The Irrawaddy: Cruising Back in Time in Myanmar

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Trip on Scenic Aura offers glimpse into Kipling’s 19th-century Burma

The Arizona Republic — April 7, 2019

MANDALAY, Myanmar – Rudyard Kipling brought worldwide attention to Myanmar – then part of colonial British India — in a famed 1890 poem called “Mandalay.”  Kipling extolled the beauty of this mysterious, off-the-beaten path land and its people.

Scenic Aura

Burmese women living along the Irrawaddy wash their clothes in the river near the 44-passenger Scenic Aura

The poem was further engrained in Western pop culture when it was adapted into a song – “The Road to Mandalay” — recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1958.

Much of this country of 53 million people in Southeast Asia has changed little since Kipling first laid eyes on the place he immortalized 130 years ago.  Once you leave the major cities, rural Myanmar – also known as Burma – is like taking a step back into Kipling’s 19th-century poem.

Farmers still work the rice paddies by hand, many villages don’t have electricity, horses and oxen transport people on unpaved roads past banana trees, women wash their clothes in the river, and the Burmese people cover their faces with a distinctive makeup called thanaka – made from ground bark – a tradition that dates back more than 2,000 years.

I recently had a chance to explore rural Myanmar, with all the creature-comforts of home, on a 10-day cruise down the Irrawaddy River from Mandalay – the country’s second-largest city — to Pyay on the Scenic Aura, a luxurious 44-passenger boat that’s been sailing the Irrawaddy since 2016.

At that time, democratic reforms initiated by a military government opened the door to a flood of tourists to a country that had essentially been closed to the rest of the world for six decades.

Hsinbyume Pagoda

The stunning, all-white Hsinbyume Pagoda in Mingun, Myanmar, built in 1816

Visitors started pouring into Myanmar for a chance to see a region of Southeast Asia that offered thousands of spectacular and unspoiled Buddhist pagodas and temples, and an authentic look into monastic life, which so permeates this deeply spiritual country.

And when the tourists came, so did the cruise lines.  In 2016, there were some 10 international lines offering sailings on the Irrawaddy, which flows north to south through the heart of Myanmar from its source high in the Himalayas down to the Indian Ocean.  The cruises were running at close to full capacity.

But Myanmar’s tourist boom didn’t last long.  Civil unrest involving a Muslim-minority group, the Rohingya, erupted in an isolated region of the country called Rakhine.  More than 500,000 Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh.  Words like “ethnic cleansing” and even “genocide” have been used to describe alleged atrocities committed by Myanmar’s military.

In short, Myanmar has become a political pariah and many tourists are spooked.

Most of the leading cruise lines, including Viking and Avalon, have recently pulled out of the country.  Now, Scenic is one of just three major cruise lines that still remains on the Irrawaddy and capacity on its 19 sailings this year is hovering at only around 60 percent.  (Due to water levels on the river and the climate, the sailing season in Myanmar only lasts from August-April).


Horse carts take visitors past some of the ancient temples in Bagan, Myanmar

Still, the Australian-based cruise line with a growing presence in the U.S. market remains committed to Myanmar.

“It’s a very tricky situation to address,” says Phil Jordan, general manager of Scenic Asia.  “You can’t turn a blind eye to anything that’s happening in any country.  But by not traveling here, we’re not helping anyone.  We have a commitment to our staff here and we want to continue.”

Tourists are not allowed anywhere near the conflict zone – located in the far western part of the country — and I found Myanmar to be extremely safe.  The U.S. State Department recently issued a level 2 travel advisory for Myanmar – “exercise increased caution.”  But there are numerous other countries that fall into the same category, including Denmark, France and the United Kingdom.

Regarding the ethical issues about visiting a country whose government has been accused of committing atrocities against civilians, that’s a decision every traveler must make on their own.  As for the Burmese people, I found them to be some of the most welcoming you’ll encounter in Asia – always quick to greet visitors with a wave and a smile.  Street crime is virtually non-existent.


Burmese children living in a village on the Irrawaddy River cover their faces with a distinctive makeup called thanaka, made from ground tree bark

All told, we sailed 334 miles south on the Irrawaddy between Mandalay and Pyay, with a brief 6-mile trek north of Mandalay to Mingun, where we visited the stunning all-white, early 19th-century Hsinbyume Pagoda.

In Sagaing, we spent the morning at a monastic-supported school and donated funds provided by Scenic to the principal.  Afterward, we walked to a nunnery where we had the honor to donate lunch to 72 nuns, placing tea, cookies and fruit in their bags while they marched in a procession and chanted prayers.  Some of the Aura’s passengers arose at 4:30 a.m. to give alms to the local monks.

With so many impoverished villages on the route, Scenic is making a concerted effort to improve conditions in the places it visits.  Aside from donating money and supplies to numerous schools and monasteries, the cruise line built a sanitation block in a village we visited called Yandabo, famous for its handmade pottery.

“When we visit these areas, we would like to give back to the community,” says Yi Mon, one of two Burmese guides on the Aura.  “What do they need?  So we donate.”

Myanmar sunset

Sunset on Lake Taungthaman near Amarapura, Myanmar

Perhaps the highlight of the trip was a two-day stop in Bagan, one of the most remarkable archaeological sites in the world that few people have heard of.  Bagan features more than 2,200 Buddhist shrines in a 26-square-mile area, some dating back 1,000 years.

While Angkor Wat in nearby Cambodia gets far more visitors, Bagan is just as spectacular.  It offers the largest and densest concentration of Buddhist temples, pagodas and ruins in the world.  The sprawling site is best seen by hot-air balloon or while riding in a horse cart.

Cruising the Irrawaddy is an ideal way to experience the hidden treasures of Myanmar, as the tourism infrastructure is substandard in most parts of the country. Electricity outages are common and hygiene at many restaurants is not up to Western standards.

“I think it’s still got that Asia of yesteryear feel,” says Jordan.  “And that’s something that’s going to be harder and harder to find as time goes forward.  You go down the river and easily feel like you’ve stepped back in time.  It truly is a shame that so many other operators are leaving Myanmar, but I also believe it will recover, and quite swiftly.”

                                                                                             © 2019 Dan Fellner

Important links:
Scenic Cruises
U.S. State Department page on Myanmar

See video shot by the author of a traditional Burmese dance performed by a dance troupe from Mandalay, Myanmar on the top deck of the Scenic Aura on the Irrawaddy River.

Myanmar: Southeast Asia’s Undiscovered Treasure

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Cruising an ideal way to visit this emerging democracy

The Arizona Republic — May 22, 2016

YANGON, Myanmar – Democracy is slowly coming to this little-known country in Southeast Asia of more than 50 million people, and with it, so are the tourists.

Shwedagon Pagoda

Yangon’s famed Shwedagon Pagoda

Isolated from the rest of the world for a half-century under a repressive military junta, Myanmar is now letting visitors explore its wondrous Buddhist pagodas, ancient archaeological sites and stately British colonial architecture.

I recently spent three days in Yangon, the largest city in this country formerly known as Burma.  The visit to Myanmar was the highlight of an 18-day cruise called “Imperial Treasures” on the Oceania Nautica that started in Hong Kong and ended in Mumbai, with other stops in Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore and Cochin, India.  All told, we sailed more than 5,000 miles.

For me, the most coveted treasure on this exotic itinerary was the port call in Yangon.  Within five minutes of boarding a tour bus taking the ship’s passengers on a one-hour drive from the pier to downtown Yangon, the sense of excitement among the locals was palpable.

“The whole country is very happy,” our guide Khin said when discussing the country’s first democratically elected parliament, which assumed power in February.  The National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate and national hero Aung San Suu Kyi, won a landslide victory and now controls the parliament.  However, the military hasn’t completely relinquished its grip on power and Myanmar still faces a long road to full democracy.

Aung San Suu Kyi portrait

A street portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi in downtown Yangon

The new political era has led to a dramatic jump in tourism.  According to government statistics, the number of international visitors has nearly quadrupled in the last five years to more than 3 million travelers in 2014.  Projections are that foreign arrivals will reach 7.5 million by 2020.

In that sense, Myanmar evokes comparisons to Cuba.  If you want to visit before the country becomes overrun with tourists and loses some of its character, now is the time to go.

Yangon, called Rangoon under British rule, is a congested city of more than 5 million people who seem welcoming to the relatively new influx of visitors – and the foreign currency they are bringing to this impoverished nation.

The city’s must-see attraction is the spectacular 2,500 year-old Shwedagon Pagoda, a monument to Buddhism that was built on a hilltop in the center of Yangon.  Its glorious stupas, shrines and sculptures sprawl over 12 acres.  The pagoda’s glistening center dome is covered with thousands of priceless gold plates and other precious gems.

According to Buddhist tradition, visitors are asked to remove their shoes and socks before entering the Shwedagon complex.  In the mid-afternoon, when temperatures soar past 100, strolling barefoot on the hot pavement makes exploring uncomfortable, so it’s best to go early or late in the day.

Karaweik Royal Barge

The Karaweik Royal Barge on a Yangon lake

From Shwedagon, it’s a 15-minute walk to the surrealistic Karaweik Royal Barge, a floating palace on the eastern edge of Royal Kandawgyi Lake.  Built in the shape of the mythical karaweik bird, the barge is a stunning example of traditional Myanmar architecture.  It is used as a restaurant and also hosts cultural performances.

The Nautica’s passengers were treated to a performance of one of Myanmar’s most famous folklore groups, when the Ta Khaing Lone Shwe Dance Troupe was brought onboard for an evening show in the ship’s theater.  The performers wowed us with their grace, beautiful costumes, unusual musical instruments and intricate dance moves (to see a video clip I shot onboard the Nautica, click on this link: Myanmar folklore show.)

Interested in the country’s political landscape, I visited the home of the 70-year-old Suu Kyi, where she still lives and once spent 15 years under house arrest for her opposition to the government.  Even though the inside of the home is closed to visitors, it is viewed by many Myanmar people as a shrine.  A large portrait outside the complex honors Suu Kyi’s father, who was the driving force behind the country’s independence from the United Kingdom in 1948.

Novice Buddhist monk

A novice Buddhist monk at a Yangon monastery

Nearby, I also visited the headquarters of the National League for Democracy, which sells Aung San Suu Kyi merchandise such as posters, calendars and books to raise money for the pro-democracy movement. For $2 (U.S. dollars are widely accepted in Yangon), I bought an NLD hat.

About 90 percent of the country’s population practice Buddhism. Oceania arranged to take us to an authentic “noviciation” ceremony, in which three six-year-old boys were inducted as novice Buddhist monks at a Yangon monastery.  After having their heads shaved, the boys donned their purple robes for the first time.  Most males in Myanmar serve as monks for at least part of their lives.

Oceania, an upscale Florida-based cruise line with a fleet of six midsize ships known for high-end cuisine and off-the-beaten-path destinations, has been calling on Myanmar since 2011.  Two Oceania ships – the 684-passenger Nautica and her sister ship, the Insignia, make two-or-three day stops in Yangon several times a year.  The Yangon River is only navigable by midsize and smaller vessels, which precludes the mega-ships from reaching the city.

Oceania Nautica

The Oceania Nautica docked in Phuket, Thailand

Our sailing was nearly full with 652 passengers, about 80 percent of whom were Americans and Canadians.

Having been closed off from the rest of the world for so long, the tourism infrastructure in Myanmar is still lacking.  English isn’t widely spoken, roads are in poor condition and sanitary conditions are sometimes less than ideal.

All this makes cruising an ideal way to explore Yangon, particularly for less-experienced travelers.

At the end of a full day of experiencing Yangon’s hectic pace, backwater charm, emerging democracy and relatively uncrowded sites, nothing beats returning to an air-conditioned ship, a delightful meal with a glass of good wine and a clean bathroom.

© 2016 Dan Fellner

Myanmar’s Miraculous Musmeah Yeshua

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The historic and beautifully maintained synagogue in Yangon survives thanks to one family

Jewish News of Greater Phoenix — May 13, 2016

YANGON, Myanmar — At first glance, there is nothing extraordinary about the two-story synagogue nestled between paint and fabric shops on 26th Street in bustling downtown Yangon.  It’s certainly not the oldest, largest or most architecturally ornate synagogue you’ll see overseas.

Yangon synagogue

Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, Myanmar’s only Jewish house of worship

Yet in its own way, Musmeah Yeshua is one of the most remarkable Jewish houses of worship in the world.  The fact that is still survives – and functions – is a testament to a determined Jewish-Burmese family that has almost single-handedly sustained Judaism in a country in which a once-thriving Jewish population has dwindled to only about 20 people.

During a recent trip to Myanmar, a country in Southeast Asia formerly known as Burma, I visited Musmeah Yeshua and met with Sammy Samuels, the leader and voice of the country’s tiny Jewish community.  My three-day trip to Yangon was the highlight of an 18-day Asian cruise on the luxurious Oceania Nautica that began in Hong Kong, with stops in Myanmar, Vietnam, Singapore and Thailand, before ending in Mumbai, India.

The Samuels family has been the caretakers of the synagogue for generations.  Even though there aren’t enough Jews living in the country to sustain a synagogue, the family felt it was important to preserve the spirit of the Jewish community and give foreigners a place to pray.

“It started with my great-grandfather,” says Samuels.  “He had a strong attachment to the synagogue.  He also was the head of the community at that time, so if he had left, the synagogue would have been closed.  Before he passed away, he made my father promise to keep the synagogue alive.  I made a similar promise to my father as well.”

It was a promise Sammy willingly kept when his father, Moses, died last year.  Sammy, 35, was honored to continue his father’s duties as overseer of the synagogue, which was built in 1896 for the increasing population of Iraqi and Indian Jews who immigrated to Yangon (then known as Rangoon) when it was a British colony.

Built in the Sephardic tradition with the bimah located in the center of the sanctuary and a women’s balcony upstairs, the interior has been beautifully maintained.

Myanmar's Sammy Samuels

Sammy Samuels, the leader of Myanmar’s tiny Jewish community

In the early 20th century, the Jewish community peaked at about 2,500 people.  Many Jews left the country during the Japanese occupation of Burma during World War II, and more followed after the Burmese army assumed power in 1962.  But the military government is now loosening its grip on power and democracy is coming to Myanmar.

“Last November, I voted for the very first time in my life,” says Samuels.  “It was very emotional.”

But Samuels warns that change will come slowly in a country in which the military has controlled virtually all walks of life for more than a half-century.

“A lot of people have high hopes,” he says.  “They hope the country will change tomorrow.  And I’ve been telling them it will take time.”

Samuels, who has a degree in international business from Yeshiva University in New York, owns a travel agency called Myanmar Shalom Travels that has 32 employees, with offices in New York and Yangon.  His company offers tours to Myanmar for both Jewish and non-Jewish tourists.

Musmeah Yeshua interior

The beautifully maintained interior of Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue

The synagogue is financially sustained from proceeds generated by the travel agency as well as donations from visitors.  Samuels says 40-50 tourists visit the synagogue each day, which is open 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. daily except Sundays.  Most of the visitors are non-Jewish.

“My father believed that if anyone was interested, they could come,” he says.  “We don’t ask whether you are Jewish, Muslim or Christian.  He welcomed everyone and treated them the same way.”

The synagogue doesn’t have a rabbi and it’s been more than 50 years since regular services were held.  Lay-led Shabbat services take place a couple of times a month during December and January, the high season for tourism in Myanmar.  A rabbi – usually from the United States — is brought in to conduct services during the High Holidays.  But if Samuels knows a group of Jewish visitors will be in town during the Sabbath, he makes sure they are aware they have a place to pray and enjoy the fellowship of other Jews.

“I see so many American visitors who come here to Yangon, and the highlight for them is lighting the Shabbat candles and drinking the Kiddush wine together with the community,” he says.  “They never thought they would do something like that in a country like Burma.”

Shwedagon Pagoda

Yangon’s famed Shwedagon Pagoda

Musmeah Yeshua is located just down the street from a mosque and many of the businesses on the block are owned by Moslems.  Samuels says the two groups have peacefully coexisted for decades.

“They are very nice people,” he says of his Moslem neighbors.  “The relationship has been wonderful.  We respect them and they respect us and we hope to continue that way.”

Yangon, a city of more than five-million people, is full of wondrous Buddhist temples – including the famed 2,500-year-old Shwedagon Pagoda — and stately British colonial buildings.

During my cruise on the Nautica, I also visited synagogues in Singapore and India.  But the one in Yangon made the most lasting impression.  Other tourists apparently agree that Musmeah Yeshua is worth visiting.  In 2013, the synagogue was voted the third-highest ranking attraction out of 41 sites in Yangon, according to TripAdvisor.

Samuels summed up Musmeah Yeshua’s importance to both foreigners as well as the local Jewish community:  “Who would think that in a country like Myanmar where there are so many Buddhist temples that a synagogue would exist?  So it’s a very unique place.

“We have all these visitors coming in and we have a connection.  Because of this, we have never felt alone.  It’s a feeling that we love.”

© 2016 Dan Fellner