Two Back-to-Back Voyage Reports. Two Writers. One Country.
This month, River Cruise Advisor’s Aaron Saunders and contributing writer Gail Jessen are bound for Myanmar, on two separate voyages with Viking River Cruises. The goal: to offer two unique portrayals of a single country from the same route and ship, the intimate 56-guest Viking Mandalay. Myanmar, also known as Burma, is one of river cruising’s newest destinations in Southeast Asia. It has been shrouded in mystery for decades, but River Cruise Advisor founder Ralph Grizzle travelled there in the 1980’s.
Ralph, Aaron and Gail all provide their insight into what this destination means to them.
The year was 1985. The city, Pagan. My dusty backpack was propped against a chair in a restaurant that had attracted me for two reasons: The sign outside that read “Please be kind to animals by not eating them” and the fact that it was the only restaurant open at that hour.
Not that it was late at all, but Pagan was a sleepy backwater town back then. There were four other backpackers in the restaurant. Tourists would not begin coming to Pagan in significant numbers until the 1990s. Three decades ago when I was there, Pagan was the domain of travelers with dusty backpacks and a few hundred kyat in their pockets.
The restaurant’s proprietor asked if I had any English-language paperbacks with me. She had been married to an Englishman and spoke English well. “I have a difficult time finding English books,” she said with a smile. I told her I would leave whatever books I had with me. That was a time when travelers carried paperback books and journals, no mobile phones or computers. With no social media to distract us, we actually sat and talked with one another, and wrote long letters home.
Hours before I found the restaurant, I had sat on top of a temple, looking out on a landscape dotted with thousands of other temples. Between the 11th and 13th centuries the plains of Pagan saw the construction of more than 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries. Sitting beside me watching the sun set, a Burmese Brahmin waved his hand over the landscape and said, “These temples were built not by the hands of the Burmese people but by their hearts.”
Burma (or Myanmar as it is now known) is a mystical place. I look forward to what two travelers discover on their separate voyages that they will be writing about for River Cruise Advisor.
In 2013, I took my first exotic river cruise, a weeklong journey down the Mekong from Siem Reap, Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The experience was unlike anything I had ever known in my life. In Myanmar and Vietnam, I discovered two countries with rich histories that are just frankly not all that known to most North Americans. I saw towns with apparent poverty alongside locals who carried better cellphones than I had. I saw Buddhist temples and hallowed grounds. I ate strange foods and tasted stranger drinks, like the local Vietnamese alcoholic drink fermented in a vat with a gigantic cobra.
And yet, it wasn’t an easy destination to travel to; more like a graduated experience. I perspired like a marathoner even when I was standing still. The astonishing humidity drove me crazy as my Canadian skin, permanently set to resist our harsh winters, came to grips with a very tropical climate. And yet I loved every second of it.
Myanmar has been high up on my list of places to visit, and it made sense for me to visit this mysterious country with Viking. I’m a huge fan of their European river cruise product, but of course, that’s far from their only offering. While people often talk about Viking and their European river cruises, fairly little attention is paid to the line’s stellar lineup of itineraries in China, Vietnam, Cambodia and, of course, Myanmar.
Although Viking began offering Myanmar voyages earlier this year, the itinerary I am sailing was just recently redone. This new Myanmar Explorer voyage offers a 15-day journey that conveniently departs roundtrip from Bangkok, and I am as interested in the hotels, flights, and day-to-day operational logistics of running this particular itinerary as I am in the ship and the journey itself.
This is all new for me, and I can’t wait to see what Viking has to offer in Myanmar.
When I met Ralph on the Viking Odin, sailing the Danube river in December 2012, my entire life shifted in ways I couldn’t have imagined. We had lunch together and talked about travel, creativity, everything that makes us come alive. I told him I wanted to eventually travel full-time, write, make beautiful photographs, and let my gypsy soul out to play. We stayed in touch and by July 2015 I said goodbye to my career of 15-years. You see, I know I’m my true self when I’m in motion. I also know many travelers reading this post can relate deeply. I sold everything I owned, rented my condo, and moved into my 46L backpack. I booked a one-way ticket to Bali, having never been to SE Asia, and my travel plans are now indefinite. It’s worth noting that I’m traveling solo, as a woman in her mid-thirties, with a chronic autoimmune disease called Hashimoto’s. Something only true wanderers can understand is that every inch of those realities drive me toward more and more authentic adventures. So what does an intrepid itinerary like Myanmar hold for me?
I’ve covered live voyages for Avid Cruiser along Alaska’s Inside Passage on Princess Cruises and around the Mediterranean on Holland America Line; but something tells me Myanmar will change the game. I’m glad you’re joining me on this exploration of the culture, land, and peoples of Myanmar.
Our Voyage Reports from Viking Mandalay and Myanmar will appear here this month after our respective voyages, due to an ambitious touring schedule and potential internet connectivity issues. Keep checking back here for the latest content! Gail’s tour begins November 6 in Bangkok, while Aaron’s journey kicks off in Bangkok on November 19, 2015.
Have any questions about Myanmar or Viking Mandalay? Let us know by using the comment form below!