. 

    While sailing, Claire and I sipped my new favorite non-alcoholic drink--lime and ginger iced tea. It's made from a jigger of a slurry of fresh ginger, a jigger of fresh lime juice, and then topped with water and ice. (no green or black tea in the drink) The bartender sweetens with a little simple sugar, but I just asked him to add a little honey. It's very refreshing and healthy, too.

    Lunch was another good one, too. We all especially enjoyed the noodle dishes at lunch, and this day's was especially good. The chef cooked rice noodles and some fresh vegetables for a couple of minutes (or less) in boiling water and then added some hot chicken broth. They had a variety of vegetables, meats (beef, chicken, or shrimp) and spices and sauces in little dishes for us to "make the soup our own". Very tasty. 

    The Ride to the Top of Sagaing Hill

    At 2 pm, we left the Avalon Myamar on yet another form of transportation--a pick up truck  taxi with a sun cover over the back and a row of seats on each side. We had eight people in two trucks and six in the other (along with Dorothy, Marc, and one crew). We rode in the trucks to the top of Sagaing Hill, which is on the opposite bank of the Irrawaddy from Mandalay. This is an important Buddhist religious site. I have to admit that I feared developing the "oh no, another bloody temple" syndrome, but continue to push on since each one has at least one different/interesting tidbit.

    Many of the Sagaing pagodas are on this hill overlooking the Irrawaddy that is dotted with pagodas of all sizes. We took our shoes/sox off and went inside the Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda, which provided amazing views of the Irrawaddy and the river valley below. We even saw our ship on the river as it was repositioning while we were off the ship touring.

    Our next stop was at a pagoda with an interesting shape and back story--the Kaunghmudaw Pagoda.

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    Kaunghmudaw Pagoda in Sagaing near Mandalay, Myanmar

    Kaunghmudaw Pagoda in Sagaing near Mandalay, Myanmar
    Sagaing (c) Linda Garrison

    We switched to a regular air conditioned coach as soon as we were back down the winding Sagaing Hill. Our second stop was at the Kaungmudaw Pagoda with its golden, egg-shaped dome that looks like a giant woman's breast. Legend says that the king who built the pagoda couldn't decide what shape to make it. His beloved wife pulled up her shirt and said, "make it like this", and he did. May not be a true story, but we all knew which pagoda we were going into before we even got barefoot. 

    They take their Buddhism religion and temples very seriously here, despite the fact that they let non-Buddhists inside the outer areas and allow photos. Many pagodas have tons of vendors selling handicrafts and food inside the compound--these vendors must either pay for the space and/or give a percentage of their sales to the temple.

    Journalists have been imprisoned, fined, or kicked out of the country for making fun of Buddha or the temples. One Yangon bar owner from New Zealand put a picture of a Buddha with an earphone inside his ear and was thrown in jail for four months. A journalist photoshopped a picture of himself licking the Kaungmudaw Pagoda, and he was permanently kicked out of Myanmar. It's always important to respect and follow local etiquette.

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    A Visit to an Amarapura Silversmith in Myanmar

    Metal working shop in Amarapura, Myanmar
    Amarapura, Myanmar (c) Linda Garrison

    Our big bus took us across the river to Amarapura, which is just south of Mandalay on the east bank of the Irrawaddy (Sagaing is on the west bank). Our next stop was at a silversmith's shop. 

    So many things are handmade here. We watched the artisans working on the silver and some in our group (not me) bought gorgeous silver jewelry or other metalwork in a just a few minutes since the prices were excellent.

    Our next stop was at the U Bein Bridge.

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    Riding a Sampan around the U Bein Bridge

    Riding on a sampan at U Bein Bridge in Amarapura, Myanmar
    Amarapura, Myanmar (c) Linda Garrison

    Our last stop for the day was at the famous U Bein Bridge in Amarapura. The 3/4 mile long bridge was built in 1783 from the teak wood reclaimed from the old Burmese Royal Palace in Inwa. This rickety foot bridge is used by locals to cross Taungthaman Lake each day when going to work. It's really a cornerstone of the surrounding community.

    Travelers come to see the sunset from a sampan and to walk across the old bridge. The bridge is about three stories high and has no side rails. We were given the option to ride a sampan (with a "driver") into the lake to watch the sunset and then ride it back to the bus, or to ride the sampan one-way, get dropped off at the steps leading up to the bridge and then walk back.

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    Myanmar Sunset from the U Bein Bridge in Amarapura

    U Bein Bridge at sunset in Amarapura, Myanmar
    Amarapura, Myanmar (c) Linda Garrison

    We had two people per sampan and loved the ride and the great photos we got of the bridge and the sunset. Imagine our surprise when we saw a sampan with three of the Avalon Myanmar river vessel crew who were passing out sangria, cold beer, and cashew nuts/potato chips to us. What a fun surprise! 

    After a while, only four of us debarked the sampans in order to walk across the foot bridge, while the others rode back to the bus in the man-powered sampan boats. I think Marc scared some off with his rickety bridge warning, while others chose not to walk on it since it looked so fragile when we went under it in the sampans. The only thing Claire and I didn't like about the bridge was that the boards had about an inch of space between them. We both stubbed the toe of our shoe in the gap a couple of times and ended up marching along to keep our toes out of the gap.

    Back to the ship in time for cocktail hour and dinner. Another good dinner. This time we had a Thai chicken salad, a Burmese soup, salmon, and ice cream. Another great day in Myanmar.

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    Woodcarving Shop in Mandalay

    Woodcarving children in Mandalay, Myanmar
    Mandalay (c) Linda Garrison

    The Avalon Myanmar stayed at the dock overnight, and we explored the large (over 1 million) city of Mandalay the next day. 

    This city is famous for its handicrafters/artisans, so we started the day with a visit to an area where many of these cottage workshops are located. First, we saw workers peeling off the layers of bamboo to weave the decorative wall screens and other woven artwork and baskets. 

    Then, we crossed the busy road on foot to visit a tapestry and wood carving workshop. Wow! These artists are still doing work by hand that we've used machines to do for the past 100+ years. The ornate wood carvings were magnificent and many take weeks/months to complete. Watching the carvers bent over the pieces of teak with their many different sized hand tools made my back hurt!

    The men do all the carving, and the women do all the tapestries. The small retail shop (co-located with the "factory") was so packed with stuff, it was hard to believe it was all hand made. Claire and I both bought two small bags for less than $10 that we had seen the women sewing by hand--not just putting the bags together, but adding all the sequins and other tapestry designs with a needle and thread. Another back-breaking, sight-ruining job! You can't help but admire the hard work of these people who have had such a difficult life for so many years.

    I've mentioned that many of the temples are covered with gold leaf, and we went to a shop that takes pieces of 24-carat gold and manually transforms it into gold leaf -- again by manual labor. It takes about 6 hours to pound a piece of gold into the very thin gold leaf, and it's so thin that a quarter-sized piece sells for just about a dollar. They use bamboo paper that has been treated and bound like a book that's about 6-inches square to put the squares of gold in-between. (It doesn't stick to this paper) We watched three very muscular young men use very heavy mallets to each pound a "book" over and over and over. The sound of their rhythmic swinging of the mallets hitting the book was lyrical, and occasionally they would change the rhythm. Very hard work and they have to keep doing it, because the pounding warms up the gold so it can be flattened/squished easier. They have to break up the squares into smaller pieces several times as the piece of gold flattens. Guess this also gives the "pounders" a short break.

    After about six hours total of pounding, the gold is less-than-tissue-paper-thin. They end up with many pieces of gold leaf in the book, each divided by the special bamboo paper. They give the book to women who work in a clean room (no shoes allowed) to prepare the gold leaf pieces for sale and for shipping. We each got a tiny, mole-sized piece transferred to our cheeks. The gold was so thin, they easily wore off by the end of the day just from the wind and sweat. Of course, they had gold leaf items for sale, but Claire and I skipped. Some of the gold leaf was made into the shape of a real gold leaf and then framed. They were nice, but too difficult to bring home.

    Some bought the small final product of gold leaf, but I couldn't figure out what to do with it. They found a use at our next stop in Mandalay.

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    Gold Leaf Buddha at the Mahumuni Pagoda in Mandalay

    Gold Leaf Buddha at the Mahumuni Pagoda in Mandalay
    Mandalay (c) Linda Garrison

    Our last stop before lunch was at the Mahamuni Pagoda/Temple (Dorothy used these 2 terms interchangeably), which is one of Myanmar's most revered and famous Buddhism sites. Not only did we have to cover our shoulders and remove our shoes/socks, we also had to have pants/longyis/skirts ankle length, so most of usl wore slacks and a couple of the women and men wore their longyis.

    The gold leaf Buddha in this temple dates back to the 19th century, and pilgrims/visitors usually buy a piece of the thin gold leaf and attach it to the Buddha, both to honor Buddha and to bring them luck, grant a wish, etc. Of course, according to Buddhist temple etiquette, only men can go into the room with the Buddha and attach the gold leaf personally.

    Women can see the Buddha through one of the three doors and/or watch on a video screen. Women can also buy the gold leaf and have a man attach for them--we saw some young men attaching dozens of pieces, one at at time by carefully peeling the two pieces of bamboo paper apart, putting the gold leaf side down somewhere on the Buddha, and pressing very hard before peeling off the second piece of bamboo paper to attach it to the statue.

    Of course, Dorothy had brought some gold leaf from the gold leaf shop we had visited earlier so all the men in our group could participate in the tradition while we women sat on the floor outside and watched. 

    Since pilgrims and visitors have been applying gold leaf to the Mahamuni for over 100 years, the statue has significantly changed. They estimate from 6 to 9 inches of the less-than-tissue-paper-thin gold leaf has been applied over the years, and pictures are displayed that show the Buddha in 1901, 1935, 1984, and 2010. I do believe he's gained more weight than I have! In the 1901 photo, he's actually very thin. Because he's so large, men can't reach his head and face to apply the gold leaf offering, but the body is very bloated. Dorothy said that people believe that the changes in his appearance due to the gold leaf application demonstrate that the Buddha is a living being. 

    Use TripAdvisor to Find Hotels in Mandalay, Myanmar

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    Shwenandaw Monastery in Mandalay, Myanmar

    Shwenandaw Monastery in Mandalay, Myanmar
    Mandalay (c) Linda Garrison

    After seeing the gold leaf Buddha at the  Mahumuni Pagoda in Mandalay, we went back to the Avalon Myanmar by about 12:15 for another excellent lunch and a siesta until 3 pm.

    After lunch, we first went to the Shwenandaw Kyaung monastery, which is entirely made of teak. During the time of King Mindon (who died in 1878), it was inside the Mandalay Palace complex and served as the royal apartment building of the king. When he died, King Thibaw, his successor, was so upset, he had the huge teak apartment dismantled and moved outside the Mandalay Palace complex, where it was reassembled and converted to a monastery in 1880.

    Since all the other buildings in the Mandalay Palace complex were destroyed during World War II, it's lucky that this building survives. It has some interesting historical photos of the king and some Jataka scenes that show the past life stories of the Buddha. The ornate teak wood carving is very impressive. The building was once painted gold (or covered in gold leaf), but only a few small spots of gold can still be seen today.

    Our next stop in Mandalay was at a UNESCO World Heritage Site--the world's largest book.

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    World's Largest Book at the Kuthodaw Pagoda in Mandalay

    World's Largest Book at the Kuthodaw Pagoda in Mandalay
    Mandalay (c) Linda Garrison

    We walked for about 10 minutes from the Shwenandaw Kyaung monastery to the Kuthodaw Paya, which was listed as a UNESCO Memory of the World Register. Documentary in 2013. This large temple complex has a large golden pagoda in its center, but is famous because of its 729 marble slabs carved in Sanskrit, each with its own small stupa. Each slab is a page of the Tripitaka (book of Buddhist teachings). This book is the "world's largest book" because of its size. Each identical stupa is about 10 feet tall and 6 feet square or so. After the Tripitaka pages were carved into the marble, it took 6 months for a team of 2400 monks to read it aloud in a non-stop relay reading. 

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    Golden Pagoda at the Kuthodaw Temple in Mandalay

    Central golden pagoda at the Kuthodaw Pagoda in Mandalay
    Mandalay (c) Linda Garrison

    Although much of the Kuthodaw Temple complex is filled with the 729 marble slabs of the Tripitaka, the center of the complex has this large golden pagoda. We watched some workers replacing some of the gold leaf, and all got a chance to strike the gong five times for luck.

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    Old Mandalay Royal Palace Complex

    Moat at the Old Mandalay Royal Palace
    Mandalay (c) Linda Garrison

    Re-boarding the bus, we stopped at the "moat" and brick wall that surrounds the old Mandalay royal palace so we could take pictures of Mandalay mountain in the background and the palace and lake or moat in the foreground. Nice photo stop. Tourists aren't allowed inside since it is now a military facility. Since all the historic buildings in the complex were completely destroyed during the war, there probably isn't much to see.

    The Avalon Myanmar sailed away from Mandalay just before dinner, and we headed north on the Irrawaddy River. This next section of the cruise would be outside the "tourist zone", and we no longer saw any river ships (except for local ones). That evening, the Captain stopped at a sandbar, and we all enjoyed a bonfire on the beach, along with some dancers and musicians from Mandalay, who arrived on a small boat with their costumes and instruments. It was an amazing evening, filled with music and dancing by the fire. This truly memorable night with Avalon Waterways even ended with fireworks!

    The next day, we visited the pottery-making village of Kyauk Myaung.

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    Pottery at Kyauk Myaung, Myanmar

    Pottery awaiting shipment at Kyauk Myaung, Myanmar
    Kyauk Myaung, Myanmar (c) Linda Garrison

    As usual, Claire and I were up at dawn to watch the sun rise on the Irrawaddy and to enjoy the river in the early part of the day. We loved sitting in the cool air of the forward observation deck, watching the river scenery go by. Claire snapped a lot of photos of farmers harvesting peanuts. She was amazed at how they were doing it by hand since there's no equipment except manual tools and Brahman cattle. Marc told us that they have itinerant workers that move from place to place to help harvest, much like we do in the USA.

    Dorothy gave us a Burmese lesson at 10:30 am. We had mastered a few key phrases (yes, no, no thank you, hello, thank you, you're welcome, etc.), but it's a very challenging language. Throw in the different alphabet/characters, and it seems impossible. Like Chinese and other SE Asia languages, it's tonal, but when Dorothy pronounced three different words that mean something very different but use a different tone, all three sounded the same to my untrained ear.

    While having the Burmese lesson, we took a quick break because a big cargo ship had gotten stuck in the river and was blocking the narrow channel. We all went outside to check out what was going on, and our Captain tied the Avalon Myanmar up to the bank, and we stopped for about 30 minutes while waiting for a tug to dislodge the freighter. Soon, we were on the way again. 

    Had another good lunch--even mini-hamburgers (like sliders). But, the salads were still our favorite. 

    Pottery at Kyauk Myaung, Myanmar

    At about 2:30, we went under a huge bridge over the river and stopped at the village of Kyauk Myaung, where most everyone works in the pottery-making business. Most of the pots are the Ali Baba-style ones, which comes in 3 sizes, with the largest being 50-gallons. These are huge like the amphora we saw in Greece and the Mediterranean, but have a larger opening at the top. I couldn't even move one, much less pick it up. They also make some decorative ones in all sizes, but the Ali Baba storage jars seem to dominate the "production". I put quotes on "production", because everything is made by hand, one at a time.

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    Making "Ali Baba" Pots at Kyauk Myaung, Myanmar

    Making "Ali Baba" pots at Kyauk Myaung, Myanmar
    Kyauk Myaung, Myanmar (c) Linda Garrison

    The potters use clay from the Irrawaddy river bank. Bamboo ash is mixed with the clay as the pots are made.

    We visited one bamboo warehouse-like place where this man and woman were working on a mid-sized pot. (Probably about 30 gallons). They can do about 8 of these a day or 4 of the giant ones. They had done the bottom half of the pot in the morning and let it dry a little before adding the top half.

    It took the guy about 5 minutes to get happy with the placement and balance of the pot on the wheel, using pieces of clay and 4 rocks to hold it in place.

    The guy then took the wet clay from a large mound nearby and made a long cylinder about 6 inches in diameter and 2 feet long (depending on which level he was doing). He put this cylinder of mud around the rim of the pot and made it the right thickness. He had to do this about half-dozen times before he started the final smoothing of the inside and outside.

    The woman assistant turned the potter's wheel by hand, and he did the final smoothing process. When they were finished, they moved the pot to let it dry. Fascinating to watch, but the bamboo building where they were working was about 95+ degrees.

    We asked what price these mid-sized pots fetch and he said $15 each. So, assuming the pots get fired correctly, he and his assistant can make about $120 a day and have to pay for someone bringing the clay to their shop and for the firing (if they don't have their own kiln). Hard life.


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    Wood-Burning Kiln at Kyauk Myaung, Myanmar

    Burmese kiln at Kyauk Myaung, Myanmar
    Kyauk Myaung, Myanmar (c) Linda Garrison

    The kilns at Kyauk Myaung are all wood burning, and some are so big they can put up to 200 of the giant pots inside to fire. I can't imagine how difficult it is to control the temperature by just using different types of wood. When the kiln is working, the potters must stay up with it around-the-clock to adjust the temperature. 


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    Women Carrying Pots on their Heads at Kyauk Myaung

    Women carrying pots on their heads at Kyauk Myaung, Myanmar
    Kyauk Myaung, Myanmar (c) Linda Garrison

    These women walked carrying up to three large decorative bowls stacked on their heads. They wrap a longyi into a flat turban for their heads and put the pots on top of it. Had to be at least 30 pounds or more they were carrying, some with no hands!


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    Painting Pottery in Kyauk Myaung, Myanmar

    Painting pottery in Kyauk Myaung, Myanmar
    Kyauk Myaung, Myanmar (c) Linda Garrison

    Many of the pots at Kyauk Myaung are painted. This young man was working in his home.

    Third Defile of the Irrawaddy River

    We noticed the scenery changing after lunch, and we entered the "third defile" not long after leaving the potter's village. I had never heard this term "defile", but it's an old British word that means "gorge". The scenery changed from mostly sand dunes to lush and green for about three hours of sailing or so. It was a little like the Mekong or Europe, with green hills touching the river. The Burmese boats and numerous rafts kept us reminded of where we were traveling. In a couple of days, we sailed through the second defile, but the first defile is north of Bhamo, further than we sailed.

    We also saw many fires along the way, and Marc said they often burned off the undergrowth or the leftover peanut vine after harvest. Like littering, open fires are a way of life in this third world country.

    It was a perfect afternoon, and the time flew by quickly. We had the daily briefing at 6:45, followed by dinner. I had the tuna nicoise salad, Burmese soup, and vegetarian fried rice. Claire had the tuna nicoise salad, soup, and the grilled scallops.

    After dinner, we had another movie night. This one was one of Gregory Peck's early movies called "Purple Plain", a 1954 movie about World War II in Burma, but filmed in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). 

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    Small Temple in Kya Hnyat on the Irrawaddy River

    Small temple in Kya Hnyat on the Irrawaddy River
    Kya Hnyat (c) Linda Garrison

    The Avalon Myanmar slipped quietly away from where we had tied up along the river about 6:00 am and we sailed over breakfast until we reached Kya Hnyat about 10:30. This small village had a local Buddhist monastery and busy market for us to visit. 

    This village seemed dirtier to us than others. Maybe it was the garbage dump on the long river bank near where we docked. The locals pile up their garbage for months below the high water line, and then when the river comes up, it carries most of it away downstream to the ocean. They also let their pigs dig in the dump for snacks.

    Pretty disgusting, but we kept thinking about how unimportant waste removal must seem to those who live from day to day and work just to meet the basic necessities of food and shelter. One woman was doing laundry in the muddy river near the garbage dump. Very depressing, but makes me appreciate our washers/dryers and trash removal service.

    Also on the bank was a bamboo market, where people could buy and float up/down the river. They roll the larger pieces into the water and make a raft or tie behind their boats. Then they sell the bamboo downstream in Mandalay.

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    Cleaning Black Sesame Seeds in Kya Hnyat, Myanmar

    Cleaning black sesame seeds in Kya Hnyat, Myanmar
    Kya Hnyat (c) Linda Garrison

    We walked through a local market, but this one had a major fly problem. Dorothy said it was because the mangoes were ripe. The fruit and vegetables looked okay, but I can't get used to raw fish and meat sitting outside. The market also had a large selection of dried fish, which all smelled strong.

    Like other villages north of the "tourist zone" at Mandalay, the people were smiling and friendly and as curious about us as we were about them. They seemed to especially appreciate that several of us women (and a couple of men) were wearing longyis. (Of course, what they didn't think of was that we were wearing them in order to have our ankles covered at the monastery.)

    The most fascinating activity we saw at the market was four women with flat baskets separating black sesame seeds from its chaff. Fun to watch. 

    We also visited a local "ice cream factory", and a few of our group, including Claire, tasted one of their ice creams. I was more than a little leery of how safe the ice cream would be to eat, but they were all alive and well the next day. Interesting to see anything electric in these places, much less a freezer.

    Some young boys and girls at a boarding school smiled shyly at us through their windows, and we peeked into one of the open air school rooms where some older boys were studying chemistry. Not sure how useful that subject would be for most rural Burmese, but it's nice to know that maybe some go on to live more than just a sustenance life.

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    Monks Eating Lunch in Myanmar

    Monks eating lunch in Myanmar
    Kya Hnyat (c) Linda Garrison

    We walked on towards the monastery, arriving there a little after 11:30. Burmese Buddhist monks don't eat anything after noon each day. They have an early breakfast and then lunch before noon. They can drink after noon, but not eat.

    Young children as young as five years old are sent to the monastery to study, and it must be very hard for them (and adults) to go from noon one day until 4:30 or 5 am the next without food. All the children are very short/small here, and I'm sure they don't get adequate vitamins.

    As seen in this photo, we watched the four senior monks have their lunch, sitting on the floor and not talking. The younger novitiates ate after the senior monks. 


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    Feeding the Monks at a Burmese Monastery

    Feeding the monks at a Burmese monastery
    Kya Hnyat (c) Linda Garrison

     Monks get all their food donated, but the food cannot be raw and must be either pre-packaged or cooked especially for the monks. Monks parade through the towns each morning with their shoes off and their bowls out, and people give them food or other products. In some villages/towns, people have a covered container filled with food that they hang outside their homes for the novitiate monks to collect each morning between breakfast and lunch. 

    Each monk has five personal belongings--a robe, a razor (to shave the head), a bowl for collecting/eating food, sandals, and a type of hat to protect their shaved heads from the sun. We brought some pre-packaged food and soap to give to the monks, and the young novitiates passed by us and we dropped something in their bowls. They are not allowed to make eye contact with those who give them "alms", and women are not allowed to touch a monk since it would be disrespectful. Of course, it was shoes off when we went inside one of their buildings. 

    One of the monks also showed us his burgundy robe and demonstrated how they wear it two different ways--one for everyday (off one shoulder) and the other for collecting food (both shoulders covered). Although these robes look like one giant bed sheet (in burgundy), they are actually 10 small pieces of cloth sewed together in a defined pattern like a patchwork. We figured it must be men who sew it since women can't touch them or their clothing. Dorothy said Burmese people don't wear the burgundy color since it would be disrespectful to the monks.

    An Afternoon Sailing the Irrawaddy River

    We were back on the Avalon Myanmar for our own lunch, and then we sailed all afternoon. The executive chef demonstrated how to make two popular Burmese salads. 

    Five people on the ship (including Claire) are in Rotary Clubs from four different countries--USA, Canada, UK, and Australia, so they had a meeting for about an hour before cocktails, followed by the daily briefing about our next day on the river. 

    Dinner for me was a shrimp salad with greens, a lime dressing, herbs, spring onions, and mung beans, followed by a Burmese chicken soup with noodles, ginger, garlic, and chopped egg. We had four Asian entrees, and all four of us at our table got the Indian tandoori style tiger prawns with coriander rice. Very good. People on the ship who don't want Asian food can choose from grilled salmon, grilled chicken, or pasta with tomato sauce each evening. 

    After dinner, we saw a biographical movie of the life of Aung San Suu Kyi called "The Lady" at 8:30. It's a 2010 French-produced movie, but in English. Excellent movie that couldn't be shown here in Myanmar until a year or so ago because of the subject. It's a very powerful story that runs over 2 hours, but none of us went to sleep (including me). Especially moving since we have heard so much about her and rode by her house on the bus. When the movie was over, we all quietly went to our cabins and not much was said. 

    Off to bed and asleep by midnight. The movie made me even more conflicted about Myanmar.

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    Reclining Buddha on a Hilltop in Tigyang, Myanmar

    Reclining Buddha on a hilltop in Tigyang, Myanmar
    Tigyang (c) Linda Garrison

    Arriving at Tigyang the next morning, we all quickly saw its iconic reclining Buddha on the hilltop.  About a dozen of us climbed up the hill to see the Buddha up close, while the others in our group rode on a van.

    Before we went up the hill, we did a walking tour of the town. By now we were familiar with the layout and size of the homes, but even the "nice" ones don't have running water inside or an indoor "happy room" (toilet). Some of the Tigyang residents work in the gold mines, so have more money than the farming villages. 

    Two young monks (novitiates) met us on the road. They were collecting food that people had left out for them in nice stainless steel containers with lids that clipped on. All the monks parade every day early in the morning to collect food that has been especially cooked for them (they are not allowed to cook and they won't take leftovers). Some people are not at home (or asleep) when the monks pass by in their daily quest for food, so they hang food out for them to pick up. The young novitiates get the task of picking up the food. These two boys looked about six and eight, but were actually ten and thirteen. The poor nutrition and only two meals a day probably contributes to their size, but they are getting an education.

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    Tigyang School

    School at Tigyang, Myanmar
    Tigyang (c) Linda Garrison

    Our group also visited a school, but the Burmese schools are getting ready to shut down for the 3-month summer break, and the students were taking their exams. Marc took some sports equipment for the school to the principal, and we wandered around in the outdoor covered hallways, peeking in the open windows (no glass) and trying not to disturb the kids.

    The Avalon Myanmar normally visits another school more upriver, but it would be closed for the summer by the time we got there. 

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    Reclining Buddha at Tigyang

    Reclining Buddha in Tigyang, Myanmar
    Tigyang (c) Linda Garrison

    The one other thing to see in Tigyang was the reclining Buddha (our second giant one in Myanmar) that sits on a tall hill overlooking the town. Now that we know more about Buddhism, we know that a reclining Buddha indicates that he is closer to Nirvana. Often the reclining Buddhas take on more feminine characteristics (eye make up, lipstick and toe nail polish) than those sitting or standing, but no one knows exactly why artists paint them that way. 

    About half of us opted to walk up the 240 steps (plus a long incline) to the top of the hill where the Buddha lay. (The others rode in small vans.) Claire and I were a little worried about some of our fellow cruise mates, but we all made it to the top. One oddity was that this hollow giant Buddha had a door near the soles of his feet and we could go inside (of course, we had already removed our shoes when we took the step onto the platform where the Buddha lay). Surprised they let women inside, but we still couldn't approach the last section near the shrine. 

    Back on the Avalon Myanmar for lunch and then a tour of the navigational bridge and the galley in the afternoon. Lazy afternoon, but the weather was perfect for sitting outside and watching the river traffic and scenery. Very enjoyable as always. 

    We docked in Katha about 4:00 pm and some of our group walked into town. We didn't need to do any shopping and we were having a walking tour of the market and town center the next morning. Nice to have the option to go off on our own, but neither of us could get motivated to leave the cozy ship and our lounge chairs. It was fun watching the small sampan ferry boats come and go.

    Claire and I both had the blue cheese salad, creamy herb dressing, and the fried rice for dinner. They did a great job with the fried rice and all the noodle dishes.

    Nothing scheduled after dinner since we had stayed up the night before watching "The Lady". Loved having movies set in Myanmar or about its history and people.

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    Monks Collecting Food in Katha, Myanmar

    Monks collecting food in Katha, Myanmar
    Katha, Myanmar (c) Linda Garrison

    The Avalon Myanmar stayed at the dock in Katha overnight. The next morning, the Buddhist crew invited us to watch them give food to the monks at 6:30 am and take photos. All of the crew are Burmese, and most are devout Buddhists. Since the ship doesn't dock overnight in towns very often (especially towns with monasteries), the crew do not have a chance to participate in this practice. They had bought food in the market the afternoon we arrived and arose very early to cook it fresh for the monks. About 6:30 am, a man with a gong announced the approach of the monks, and about 30 monks followed him in single file not far behind, each carrying their bowl. The crew doled out the food, and we made photos. It was fun to watch the river and town come alive in the early morning. 

    We started to go back on the the ship after the monks passed, but one of them told us that the monks from the other monastery in the town would be passing in a few minutes (going the other way), so we waited for them. I think the crew appreciated our quiet acknowledgement of their beliefs.

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    Katha Street Scene

    Katha Street Scene in Myanamr
    Katha, Myanmar (c) Linda Garrison

    While waiting for the monks to pass by, we watched this woman set up her food cart for the day. 

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    Market in Katha

    Chickens for sale in the Katha market in Myanmar
    Katha, Myanmar (c) Linda Garrison

    We had a walking tour of the market at 8 am. Before we went to the market, we watched small boats dock near our ship with huge baskets of tomatoes, cabbages, and eggplant. Hauling this produce up the hill took some effort.

    The market in Katha was very large, and we are far enough up river that seeing us was an unusual event for them. They all smiled as we marched through the market, trying not to look too horrified at the bright yellow chickens. We were told they cover raw chickens with turmeric to keep the flies off, but it doesn't work too well, and the chickens are a bright yellow.

    The fish were as stinky as ever, but we recognized many of the fruits and veggies that looked strange to us just two weeks before. One woman in our group tipped over a bowl of small fish. She was very embarrassed, and offered to pay for the fish. The vendor said no, but the Avalon Myamar guest put enough money in the bowl to cover the fish and walked away to catch up with the group. Suddenly the woman vendor ran up to the group, pressed the money back into her hand, and fled. How nice!

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    Hiking to the Elephant Camp

    Hiking into the Katha elephant camp
    Katha, Myanmar (c) Linda Garrison

    Leaving the market, we boarded a bus and road about 45 miles outside of Katha to a teak forest with elephants who worked in the tree harvesting and moving the trees. Teak harvesting is a dying industry, so it might not be too long before the elephants (and their handlers) are unemployed. About half of our group walked the last 30 minutes through the beautiful forest to the elephant camp, while the others rode on the bumpy road in the back of covered pickups. 

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    Baby Elephant!

    Baby elephant at a camp near Katha, Myanmar
    Katha, Myanmar (c) Linda Garrison

    Avalon Waterways is the only river cruise company that comes this far north on the Irrawaddy, and they are helping the elephant camp workers transition to making the camp a tourist destination. Since Avalon has been visiting the camp since October, they have worked to make it more "user-friendly" for its guests--adding a platform for boarding the elephants, a happy house (toilet), a covered pavilion for snacks, and a pattern for the camp to use to make "saddles" for the elephants. 

    The crew had brought along a whole bunch of bananas, and we were warned that the babies would come running when they saw our group. As seen in this photo, one immediately approached me. Luckily I had a banana! We all loved feeding the six baby elephants. These greedy little ones could gobble one down in one bite--skin and all!


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    Riding an Asian Elephant in Myanmar

    Riding an Asian elephant in Katha, Myanmar
    Katha, Myanmar (c) Linda Garrison

    We all loved riding the elephants (one of the handlers rode with us). Most of the "saddles" carried two people, but Claire and I rode in the original design, which fit one. (We took turns.) That enabled us to get photos of each other. The ride only lasted about 15 minutes and mounting and dismounting was a challenge, even with the tower.

    Riding the elephants was fun, but feeding the babies was the best part of the day.

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    Elephants Taking a Bath

    Elephants taking a bath near Katha, Myanmar
    Katha, Myanmar (c) Linda Garrison

    After hauling us around the camp, the elephants were rewarded with a bath. Some of the babies loved the water, a couple of them did not. 

    We had a snack before leaving to go back to the Avalon Myanmar. Although it was only 11 am, most of us had a cold beer to celebrate riding on a elephant for the first time.

    Back on the ship for lunch as we continued to sail upriver. Dorothy gave a presentation on the use of herbs as medicines in Myanmar. We had seen herbal "pharmacies" in the city and larger towns.

    Dinner was followed by another good movie sat in Burma in 1988 during the 8888 uprising. It was called "Beyond Rangoon" and starred Patricia Arquette. Great movie set during the most tumultuous time to live in Burma. Very moving to all of us who were sitting "beyond Rangoon" ourselves.

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    Burmese Homes on Kyun Daw Island

    Burmese homes on the island of Kyun Daw, Myanmar
    Kyun Daw, Myanmar (c) Linda Garrison

    The Avalon Myanmar tied up to the bank "in the middle of nowhere" (as usual) late in the afternoon when we stopped for the night, but we could see lights on an island a few hundred yards away during the night. This was Kyun Daw island, and we visited there the next morning for a couple of hours. This was our only "wet" landing, and we rode in a sampan within a few feet of the shore, but had to wade a little bit to reach the long, wide, sandy beach.

    This was another interesting, fairly well off fishing village. The two homes in the photo are occupied by a multi-generational family.

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    Woodworking Artists at Kyun Daw, Myanmar

    Woodworking artists at Kyun Daw, Myanmar
    Kyun Daw, Myanmar (c) Linda Garrison

    We watched two teak wood carvers at work, amazed at their skill and ability to do this tedious, back-breaking work. We also kind of giggled at about 50-100 empty sweetened condensed milk cans, each covering the top of a long line of fence posts. Dorothy said these empty cans were used to scoop rice and people put them there for neighbors to take as needed. The Burmese love sweetened condensed milk in their coffee and tea. We were glad to know they were also into recycling.

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    Basket Weaving on Kyun Daw

    Basket weaving matriarch at Kyun Daw, Myanmar
    Kyun Daw, Myanmar (c) Linda Garrison

    Wood carving is not the only skill practiced on Kyun Daw. This woman wove beautiful baskets. 

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    Burmese Buddhist Nun at Kyun Daw

    Burmese Buddhist nun in Kyun Daw, Myanmar
    Kyun Daw, Myanmar (c) Linda Garrison

    We had a short visit to our first Buddhist nunnery. Like the monks, the nuns shave their heads (and keep them shaved), giving up their vanity and focus on themselves. They wear pink robes rather than burgundy ones. The nuns also can cook their own food, but spend much of their time in meditation. The crew had bought some "offerings" for the nuns (several boxes of toothpaste and other prepackaged items), and Mark and Dorothy presented it to one of the nuns for meeting with us and showing us their home.


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    Buddhist Temples on Island of Kyun Daw, Myanmar

    Buddhist temples on island of Kyun Daw, Myanmar
    Kyun Daw, Myanmar (c) Linda Garrison

    Leaving the nunnery, we walked by many of the thousands of stupa (mostly small ones) on the island. They are made of brick and many are practically in ruins. They residents are slowly repairing them, but, as seen in the next photo, it will take a while.

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    Hiking through the Old Stupa on Kyun Daw

    Walking among the old stupas at Kyun Daw, Myanmar
    Kyun Daw, Myanmar (c) Linda Garrison

    The walk through the old stupas was much like walking through an old cemetery--a little spooky.

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    Old Stupas on the Burmese Island of Kyun Daw

    Old stupas on the Burmese island of Kyun Daw
    Kyun Daw, Myanmar (c) Linda Garrison

     The residents of Kyun Daw have a lot of work ahead of them to restore these old stupa. 

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    Southern Entrance to the Second Defile of the Irrawaddy River

    Southern Entrance to the Second Defile of the Irrawaddy River
    Irrawaddy River in Myanmar (c) Linda Garrison

    Back on the Avalon Myanmar, we had lunch and then sailed through the most dramatic part of the Irrawaddy River--the Second Defile (gorge). Much of this narrow section of the river is lined with towering cliffs.

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    Second Defile of the Irrawaddy River

    Second Defile of the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar
    Irrawaddy River in Myanmar (c) Linda Garrison

    The spectacular cliffs of the Second Defile of the Irrawaddy River certainly looks much different than the flat sandbars surrounding the river when we first boarded the Avalon Myanmar river ship in Bagan.

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    Parrot Head Rock on the Irrawaddy River

    Parrot Head Rock on the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar
    Irrawaddy River in Myanmar (c) Linda Garrison

    Some ingenious boatsman painted this rock in the Second Defile of the Irrawaddy like a parrot head. Good resemblance, isn't it?

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    Riding in a Trishaw in Bhamo

    Riding in a trishaw in Bhamo, Myanmar
    Bhamo, Myanmar (c) Linda Garrison

    We packed after dinner our last night on the Avalon Myanmar and put our bags outside the cabin by 9:30 am the next morning. All 30 of the crew had bid us a big farewell with a toast on that last night before dinner--"chaag wa" is the standard toast, which means "let's do it".

    Before breakfast, we had our third sighting of the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin (only 70 remain in the 1000+-mile long river, most in the north where the water is cleaner). Marvelous ending to our cruise, although we never got a good look at their distinctive heads, which are like a beluga whale, but smaller and not white.

    At 10 am, we left the Avalon Myanmar for the ride on the covered, but open-air sampan. We almost got stuck a couple of times and certainly scraped the sandy bottom. The 22 of us had our luggage and all our belongings in the 40 person (or more) sampan. Of course, a few of the crew came along to help, along with Dorothy and Marc. The rest of the crew stayed behind to get the boat ready for the 30+ new guests arriving on the charter plane we would be leaving on. 

    About 45 minutes later, we arrived in Bhamo, a "frontier" town of about 100,000 residents. It's less than 100 miles from the Chinese border, and many minority ethnic groups and Chinese live in the Bhamo area. Since the river is low, we had to walk up about 50 steps to board 6-person (plus a driver), three-wheeled motorcycles called a tri-shaw.

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    Bhamo Museum

    Bhamo Museum in Myanmar
    Bhamo, Myanmar (c) Linda Garrison

    We rode through the town while our luggage was transferred in separate trucks to the airport. We had two stops--the first at a large Christian church where one of Dorothy's brothers is a minister. We were all surprised to learn that most of the residents of Bhamo were Christians. He looked much like his sister, and their large family comes from one of the minority ethnic groups that looks more Mongolian than Burmese. 

    Our second stop was at a small museum that had paintings of some of the seven minority groups in Myanmar and some of their old spiritual relics. It was a small museum, but we found the paintings interesting.

    All too soon, it was time to head to the Bhamo airport.

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    Bhamo Airport

    Bhamo, Myanmar Airport
    Bhamo, Myanmar (c) Linda Garrison

    Soon it was time to go to the Bhamo airport. Since it doesn't have any regular flights to Yangon, Avalon Waterways charters a 50-passenger prop plane for its groups, bringing in new guests for the southbound cruise back to Bagan, while the northbounders use the plane to fly south. We had no security at the airport except for one sleepy security guard we walked past. The plane was about an hour late, so we read our books and chatted with everyone. Thankfully, it wasn't hot, and we had been told to eat a big breakfast.

    Kind of weird to see the "new" guests for the river ship coming down the steps of the plane. They were in for a treat, and would know it was going to be an adventure as soon as they boarded the tri-shaws for the ride through Bhamo back to the sampan that would take them to the Avalon Myanmar.

    We bade goodbye to Marc and the staff who had come along, and gave a wave and a thumbs up to those disembarking the charter plane. When the last person came down the steps, the flight crew waved us over to board. Very easy.

    We had open seating and most of us took 2 seats--window and aisle. The flight was lovely and we could see the river for a while and then the delta area and lots of rice fields right before we landed.

    Easy disembarkation and out of the airport in about 10 minutes for the bus ride back to the Sule Shangrila Hotel for the night.

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    The Future of Myanmar - The Burmese Children

    Burmese children on Kyauk Myaung, Myanmar
    Kyauk Myaung, Myanmar (c) Linda Garrison

    Our last day in Yangon was a relaxing one. We went for a walk, marveling at how less strange everything seemed than it had 14 days before. We now understood what all the street vendors were selling, and greeted them with "mingalabar" and a smile. We also understood why there were so many textbook-like materials for sale and easily recognized the betel-nut and lottery ticket sellers.

    Amazing how much you can learn about an unknown part of the world in just two weeks. These people deserve better than what they've had for the past 50 years, and the 22 off us who shared this memorable voyage on the Avalon Myanmar will now be following the Myanmar news much closer. I'd love to return in a few years to see how the country has changed. 

    Myanmar is rightfully receiving a lot of attention as a "must see" destination. I can't think of a better way to see much of the country than on an Irrawaddy River cruise with Avalon Waterways.