February 16, 2016 Sea Day

Our clocks were turned forward yet another hour as we travel farther east. This morning location guide, David, gave some history and practical information for our stop in Singapore tomorrow. Guest speaker Brian Stoddart gave his final lecture on Singapore and wrapped up his last six weeks of lectures on the people of the world. We are looking forward to some new speakers in the next segment.

We had lunch in the dining room with Lorraine from England whom we have shared many meals and some shore excursions with. Lorraine is traveling alone and is a retired facial surgeon and is always a lot of fun.

The afternoon included Werner Salinger’s final lecture on globalization. Mark attended the watercolor class and Kent went to the gym and sauna. The evening’s entertainment was a show called Magic Rush, featuring Roman and Svetlana. They are world grand champion dancers who presented a show including dance and magic. We had seen them on a previous cruise.

February 15, 2016 Phuket, Thailand

Phuket Cashew Shop

Phuket Cashew Shop

Phuket - Wat Chalong Temple

Phuket – Wat Chalong Temple

Phuket - Cashew Fruit

Phuket – Cashew Fruit

The weather is increasing in heat and humidity and it was evident as soon as we stepped outside this morning. By 8:30am the air was warm and thick with humidity. It is summer in Thailand—until May, when the rainy season begins, and lasts until October. It is no wonder the vegetation here is lush and green.

Thailand is about twice the size of Wyoming and located on the Andaman Sea, southeast of Myanmar. Laos and Cambodia are on the east and Malaysia on the south. Established in the mid 14th century, the Unified Thai Kingdom, known as Siam until 1939 is the only southeast Asian country never to have been colonized by a European power. The population of 68 million enjoys a tropical climate and a strong economy. In addition to tourism, they export electronics, auto parts, processed foods, fish products, computers, jewelry, precious stones, iron and steel.

Phuket with a population of 600,000, is the largest of 33 islands in Thailand and is located on the west coast in the Andaman Sea. The island is 30 miles long and 13 miles wide with 60% of the island covered in rubber and palm oil plantations. It once derived its wealth from rubber and tin but today it relies heavily on tourism. In 2004 an Indian Ocean earthquake created a tsunami devastating many of the beaches and tourism suffered. Today things have recovered and tourism is booming once again.

We were on a tour titled “Panoramic Phuket” that took us on a panoramic bus tour to see some of the finest sights of Phuket including the beautiful beaches, villages, temples and mosques. Our first stop on the tour was to the island’s most famous temple, Wat Chalong, dedicated to two revered monks. The temple is known for its gold leaf covered statue of Luang Pho Chaem. At the beginning of the 20th century when Chinese invaders invaded Phuket for its valuable tin mines, Luang Pho cared for the injured at great personal risk. The temple is located on a very large parcel with several other very ornate and brightly colored temples. One temple houses a relic of Buddah.

We then drove along the west coast of the island to view the white sand beaches of Surin, Kamala, Patong and Karon. The beaches are busy with tourists who flock here from all over the world. The surrounding streets are filled with hotels, shops and restaurants that welcome the visitors to the island. After being in India, Sri Lanka and Myanmar we can’t help but notice how clean and well maintained the streets are. The only thing that reminds me of a poorer country is the huge number of telephone and electrical wires cluttering the streets.

We stop at a local cashew plantation showroom where they show us how they process the cashews and enjoy a small glass of cashew juice drink. The cashew nut grows outside of the cashew tree fruit and yet we never hear about the beautiful red fruit of the cashew. The fruit is slightly smaller than a pear and the nut or seed grows out of the bottom of the fruit. Our guide also tells us how most of the coconuts on the island are now picked by monkeys who are trained when they are just two years old to pick 700 to 1,000 coconuts per day. Because a monkey can jump from tree to tree the process is much quicker than what a human can do and one monkey can pick the fruit for about 10 years.

The English spoken by the locals is not as good here as in some parts of the world but our guide explains that English is only taught for one hour a day in the local schools.

We then headed to the old town of Phuket where we could admire the Sino-Portuguese style architecture. Most of the buildings are two or three stories with a store front on the ground floor and living quarters above.

We returned to the ship about 2:00pm where there was an outdoor market set up and you could buy clothing, handicrafts, jewelry and food items like fresh coconuts.

Phuket - Old Town

Phuket – Old Town

The evening’s entertainer was a man by the name of Phillip Browne who has starred in 9 West End shows in London. He sang a variety of songs by people like Nat King Cole, Paul Robeson, Elton John and Lionel Richie.

February 14, 2016 Sea Day

Happy Valentines Day! We continue to lose time on a regular basis as we move further east. Early this morning our clocks moved forward 30 minutes so that we would be inline with local time in Thailand. Local time is now 15 hours earlier than it is in San Diego. Our location guide David presented practical information for our next port of call in Phuket, Thailand tomorrow.

The afternoon included a lecture by Werner Salinger on Patagonia and Antarctica and how climate change is affecting these areas. An Indonesian afternoon tea was enjoyed in the dining room to celebrate with a friend, Michael, for his 70th birthday. We shared dinner with a very sweet gay couple from Germany (Thomas) and the Netherlands (Martin). They live on a dyke an hour north of Amsterdam and are now retired and fill their time with travel, gardening and looking after their rental property and homes in Germany and the Netherlands. After dinner we stopped by the showroom at sea to listen to the BB King’s All Stars Band as they performed songs at a sweetheart ball in honor of Valentines Day.

February 13, 2016 Thilawa (Rangoon), Myanmar

Thanlyin Village

Thanlyin Village

Thanlyin Market

Thanlyin Market

Thanlyin Village Monastery Dog

Thanlyin Village Monastery Dog

Thanlyin Village

Thanlyin Village

Thanlyin Village Pony Cart

Thanlyin Village Pony Cart

Our third day in Rangoon found us in a local village called Thanlyin with about 45,000 inhabitants and located about 30-minutes from the ship. This village was the base for the Portuguese adventurer and trader Philip de Brito during the 17th century. We visited the local market that is open daily and you can find most anything you would need for your daily life. Most locals do not have refrigeration so prefer to shop daily for food, as well as dine and socialize at the market. Small stalls were filled with every food item imaginable and many were unrecognizable to us. The locals shop for the best produce, eggs, meat, fish, oils, grains, flowers and more at the best price. Everything is negotiable. Women and children put a paste on their faces to protect them from the sun.

Our next stop was at the nearly 200 year old Bon Pyan Monastery where only five monks currently reside. The monastery is located in a 200 year old, three story wooden house in poor condition. On the grounds there are many stray dogs and cats that do not look in very good condition but they seem to exist all over town. One such dog was sprawled out on his back resting while a skinny little chicken hopped up on him and began pecking fleas off of the dog. The dog did not seem to mind so it must be a regular occurrence.

From the monastery we took a short walk around the village to check out the local homes and people. Many of the locals would come out of their homes to say hello and see who these strange looking people were, but everyone was very nice.

We then took a trishaw, a local mode of transportation used in the village to get from the market to home, etc. These trishaws typically will carry two of the small statured locals but we each had our own peddler to take us around the neighborhood. After our trishaw ride, we boarded a pony cart for a little ride around town. These pony carts are small wooded carts something like a covered wagon with two large wooden wheels being pulled by a small horse or pony. The carts are only large enough for two of us to ride on together. The locals seemed to get a laugh out of all these carts going down the streets with these visitors.

The afternoon was spent relaxing after a few long days of exploring Rangoon. We were happy to have had the chance to visit and see how the local people are living.

This evening we were invited by our friend Tom to join him in the Canaletto restaurant along with one of the onboard photographers named Max Hurn, whom we have become friendly with. Max is 22 years old from England and had lived some time on the Isle of Whyte. This is his first contract with the ship and he hopes to continue to travel for some time.

The entertainment was a repeat show by the Rotterdam singers and dancers called “A La Mode.”

February 12, 2016 Thilawa (Rangoon), Myanmar

WW II Cemetery

WW II Cemetery

Shwemawdaw Pagoda

Shwemawdaw Pagoda

Another busy day with a tour titled “Bago: The Ancient Mon Capital.” We headed out early to the city of Bago with a population of 200,000, located about a two-hour drive from the ship. Along the way we stopped at a huge World War II cemetery containing the graves of some 27,000 allied soldiers who died in the Burma and Assam campaigns. The cemetery is beautifully maintained with lush green grass, planted flowers between each headstone and several stone monuments.

Bago is located on the eastern bank of the Bago River in lower Myanmar and was founded in the year 825 by the Mons, who migrated from China. King Binya U established his palace in Bago in the 14th century, and it became the ancient capital city of the Mon Kingdom in the 15th century, when it was known as Pegu.

Our first stop was at the Kyakhatwaing Monastery, the largest monastery in Lower Myanmar and one of the three largest in the country. This is a teaching monastery where some 500 monks live and study Buddhism. Students can receive a diploma after three years of studying if they can pass a final exam. We learned that the monks rise early in the morning for breakfast and prayer before heading out in the community where locals give them food for the day. Lunch is served to the monks prior to noon at which time they are not allowed to eat any solid foods for the remainder of the day. They spend most of their days meditating and studying scriptures and living according to Buddhist law. These laws include not doing anything that would harm you or others, no alcohol, no inappropriate sex, etc.

A local Burmese lunch was enjoyed at a local restaurant including, pork, chicken, white rice, assorted vegetables, spring rolls and fresh fruits for dessert.

The 1,000-year-old Shwemawdaw Pagoda was out next stop. This is a famous pagoda throughout Myanmar because it is said that hair relics of Buddha are enshrined here. The pagoda is taller than the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon but it is not nearly as beautiful and the surrounding shrines are not as ornate or unique. The Pagoda is a stupa style, meaning that it is a solid mass and you are not able to go into the stupa like you would a temple. The structure is made of stone, brick and earth before being plastered over. Some are then whitewashed while others are covered in gold leaf or gold plated tiles. The gold leaf does not last longer than four or five years before it needs replacing. This particular temple is currently surrounded by scaffolding and is in the process of being refurbished.

We then went to the Hinthakone Pagoda, located on the highest point of the city. They were having some type of ceremony here where loud music was being played and a man dressed as a woman was dancing for the crowd. The pagoda itself was very simple and not so impressive after the places we had seen yesterday in Rangoon.

Next we drove to the Shwethalyaung Reclining Buddha. This Buddha is considered a masterpiece of perfection in symmetry, measuring 180-foot long, 52-foot high and resting on a five-foot tall plinth. This was a spectacular reclining Buddha; a bit subtler than some we have seen. Some are very feminine looking with very red lips and eye shadow, almost more like a woman than a man. From here we walked a short distance into a typical Mon village to view how the local people live. The homes are mostly simple wood structures, but you find the odd brick and stucco home with windows nestled among the rest every now and again. Still others are living in what we would not even consider a home. They are lucky to have enough bamboo, lumber or something to keep the rain out. Everyone bathes outside in the yard using a bowl to pour water over his or her head. We stopped at a local weaving shop to see weaving and a cigar rolling demonstration. When I say weaving shop I am referring to a space located under a simple wooden home that resembles a crawl space with a dirt floor. Here they have six weaving looms creating textiles to be made into local garments.

On the return trip to the ship we stopped at a 15th century Kyaikpun Pagoda that features four gigantic Buddha images sitting against a massive stone pillar. It was dark by the time we returned back to the ship and everyone was tired.

After a shower and dinner in the dining room we were treated to a local music and dance performance. The local group performed several traditional dances and then they presented a young woman who did a type of circus act using rings, balancing on a stack of glass bottles all the while bouncing a soccer-like ball on one foot. The finale of the show was a life size elephant made of brightly decorated fabric with fancy embroidery. Inside the elephant were two young men who manipulated the elephant to stand on his hind legs, dance and bow. It was very unique and entertaining.

February 11, 2016 Thilawa (Rangoon), Myanmar

Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon Pagoda

Reclining Buddha

Reclining Buddha

Thilawa is the port town where the ship was docked but is about 30 miles from the town of Rangoon. Depending on traffic conditions, similar to those in India, the ride can take you from 90-minutes to more than 2.5 hours. Our ship excursions move along the streets in a caravan, and are provided the resources of a police escort, to stop cross traffic along the way, and help to clear the roads.

Myanmar is located on the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. It borders India and Bangladesh on the north and west, China, Laos and Thailand on the east. King Anawrahta formed the country in the 11th-century, with Bagan as its capital. The empire collapsed with the invasion of the Mongols 200 years later. King Alaungpaya, on the location of the small town named Dagon, founded Yangon (later Anglicized to Rangoon) in 1755. The country was ruled by the British from 1852 until 1942 when the Japanese occupied the area until 1945. Allies retook the city in 1945 but this would be short lived. On January 4, 1948 the country regained independence from the British Commonwealth. General Ne Win, a military ruler and then a self appointed president, was an isolationist ruler of the country from 1962 until 1988. During this time the country was isolated from the outside world. In 1988 he resigned due to extreme civil unrest. During his rule the infrastructure deteriorated through poor management (corruption) and population growth. In 2011 president Thein Sein came into office and began political and economic reforms that lead to the opening of this long isolated country.

Myanmar is slightly smaller in size than Texas. Rangoon is the largest city with a population estimated at 5.5 million, 86% of which are Buddhist. Under British rule the city was laid out in a grid pattern and by 1900 beautiful colonial buildings and parks filled the city. It was said that the city was on par with London and was known as the garden city of the east. Unfortunately, in 2008 much of the city was heavily damaged by cyclone Nargis, which caused $800 million in damage. Today these old colonial buildings are being restored and many of the great parks and lakes remain.

Burmese is the primary language, with English being the preferred second language to the educated. The country’s main economies include agriculture, rice, sesame, peanuts, cotton, lima beans, chick peas, wood–like teak, copper, tin, tungsten, iron, cement, construction materials, pharmaceuticals, fertilizer, oil, natural gas, garments, jade, ruby, sapphire, emeralds and amethyst.

Throughout its history Myanmar has experienced waves of immigrants which traveled southward along the Ayeyarwady, Chindwin, Salween and Mekong rivers. These diverse ethnic groups came primarily from the Central Asian Plateau (modern day Tibet and China) and are reflected in the wide-ranging ethnic assortment found in Rangoon today. 86% of the local people are Buddhist, 5% Christian, 4% Muslim and there are 56 Jews today.

The local currency is the Myanmar kyat (MMK) pronounced like CHAT and the current exchange rate is approximately 1,265 kyat to the US dollar.

Our tour today was titled “The Best of Rangoon”. The drive into town was an adventure itself. Drivers rarely follow any rules of the road so motorcycles, trucks, cars, rickshaws, and people compete for a space on the roads. The men are mostly dressed in western style shirts with a skirt from the waist down to the floor called a Longyi. Many of the women wear a similar style skirt, although more colorful and possibly adorned with needlepoint. Some of the women also wear loose fitting pants with a loose fitting top. Everywhere you go someone is selling something along the roadside. You see watermelon stands, fruit stands, coffee shops, open air restaurants, pottery, clothing, food items, and so much more.

The first stop (photo stop) was at the Town Hall, built in 1905, across from the Sule Pagoda, at the center of town and a break to stretch your legs. At this stop is also the Queen Victoria garden with a large obelisk honoring the country’s independence. The city center is filled with many buildings remaining from the colonial period, although most of the buildings are in very poor condition and in need of repair and paint. Construction appears to be going on everywhere so they do seem to be improving parts of town. From here we proceeded to the 70-year-old Bogyoke Aung San Market, known as Scott’s Market, to stroll the more than 2,000 stalls. The market stalls are filled with masses of merchandise like jewelry, loose semi-precious stones, fabric, clothing, puppets, lacquer ware, woodcarvings, souvenirs and food stalls around the perimeter. Kent bargained for the perfect souvenir.

By now it was lunchtime and we were taken to a very beautiful hotel called the Shangri-la for a delicious international lunch. The buffet was enormous and included all sorts of local and international dishes from salads, meats, vegetables and desserts. There was something for everyone.

After lunch we went to the National Museum to gain a better insight into the history of Myanmar. The museum is six stories tall and includes items like the 26-foot tall Lion Throne of the last Burmese King. We had little time to explore the museum but our guide took us to see some of the most important items. I would have liked to have more time to explore the museum.

Our next stop was at the Shwedagon Pagoda or Golden Pagoda. Considered one of the wonders of the religious world, this spectacle is believed to be the earliest pagoda of the Gautama Buddha Era, built by King Okkalapa more than 2,500 years ago. Located on the top of Singuttara Hill, and visible from all over town, the gleaming golden stupa soars 326 feet tall. It is topped with more than 6,500 diamonds, rubies and other precious stones. In the tradition of the Buddhist faith, we walked clockwise around the stupa to admire not only the beauty of the golden stupa but the many shrines around it. At the base of the stupa there are hundreds of smaller shrines, some for each day of the week, where you can pray, light a candle, place some flowers, or pour water over the shrines. Some of the shrines are small, while others are large enough to walk into and nearly all of them have Buddha statues standing, sitting or reclining. It is really an incredible site with so much to see, although we did not have enough time to see everything. Maybe we’ll have more time next time.

Our next stop was at the Chauk Htat Gyi Reclining Buddha. This colossal 223-foot- long reclining Buddha statue originally built in 1901 is one of the largest in Myanmar. After being exposed to the elements for years, in 1925 the Buddha was re-built and a roof was built to protect it from the sun and the rain.

No shoes or socks are allowed inside Buddhist temples so we had to check them at the door before entering any of the Buddhist sites.

The entire tour was about nine hours in length. By the time we returned to the ship, we were ready for a shower and a bite to eat. The only entertainment was a movie in the main showroom titled “Victor Frankenstein”. We gave it a miss since we had a busy day planned tomorrow.

February 10, 2016 Sea Day

This day started out with breakfast in the dining room where they serve most anything you might want to eat. You can get coffee, juice, hot or cold cereal, eggs, bacon, toast, muffins, pastries, omelets, eggs benedict, and more. Sharing a table with other passengers is nice because you get to meet some interesting folks from all over the world, but the service always takes longer. In the Lido upstairs it is self serve so it is much quicker to eat if you are in a hurry. Others prefer to dine in the privacy of their own cabin and will order room service.

The shore excursion team presented tour options for several upcoming ports in Indonesia. We then attended a cake-decorating contest between some of the Rotterdam singers and dancers. Two boys competed against two girls to see who could decorate the best cake with the ingredients given. They had frosting with food coloring options, chocolate sprinkles, fresh fruits, powdered sugar and chopped nuts. The girls created a beautiful cake using fresh fruits while the boys used too many competing items and it was just a bit of a mess.

We watched an afternoon movie based on a true story titled “Beyond Rangoon” with Patricia Arquette and Frances McDormand about a woman who travels to Burma in the 1980’s after the murder of her son and husband. She loses her passport at a political rally and falls in with students fighting for democracy. She ends up traveling through Burma during civil unrest and witnesses many bloody acts of repression by the dictatorship. She finally escapes to Thailand after many harrowing experiences.

Before dinner, Mark walked on the promenade deck, while Kent headed to the gym and sauna. For dinner we shared a table with the Russian classical pianist who has been performing onboard.

The evening show was a variety show featuring Chuck Curry the trumpet player and Adam Westcott the flamenco guitarist.

February 9, 2016 Sea Day

This morning we attended a lecture by Brian Stoddart on a town on the east coast of India near where we are sailing that was previously called Madras and is now called Chennai. Brian was making the point that small villages with a port, natural resources or a tourist attraction can grow to be a metropolis. Every city has a history and this was just one example.

We dined in the main dining room for lunch, as Mark prefers to be served rather than having to select something from the buffet in the Lido dining room. Mark had a simple salad with a chicken breast, apples, walnuts, cranberries and a vinaigrette dressing. Kent had the ravioli with eggplant and a cream sauce. As the pants begin to tighten we continue to cut back on what we eat, but everything looks so good, it is hard to resist.

In the afternoon we walked before Werner Salinger presented a lecture on Brazil, the world’s 6th largest economy, which is currently in a recession. Kent attended the afternoon tea where cupcakes were the pastry of the day. Mark painted a lotus flower at the watercolor class.

We, along with Tom, were invited to dinner with our friends Kathy and Carol in the Canaletto restaurant where they serve Italian fare.

The evening’s entertainer was Rustem Hayroudinoff, the Russian concert pianist who performed for us a few nights earlier. Kent and Tom had quite a nice conversation with him at breakfast. He seems to be a very nice person, as well as a talented pianist.

February 8, 2016 Sea Day

This was a very quiet sea day with few items on the agenda to do. The morning included a presentation by David, the location guide on the upcoming port of Rangoon, Myanmar. The evening was a gala or formal dinner with a special Indian themed dress. They asked guests to wear any sari’s they may have purchased in India to dinner and had a pre-dinner fashion show in the crow’s nest to show them off. About 17 of the men in our group attended the show—only one wore a man’s Indian dress.

Alex and Dennis (from Berlin) and Tom (from London) joined us for dinner in the Dining Room. Kent continued to ask his “getting to know you” questions and all seemed willing to answer. Surf (lobster) and turf (filet mignon) was the most popular menu item.

After dinner, Portia Emare from England performed a variety of familiar tunes by artists like Whitney Houston, Barbara Streisand and Adele.

February 7, 2016 Hambantota, Sri Lanka

Hambantota - Mulkirigala Temple Rock

Hambantota – Mulkirigala Temple Rock

Hambantota - Reclining Buddha

Hambantota – Reclining Buddha

Hambantota - Cave Murals

Hambantota – Cave Murals

Hambantota - Mulkirigala Temple Caves

Hambantota – Mulkirigala Temple Caves

The weather was extremely warm and humid on this day. Sri Lanka has four different climate zones so it is possible to experience very different climates across Sri Lanka. The Hambantota area in located in an arid climate zone.

Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, is located to the south and east of the lower tip of India in the Indian Ocean. The island is 5 degrees north of the equator and has a population of 22 million inhabitants. Hambantota is located on the southern coast of Sri Lanka and was partially destroyed in 2004 by an Indian Ocean earthquake and a Tsunami that followed. After the earthquake and tsunami, they began to build a new port to accommodate the 36,000 ships and 4,500 oil tankers that use this route each year. The harbor opened in 2010– although they were not able to dredge the new harbor as deep as they had planned to, due to rock formations.

Hambantota has large salt flats along the coast that attract a large number of shore birds including pelicans and flamingos. The island has several national parks where wildlife–like tigers, elephants, water buffalo, leopards and elephants–can be seen.

Our destination was the Mulkirigala Temple, with its seven painted caves, located about 90 minutes from the port by bus. Our bus was older with poor air conditioning so the ride was not particularly pleasant. The temple is created out of a huge rock formation standing 676 feet tall, and dating back to 130 BC. The origin of the temple is unclear, but it is said that Buddhist monks who had achieved the state of supreme enlightenment, lit a lamp with mustard oil here so that it could last for 5,000 years, until the birth of the next Buddha. Within this rock formation there are seven large cave temples that have been painted with fine murals over the years. It is believed that the current fresco murals were painted in the 1700’s and depict the different stages of a Buddha’s life. Each cave tells a different story. In some of the paintings Portuguese and Dutch uniforms can be seen signifying the advent of the European colonization of Sri Lanka. Also found in the caves are various statues of Buddha, reclining, sitting and standing.

The caves are quite large in size and are every surface of the caves has been painted with very vibrant colors. Each of the caves has a reclining Buddha stretching the longest wall of the cave and made of clay and then painted in bright colors.

The climb to the top of the rock formation is about 550 stone steps with many of them uneven and different sizes, making the climb strenuous. The heat and humidity also added to the difficulty. We spent about two hours at the cave site before heading back to the ship via our old bus. Not long after we left the caves our bus decided that it was also hot and tired and wanted a rest. With no air conditioning working on the bus and a problem with the clutch, we stopped along a beautiful lake. The guide bought everyone fresh coconuts for the water from a roadside stand while we waited for a replacement bus. About 45 minutes passed before a beautiful new bus with great air conditioning arrived to return us to the ship. The guide was apologetic and most of the passengers understood, so all was good.

The countryside here is very beautiful with large bodies of water filled with lotus and water lilies. The fields are filled with lush green rice fields and the homes are fairly well maintained. The homes are mostly made of brick with clay tile roofs or thatched roofs made from coconut palm fronds. We came across some water buffalo roaming the streets; saw some small monkeys, large lizards and many varieties of birds.

We watched the movie titled “Steve Jobs” in the movie theater before dinner. After dinner we attended the Filipino crew show featuring about fifteen members of the crew. They did an excellent job of presenting their country’s folk dances as well as a couple of solo performances of current songs.