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Later this year, AmaWaterways will debut the AmaPura, a 56-passenger all-suite ship specifically designed to sail the Irrawaddy River between Mandalay and Yangon in Myanmar.
When AmaWaterways founders Rudi Schreiner and Kristin Karst visited Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), they were surprised by their experience in the country. They urge travelers to visit soon, while they can still experience the traditional culture.
“Before World War II, there was a flotilla of 600 ships traveling the Irrawaddy,” Schreiner said. “It was like the Nile — a key river for tourism. When the Japanese invaded, the Burmese people destroyed the fleet to stop the Japanese from using it, then the military took over.”
Fast forward to November 2011 at the World Travel Mart in London, where Schreiner learned that Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who had spent 15 years under repeated house arrests in Myanmar, was likely to became a member of Parliament and a force to open the country to the outside world.
The 2012 elections in Myanmar that put Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party in the majority launched a tourism boom. In order to accommodate visitors, a rash of hotel building and palace conversions began, but the country did not have sufficient infrastructure to support the influx. River cruise lines stepped in during the interim as the perfect way to see the country and still enjoy the comforts North American travelers expect.
When Schreiner visited Myanmar. he found the peaceful, spiritual country he expected. But he also experienced a hustling, bustling country of 66 million people, seven or eight domestic airlines and 13 or 14 airports. He found that trade was booming in urban Myanmar, with its own distinctive look and flavor.
Schreiner and Karst both describe Myanmar as a country in transition between the past and the future.
“There is a high population of Buddhist monks as every man is a monk for several weeks, sometimes more than once in his life,” Schreiner said. “They go out at five in the morning from street to street and are fed by people. You sometimes see three or four hundred monks in a row. Everyone supports them. They eat only morning and noon; it’s an ascetic life.”
In Yangon, the country’s largest city, “You’re surrounded by pale yellow faces,” Schreiner said. “It’s sunscreen paste. People put nice designs on their faces and their children’s.”
The Golden Shwedagon Pagoda
On the same trip, Schreiner and Karst also visited the Taj Mahal in India. To their surprise, they found themselves even more impressed by the golden Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar.
“The Taj Mahal was filled with people, but with the pagoda it is the outside that matters so you are not confined, and there are amazing statues of the Buddha, animals and men kneeling,” Schreiner said. “The pagoda is over 300 feet tall, covered in gold leaf, and right in the center of Yangon. It’s supposed to have been built in Buddha’s time, 2,500 years ago.”
The pagoda complex is a center of meditation and by all accounts it is dazzling, including the top of the stupa set with diamonds and rubies. “There’s an incredible spiritual feeling there, with people buying gold leaves, incense and flowers to offer,” commented Karst.
Karst also described the Bagan Archeological Zone in Mandalay, the last royal capital of the country, as a mystical place with the remains of more than 2,000 temples and pagodas, comparable in its extent and power to Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
“Now is the time to go, before it becomes spoiled or commercialized,” Karst said. “You are pretty much alone with the locals.”
Schreiner said the company built its new ship for Myanmar, the AmaPura, to feature a traditional ambience along with all the comforts and luxuries North Americans want in a cruise.
“We have a good working interior design, and there are talented people creating the ship,” Schreiner said. “We had to design a very light draft that could sail in one meter of water since the level fluctuates on the Irrawaddy. What you want is a big surface with little weight, so we built a limited number of cabins, all around 300-400 square feet.”
The three-deck, 56-passenger AmaPura debuts later this year as an all-suite ship. Each suite will have a French balcony, a full step-out balcony or Ama’s signature twin balcony design with both features.
The 14-night Myanmar itinerary will sail between Mandalay and Yangon visiting sacred sites, small villages, craftsmen’s workshops, markets and Buddhist monasteries. A full-day tour of Bagan is included.