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Azamara Club Cruises – Azamara Journey Asian Adventure – Part II (Initial Impressions and Myanmar)

Azamara Club Cruises focuses on “going local”…
and so does Goldring Travel!

My Asian Adventure on the Azamara Journey starts out with two and one half days at sea, and then a late day arrival in Yangon, Myanmar followed by a full day plus another morning.  I cannot believe that I have been fortunate enough to visit Myanmar from the very south (with Silverseas Expeditions in 2016), the Irrawaddy River (with Avalon Waterways in 2017) and now, Azamara Club Cruises, in 2018.

Azamara Journey Pool Deck
Lots of lounges available
due to 106 degree temperatures in Yangon, Myanmar!

Because of the intial days at sea and my limiting my off-the-ship time while in Myanmar, I thought I would first chat a bit about the very good initial impression of this upscale cruise.  My initialimpressions of my Azamara Club Cruise experience on the Azamara Journey:    

       My suite is, overall, extremely comfortable, attractive and well designed. (I am especially loving the bathroom and the big wingback chair.)
       The staff and officers are, with almost no exception, friendly, communicative, wanting to please and good at what they do; all being fluent in English.
       The ship itself is extremely well maintained…even in the corners and literally sparkles.  (I have not even seen much telltale surface rust in the scuppers.)
       The guest lecturers are solid and topical (so far)
       The internet, except during peak times, has been fast and dependable (even being able to stream videos and voice chat)
       The air conditioning works extremely well, even in the 105 degree temperatures in Myanmar
       There is seriously good recognition of past guests (including within the Royal Caribbean/Celebrity/Azamara family) with significant benefits
       The complimentary wines have been of acceptable quality
       The cuisine has been good to excellent
       There is an actual focus on an international experience
       The guests are very international with many countries represented
There are, however, a few things that I am struggling with and am focused on (probably too much). Because Azamara sells to a number of markets (ex. Guests seeking bargain inside staterooms through guests requiring luxury suites) and being the “little sister” to the huge mainstream Royal Caribbean and the upscale Celebrity cruise lines there is, to my mind, a conflict/confusion in delivery of some of the little things.  There also seems to be different approach to the ship and socialization among (or, rather, not among) a number of the guests.  I will discuss these in a later article so that I give things enough time to settle.  (I have an afternoon, two full days and then a morning at sea, over the next four days to allow for this.)
Azamara Club Cruises markets that it focuses on longer times in ports and local experiences.  I have to say that with our time in Myanmar it has done a fantastic job of, right up front, offering its guests a bit of an immersion in Southern Asia thought its own events and shore excursions that include overnights and a wide spectrum of interests.  Especially in an area of the world that is so different from the West, this approach affords even the more timid traveler to become engaged and “travel” or more than “cruise”.
Our time in Myanmar has been troubling for me because of the issues with the treatment of the Rohingya people in the western Rakine province adjoining the Bangladesh border.  But, as I discuss below, I think I made the best of this time to get a more round (not just Western) understanding of the situation/politics.  Isn’t that what travel is about?  Deep breath and moving on (for the moment)…

One of two stages setup for the AzaMazing Evening in Yangon

Azamara Club Cruises has a number of hallmark events on each cruise.  One of them is an AzaMazing Evening.  Our first night in Myanmar was my chance to experience this again.  It was about a 1.5 hour drive from the ship to Yangon proper (the Yangon River is just too narrow for cruise ships to get closer to the city and the traffic is world-class…another topic that I will discuss) departing at 6:30 p.m. and heading to the People’s Park which is a lovely place in the shadow of the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda. (You can read more about Yangon and the Swedagon Pagoda here from my 2017 visit to Yangon.) 

We arrived to a beautiful and elaborate stage with a path leading to a complimentary local beer and house wine garden (with numerous Western items to eat…for the more conservative tastes) and then a pathway over a bridge to a secondary stage and a large contained area with about 30 tables with a wide variety of complimentary Myanmar culinary offerings and a few with souvenirs for purchase.

There were local “vendors” that were as soft and polite as I have always experienced the local Myanmar people to be, as well as numerous waitresses and waiters offering non-alcoholic drinks and a place to deposit your used paper plates.  One bit of charming humor:  Every time I walked down that path to get another Dragon beer, I had to run a gauntlet of charming young men and woman saying “minglabar” (hello) and my saying it back.  I figure I must have heard/said it about 100 times over the evening.

While the majority of offerings were focused on dessert (Azamara had a large pre-event buffet on the ship), there were – tucked in the back corner – some very authentic and spicy noodles and soups…which made me very happy!

It was then onto a (too long) dance troupe presentation.  It was beautiful and explained nicely, but I think it undercut the excitement of the initial event.  If it was 20, rather than 40, minutes it would have been more impactful.  Seriously, that is my only negative comment.  Azamara even made sure the beer was ice cold throughout!

My friend and guide extraordinare Myo Min Zaw and I
in Azamara Journey’s Mosaic Cafe

I had been looking forward to the next morning when I would be meeting up with my friend, Myo Min Zaw, who was my guide during my Avalon Waterways Irrawaddy River cruise in March 2017; something I highly recommend for a true in depth Myanmar experience.  We had a great morning together.  Azamara Club Cruises was excellent in assuring Myo could come to the ship and spend some time with me.  But then again Myo seemingly knows everyone so – even with the layers of bureaucracy in Myanmar – somehow I think he would have made it to the ship, if not on it. 

Anyway, we had a very interesting and robust discussion of Myanmar’s 135 different ethnic minorities.  We discussed how many ethic minorities there are in the United States, which left me a bit dumbfounded.  Do Americans think of “White, African American, Hispanic, Asian, Native American” or “Jewish, Japanese, Ukrainian, etc…or “Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Hasidic, etc.”?  Are we a melting pot or segmented into races or, worse to my mind, separated into ultra-defined ethnic groups?

The Republic of the Union of Myanmar
National Races Village

This, in turn, led to Myo’s suggestion that we might visit a sort of Epot Center created by the Myanmar Government known as Republic of the Union of Myanmar National Races Village. It is a park that is, most certainly, off the “tourist trail”.  It has model homes from various regions with examples of kitchens, furnishings, etc. and some plaster dolls representing the dress of the region.  On the other hand, as there are very few Westerners that visit the Races Village, I felt I was a bit on display as well, though everyone was, of course, extremely polite.

A model home typical for the Rakine province

A Myanmar person’s ethnicity is determined back to their great grandparents, so in a country where birth records (among others) are not exactly accurate…if they exist.  Myanmar’s census records are notoriously inaccurate.  Me being me, I quietly began to think how this gives the government a way to exclude many from being of a particular ethnic group, even where there are no records to support the exclusion.  

And then it hit me, though I said nothing:  Does the Myanmar government focus on ethnic diversity to divide the country and, therefore, reduce the possibility of group opposition?  (I am kinda inundated with divisive political discourse in the US right now, so it is hard to escape thinking about this!)
Sort of underscoring this, at the end of our visit to the Races Village, we came upon a Mokan village.  I started to talk about how I perceived, during my Silversea Expedition experience, the government’s efforts to reform this sea gypsy culture as similar to what the United States did with our native American tribesman, but figured it was better to discuss my enjoyment of seeing the very southern part of Myanmar during my first visit.  There is a line between friendship and using one’s friendship to discuss politics.  Myo is my friend first and foremost!

A Myanmar Culinary Experience!

After our visit to the National Races Village, Myo took me to a very popular local restaurant, Pwint Myanmar Restaurant; again off the “tourist trail”.  Before sitting (and we were lucky to get a table at 11:20 am) we made our selections:  hilsa (fish), river prawns, eggplant, spicy vegetables, and my favorite, mutton offal.  I also “needed” a large ice cold beer after our tour in 100 degree plus heat!

As we waited for our dishes to be delivered we enjoyed a beautiful vegetable platter with a spicy fish sauce. The flavor palate was extremely diverse ranging from sour pickled leaves to a very strongly lemon flavored leaf to tiny eggplant to mint.  It, alone, could have been an awesome lunch, but for us (and all diners) it was just the salad.

Hilsa fish

I was very interested in hilsa, which is a ubiquitous fish in Myanmar and India.  I have, in fact, been reading a book, Following Fish, which is about “the food and culture of the Indian Coast”.  The author has gone on for pages about hilsa, yet I had no idea what it tasted like.  I only knew it lives in brackish water (so the Yangon River as we cruises up it is filled with nets seeking hilsa), is famous for its bones and it served dozens of different ways.  I took a bite and just as I was about to say “sardine!”, Myo said, “Doesn’t it taste like sardines?”  And I love sardines!

River Prawns

Sadly, after lunch, and with Myo needing to get back to Yangon and to prepare for the annual Water Festival that starts the next afternoon…which is also when many young boys are celebrated into being Buddhist monks, as is Myo’s nephew…it was time to say goodbye until the next time.  And, as I do find the regular people of Myanmar to be kind and gentle and their cultures so rich, I am very confident I will return yet again.

For those of you that like Deck BBQs and such, for our last evening in Myanmar Azamara Club Cruises put on a truly high quality and beautiful Asian Buffet.  The cuisines of Asian were segregated by tables with large flags from each country and, having been to most of them, I can attest that the offerings were genuine and had the appropriate (if not quite as potent) spices.  I honestly was not expecting something called a buffet to be this elaborate. 

A trip around Asia on a single Azamara Journey plate
(Vietnamese, Indonesian, Korean, Indian and more)

One niggling point (and it is just that):  I know most of the guests were off on day-long tours, but by noon they started to set up for the event by taking away most of the lounges, tables and chairs and setting up serving areas with wines being set out hours in advance.  While it really did not adversely affect the use of the pool area by the guests present, it could have been done in a couple of hectic hours leaving the area more “guest friendly” for the afternoon.  Little things like this, to my mind, define the difference between a luxury and premium product.  It most certainly would not make me hesitate as the end product was fantastic, but it is worth a mention.

Having now experienced the Azamara Club Cruises experience over a number of sea days and in Myanmar, I can say that there is much to like…and more to explore.

Next up:  My culinary experiences over the first few days, including my Hamburger and Hot Dog test, and more.

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