A cruise on Avalon Myanmar is as much about the itinerary as the boat itself, which was purpose built to sail the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar (Burma). Thankfully, the river ship is a beautiful and comfortable place to call home while visiting one of the world's most unspoiled destinations.
The three-deck ship accommodates 36 passengers and can "dock" in smaller ports that larger vessels can't reach. ("Dock" is a bit of a stretch. At night, the boat pulls up to shore and generally stays anchored by tying ropes around trees.) In fact, it's the only ship to regularly visit several ports on the northern Irrawaddy, including Bhamo, Kyun Daw, Tigyang, Kya Hnyat and Kyauk Myaung. All sailing is done during the day, as the Irrawaddy River is quite shallow, and sandbars shift often, making a nighttime journey in pitch-black somewhat treacherous.
Everything about the ship is a genuine attempt to connect passengers with the Burmese culture. Avalon Myanmar is loaded with teak wood: It's on the exterior, in the art, on the floors and in the furniture. Even the ceilings have teak wood inlays. But where culture and cruising really merge -- and shine -- is with the all-Burmese crew. Service onboard Avalon Myanmar is exceptional -- prompt, friendly and enthusiastic. Min ga la ba (guides tell you to think "mingle at bar"; makes it easy, right?) is Burmese for "hello." You'll say it 50 times a day on the boat, and it's impossible not to smile when the crew joyfully say it as you enter (or leave) any room. The crew's understanding of English isn't perfect, but they are eager to please and learn, and they are a great resource for passengers who have questions about various sights as the ship sails down the river.
All cruises include one local guide, who meets passengers in Yangon for the two-night hotel stay there pre-cruise (included in the cruise fare). That guide stays with passengers for the entire journey and serves as the port guide and onboard enrichment expert. The guides' knowledge of the regions and their ability to interact with villagers in a way that doesn't feel intrusive is a big reason the cruises feel so special. A cruise director, who speaks English as a first language, meets passengers when they first arrive at the embarkation port (either Bagan or Bhamo) and stays with them for the entire cruise. He gives nightly lectures, serves as emcee during enrichment and entertainment activities and generally is the knowledgeable voice over the loudspeaker as you sail the river. He also might join you for dinner or on excursions. Also included in all cruises are excursions, air transfers from Yangon to the starting port city and back, soft drinks, juice, tea, coffee, local spirits and local beer and water. Wine, imported beer, fresh-squeezed juices, specialty coffees, and cocktails not made with local spirits cost extra.
Avalon Myanmar's layout is simple, relying on floor-to-ceiling windows for lots of natural light that allows passengers to see activity on the river. The boat's two outdoor spaces feature more seating than passengers, meaning you can grab a padded lounge chair and snap photos or chill out with a Myanmar Beer without fear of chair hogs. What Avalon Myanmar doesn't have is an elevator, so passengers who have severe mobility issues or who rely on wheelchairs would have to travel with an assistant willing to help with movement. Likewise, most ports in Myanmar have no infrastructure to support people who have difficulty moving. Many ports are reached simply with a small metal ramp, and many require an uphill climb on sand or dirt surfaces just to reach the streets, which in the small villages are made of mud and rocks. Passengers who struggle with mobility might not be able to leave the ship for excursions.
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While it's easy to track dirt back onto the ship, the crew are continuously sweeping and mopping the floors, which keeps them surprisingly clean. Bugs, too, are a constant, and crew also clean rails and windows daily to remove insects and cobwebs. (Talk to your doctor ahead of your trip about vaccines and medications you might need. Mosquito-borne illnesses are possible, so medication to combat malaria might be necessary. Bring along insect repellant with DEET. Typhoid and hepatitis A vaccinations also might be necessary.) Avalon Myanmar doesn't sail from May to September, the region's rainy season. At that time, the ship is spiffed up: Necessary repairs and cosmetic touchups are made. It's also when the line spends time training staff to better understand how to make Western passengers comfortable.
Passengers on Avalon Myanmar are adventurous Baby Boomers, generally in their 60s and older. They tend to be veteran cruisers looking for something different from the traditional ocean or European river itineraries. Many have sailed with Avalon previously. Most are active and well-traveled. Passengers generally are open-minded and affluent, hailing from the U.S. and Canada, and to a lesser extent New Zealand, Australia and the U.K. Children 8 and older are permitted to sail, though it's rare to see kids onboard.
During the day, when the boat is in port, passengers wear casual layers that can be easily removed and jammed into a bag as the temperatures rise from cool in the morning to hot in the afternoon. Forgo the jeans, which can feel stifling in the heat, and wear shorts, capris or breathable, lightweight pants instead. Keep in mind you'll be visiting monasteries and villages where modest dress is the norm or, in some cases, the requirement, especially for woman; short shorts and spaghetti straps are no-nos. Sturdy comfortable walking shoes that can handle water and mud are a necessity. (Shoes are collected upon re-boarding the ship each day and replaced by sturdy slippers -- provided by Avalon -- in an effort to keep the ship clean.)
For dinner, casual also is the name of the game; you won't need anything remotely fancy. Shorts, jeans, khakis, linen slacks, T-shirts, collared shirts and casual dresses all are acceptable, as comfort trumps style.
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