Bay of Bengal & the Andaman Sea
Published on Thursday, January 24, 2013
Sunday, December 16, 2012 - Chennai, India: Welcome to India! A crowded, cacophonous, colorful, and contradictory land, one that engages every sense and is completely, utterly, and deliciously addictive. Even breakfast seems more exotic when your coffee is poured in a fine stream from a height of several feet and is redolent of cinnamon and ginger.
We began our exploration with a visit to the Bronze Gallery, home to two levels of bronze sculptures. We passed from ancient history to colonial times as we entered the history museum within Fort St. George, established by the British East India Company in 1653. Our next stop was San Thome Cathedral, a building which exemplifies the adaptability of its largely Indian congregation. During a drive along the broad beachfront, our guide showed us an area where reconstruction of fishermen’s homes, lost during the 2004 tsunami, was still underway. Our final stop of the afternoon was a classic example of southern Hindu temple architecture, the Kapaleeshwar Temple, and thus began a new familiarity with slip-off shoes as none are permitted in functioning temples.
Returning to our hotel, we freshened up to join some of our fellow travelers and expedition staff for welcome drinks and dinner. Our cruise director, Lynne Greig, introduced Gary Wintz who is a subject expert on Myanmar and Susan Langley who, although a professional marine archaeologist, is also drawing on her textile and beekeeping expertise for this adventure.
Monday, December 17 - Chennai / Embark Clipper Odyssey: Remembering to take cameras to breakfast for the coffee show, we checked out and set off early for a full day of exploration of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Mahabalipuram. Carved into the large granite outcroppings in the area, we visited two cave shrines known as Arjuna’s Penance and Krishna Mandapam, then the Five Rathas, and the Shore Temple, as well as passing Krishna’s Butter Ball. The drive to the site was as entertaining and educational as the site itself, as we saw many roadside granite workshops, the result of the presence of the Government Arts College.
The Shore Temple was especially enlivened by waves of women in beautifully decorated red saris. The site is associated with the goddess Parvati, and although we could have spent days exploring this large complex, it was time for lunch at the Radisson Temple Bay Hotel.
Following the Indian driving mantra that all one needs are good brakes, a good horn and good luck, we reached the Clipper Odyssey, our floating home for the next two weeks.
We joined our co-adventurers who had spent the day enjoying Chennai as we had previously and met our expedition leader, the exuberant Mike Moore, who introduced our expedition staff including Jack Grove and Mark Brazil.
Tuesday & Wednesday, December 18 & 19 - At Sea: The next two days would be spent at sea, learning about our upcoming adventures. We heard from Gary regarding India: An Overview – Back to the Future, as well as Southeast Asia and the Andamans: Treasure Chest of Anthropology. Susan spoke to us about Maritime Archaeology in India and Southeast Asia, and later we learned about Fiber and Textiles Around the Bay of Bengal. Jack’s lecture was entitled Indian Ocean: Focus on Fishes, and Mark spoke to us about Wild India. Captain Nikolay Tililyuk hosted some lovely cocktails for us and we had a wonderful welcome dinner. Soon we would be wetting our fins!
Thursday, December 20 - Andaman Islands: Clearing into the Andaman Islands, we entered India’s most distant province known historically as “the Black Waters,” where Europeans penned warnings about monsters on their maps and early explorers claimed the residents had the heads of dogs. For those of us not quite ready to jump into the sea by North Cinque Island, Mark led a nature walk during which we saw our first white-bellied sea eagles and large diurnal raptors, as well as glossy swiftlets, Pacific egrets, and olive-backed sunbirds. The rest of us snorkeled from the Zodiacs or the beach or just relaxed on the sand. The snorkelers discovered a three-foot moray eel, and also saw a squid scooting along among the colorful plankton feeding damsel fish.
During lunch, the Clipper Odyssey repositioned to South Cinque Island where our glass-bottomed boat was launched and helmed by Jack for those of us who wanted the fun of watching the reef life without having to wet our feet. The rest of us headed off walking with Mark or back into the water. In addition to another moray, we watched an octopus changing color to blend into its environment. The sun sets early in this region so all too soon it was time to return to the ship to learn about tomorrow’s activities and enjoy our first dinner under the stars.
Friday, December 21 - Andaman Islands: Dawn found us anchored off the largely uninhabited portion of Havelock Island. We landed on the sparkling white sands of south-facing Radha Nagar Beach within the Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park and the birders set off early to explore. While some of us opted to beachcomb or read in shady nooks, the rest of us snorkeled from Zodiacs or splashed into the teal waters from shore. The birders returned with reports of seeing a flock of red-collared doves, vernal hanging parrots, and a stork-billed kingfisher. The snorkelers were delighted with a garden of butterflyfish, humbug damsels, sand perch, blue-streak cleaner wrasse, and crocodile fish.
In the afternoon we visited both the Anthropological Museum of Port Blair, which provides a thorough introduction to the Andaman Islands’ indigenous peoples, and the infamous Cellular Jail National Memorial. Port Blair began as a penal colony in 1857, though most of the inmates were political prisoners. Our final stop was the large and vibrant Aberdeen Bazaar. Here, some of us gravitated to the fruit and fish vendors, beautiful women clad in colorful saris selling black fin tuna, as well as many smaller dried varieties of fish. A group of us set out to find traditional garments and other souvenirs, while a few took pride in finding a local watering hole. Back aboard the Clipper Odyssey, we bade farewell to this outpost of India as we set sail for Myanmar.
Saturday, December 22 - At Sea: After a leisurely breakfast we joined Gary for his intimate discussion of The Burma of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, before Mark spoke on Crossing Continents: Bird Migration in Asia. In the afternoon, Susan hosted an impromptu gathering for anyone wishing to learn how to wear a sari. Later, we watched the award-winning They Call It Myanmar—Lifting the Curtain and Beyond Rangoon, as continued introduction to Myanmar. We capped the evening by testing our detection skills against the staff in a match of Liars’ Club.
Sunday, December 23 - Yangon, Myanmar: Our morning cruise up the Yangon River to the capital city of Yangon was so interesting, it precluded all indoor activities including all but a light breakfast so we could enjoy a poolside brunch. In addition to Pallas and brown-headed gulls, a whiskered tern followed us upstream. Once alongside, we set off to explore this country that’s been closed for decades. We had to smile as our guide apologized for the traffic which, compared with India, was virtually non-existent. In many ways the city is frozen in time with a potpourri of architectural styles, best exemplified by the central circle where the Buddhist Sule Paya Temple is flanked by a synagogue, mosque, and Baptist church, as well as the art-deco-meets-Asia city hall.
At the Chauk Htat Gyi Paya, we saw one of the largest reclining Buddha’s in the world at 223 feet, before participating in a donation ceremony for the monks and nuns at Kalaywa Monastery. For more secular activities, we headed to the Bogyoke Aung San Market before sunset at the famous Shwedagon Pagoda complex. The almost completely gilded complex has to be seen to be believed. As the setting sun set the gilding aglow and more and more candles flickered to life, it was almost surreal to be in such a beautiful place. Finally tearing ourselves away, we dined ashore at one of the country’s finest restaurants where we enjoyed superb Indochinese cuisine in a garden setting, accompanied by performances of a variety of traditional dances in costumes from various historic periods.
Monday, December 24 - Bagan: ‘twas the day before Christmas and we found ourselves on an early morning flight to Bagan, the ancient capital of a number of historic kingdoms. Officially known as the Bagan Archaeological Zone, the area holds over 2,000 pagodas, temples, and monasteries in approximately 26 square miles. The sight of hundreds of brick, gilded, and plastered temple spires rising from the misty sprays of acacia trees was utterly enchanting, and we even managed to see green bee-eaters, white-throated babblers, and plain-backed sparrows.
After the Nyaung U fruit and vegetable market, we visited the divine Shwezigon Paya and its four 13-foot Gupta-inspired bronze Buddhas before we set off in small horse carts to the famed Ananda Pahto. Temple viewing can be hungry work and we retired to a riverside repast at the Thiripyitsaya Sakura Hotel and Spa along the storied Irrawaddy River. During lunch, our guides demonstrated the uses and styles of wearing the traditional longyi, a tubular sarong. A postprandial visit to a lacquerware manufacturer was both enlightening, through the demonstration of the processes involved, and provided a little shopping therapy before we set off to visit our last temples, the stone-built Manuha Temple, the fresco-covered Gubyaukgyi, and the 12th-century Htilominlo Temple.
Before heading back to the ship, we had time for a refreshment break as Gary and some guests joined a few local lads in a game of kickball involving a lightweight woven sphere. This eventful day generated a lot of interesting conversation over dinner back aboard as to favorite sites, and their historic or artistic significance.
Tuesday, December 25 - Yangon: Merry Christmas! Our traditionalists joined the congregation at St. Mary’s
Cathedral for an English-language service, while the rest of us caught a local train to the village of Myittar Nyant; the train station was an experience in and of itself and easily could have been the end goal with some of the best people-watching anywhere. During the 15-minute ride we were as interesting and entertaining to the local travelers as they were to us. Upon arrival we were met by a crowd of trishaws, each holding one person and proceeding into the market area in a long caravan. Mike convinced his driver to allow him to ride the bicycle, with the driver serving as passenger, and caused enormous delight throughout the village. As we passed through the city we stopped for a peaceful walk through Kandawgyi Park with its ponds and small temple. On the way to the port a handful of us dropped off at The Strand Hotel, a restored grand dame that has always been popular with both cinematic and genuine royalty.
The afternoon was spent on deck as we caught the tide and retraced our route downriver to the Andaman Sea, and we capped the day with Christmas carols and a special holiday dinner. Almost everyone made an early night of it after our three exciting days in mainland Myanmar.
Wednesday, December 26 - At Sea: After a restful start to Boxing Day, we joined Jack for Fish, Photos, and Fun in the Bay of Bengal and learned not only about the piscine inhabitants of the region but how to capture them electronically and show them to their best advantage. Before lunch, Susan’s presentation, Beekeeping and Honey Hunting in Southeast Asia, was accompanied by a tasting of honeys she collected along the way from different countries, different bees, and different nectar sources. This provided some tasty discussion about individual preferences and favorites.
As we steamed toward Myanmar’s Mergui Archipelago, we enjoyed an old-fashioned ice cream social. Gary hosted a discussion of our travels, addressing our questions and expanding on aspects of the sites we visited. A pre-dinner briefing provided an introduction to what tomorrow holds for us.
Thursday, December 27 - Mergui Archipelago: The Mergui Archipelago is so remote that even travel books have ceased to cover it as being too inaccessible. Good fortune was with us and not only did we enjoy fine snorkeling, but a village of the region’s sea gypsies were nearby. The Moken, as they call themselves, spoke little English, but they seemed genuinely happy to see us. During a Zodiac tour of the island, we were all thrilled by the aerial performances of large Brahminy kites fishing, and wound through a mangrove with the clearest water many of us had ever seen.
The morning snorkeling endeavors turned up blue ringed angelfish and black-banded sea krait, while the birders located a huge roost of fruit bats, Oriental pied hornbills, and a plain-pouched hornbill. After a spectacular poolside barbecue, we observed a large fishing boat hauling in its net, a scene that attracted not only us but also a handful of Brahminy kites. Beach walkers saw beach thick-knees and great-billed herons, while the snorkelers located healthy plate coral, anemonefish, and eight-banded butterflyfish.
Friday, December 28 - Mergui Archipelago: We enjoyed yesterday’s Zodiac tour so much we kicked off the morning with another. Our tour located some dramatic blowholes, colorful veins of quartz, malachite, and iron oxide, and explored some of the numerous passages and caves through and into the island’s base. The morning snorkel was a drift visit to a rock pinnacle off one tip of Bo Wei Island, where squid had to take a backseat to the exciting find of a scorpionfish. Beach walkers spent the morning on sugar-white sands wading, swimming, and lazing in the shade scented by flowers of the sea poison tree.
During lunch, we repositioned and set off for an afternoon of exploring sand and sea. A cuttlefish provided both amusement and education as we watched it change colors and studied its propulsion around the coral. Anemonefish continued to fascinate us until it was time to return to the ship, bid farewell to Myanmar, and weigh anchor for Thailand.
Saturday, December 29 - Koh Rawi, Thailand: During our morning at sea, Gary prepared us with Thailand 101: What Makes Thais Tick, which was both entertaining and enlightening. Later, we joined Mark for On a Wing and a Prayer: Birds are Masters of the Air and came away with a greater understanding of the mechanics of flight.
For our last afternoon in these teal waters, nature did not disappoint. Skunk anemonefish, named for the white stripe down their backs, darted among the colorful sea lilies and sea anemones. The calm waters were perfect for the glass-bottomed boat and those aboard were able to view the reef fishes as well as sea cucumbers, blue sea starfish and, appropriate to the season, Christmas tree worms. Beautiful, but a potential hazard to unwary swimmers, were the large black sea urchins that carpeted some areas like enormous pincushions. It was a fitting end to our aquatic activities and as the sun set, we sailed farther south and dined under the stars after a briefing on our plans for Malaysia.
Sunday, December 30 - Langkawi, Malaysia: As soon as we cleared into Malaysia, our jungle trekkers set off for a three-mile hike over undulating terrain through primary forest at the foot of Mount Mat Cincang. Returning at lunch they had much to report having seen silvered leaf monkeys, long-tailed macaques, Ratufa bicolored squirrels, and a flock of great hornbills. They also saw several flying lemures roosting in trees.
Those taking a coastal nature cruise first enjoyed a drive through regional Malay villages and rubber plantations, before boarding riverboats to travel along the Kilim River. Stops along the way permitted a walk through Gua Kelawar, a large limestone cavern with stalactites, stalagmites, and a colony of fruit bats. At the entry to the cave we were treated to the treetop antics of both silvered leaf monkeys and long-tailed macaques and later, we spotted a well-fed mangrove pit viper dozing on a low branch. Cruising the river we watched Brahminy kites and white-bellied sea eagles feeding, with Thailand just visible in the distance. Returning upstream we visited a fish farm where we watched archer fish target pieces of bread. On departure, the tide was sufficiently low and our boats creeped through a low arch known as the Crocodile Cave, before looping back to the landing to return to the ship for lunch. After some play time on the Zodiacs in the afternoon, we set sail for Pulau Penang.
Monday, December 31 - Pulau Penang: We began our day with a bus tour of Georgetown, passing its colonial core and traversing rows of beachfront resorts as we headed to the seaside district of Telok Bahang. Some of us then opted for a tour of a botanical garden where we saw thick-billed green pigeons, and several crested mynas amid the tropical foliage and blooming orchids. We followed this with a visit to the Penang Butterfly Farm, where thousands of butterflies represent 150 colorful species.
Those of us with a culinary bent visited the Tropical Spice Garden. A former rubber plantation, the garden is composed now of winding trails through ponds and waterfalls where we picked, crushed, smelled, and tasted herbs and spices. At the end of the walking tour, a chef taught us to use a variety of the garden’s produce to prepare two traditional recipes which we subsequently ate. A stop in the gift shop provided an opportunity to take home a taste of Malaysia in the form of spices, salt, honey, and tea, good culinary history books, and practical kitchen tools.
Back aboard for lunch we departed for Malacca and realized that it was already New Year’s Eve! In the afternoon Susan held an impromptu gathering for anyone with questions about how to wear, tie, or launder any of their textile purchases, gave a refresher on wrapping a sari, and provided a demonstration of alternative ways to wear a sarong including as a turban and a dress. Gary made the last presentation of the voyage with Buddhism 202: The Essence – Sit ‘Til You Get There, putting us all in an appropriate frame of mind to enjoy cocktails on deck for the last sunset of 2012.
After dinner, we enjoyed a stunning chocolate extravaganza of desserts in the theater before we were treated to a fun-filled evening of musical entertainment by our wonderful crew. We rang in the New Year dancing the night away.
Tuesday, January 1, 2013 - Malacca: Happy New Year! We began our day’s exploration in the center of this UNESCO World Heritage Site at Town Square, formerly Dutch Square; its history still very evident in the fountain and surrounding architecture. After briefly joining the ongoing service at Christ Church Melaka on the square, we moved on to the Stadthuys, the original 1641 town hall, which currently houses the extensive History and Ethnography Museum. From here we climbed to the shell of St. Paul’s Church overlooking the city since 1521. A walk through Independence Park returned us to our coaches and we departed for a neighborhood of protected traditional architecture called Kampung Morten on the Melaka River. Walking through the neighborhood, we were welcome to enter many of the privately owned homes, most of which are even available for home stays.
We returned to Villa Sentosa for lunch, a traditional Malay kampung home, built in the 1920s. After a delicious meal typical of the region, the women of the family gave demonstrations of palm leaf weaving, and taught us how to make a rice dumpling dessert.
Fortified, we made our way to Chinatown to visit the oldest traditional Chinese temple in Malaysia. The Cheng Hoon Teng Temple was built in 1646 and dedicated to Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy; it remains a center of Buddhist worship in Malacca. The temple is only a block away from famous Jonker Street, which buzzes with food and shopping stalls and provided a terrific opportunity to make a few last purchases in Malaysia.
Returning to our ship there was just time to freshen up for a farewell cocktail party and dinner hosted by our captain. After dinner, we assembled for the last time to watch Jack’s spectacular slideshow documenting our time together. At last we had to concede there was packing to be done, though many of us had farewells and addresses to exchange late into the night.
Wednesday, January 2 - Singapore / Disembark: With over half of us departing later in the day, Lynne arranged a ‘Spirit of Singapore’ tour for us. A morning rain let up in time for us to visit the lush, world famous Orchid Gardens within the Singapore Botanic Gardens, where 60,000 varieties vie for attention. We stopped in Arab Street, one of many ethnic neighborhoods still housing traditional textile businesses and walked to the gold-domed Sultan Mosque. Next we visited Chinatown, and after a stop at a new, modern Chinese temple, we walked to the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore, Sri Mariammam. The generously figured and brilliantly colored structure took us back to our first day in Chennai and really brought our expedition full circle; was it really only two weeks ago?
“…once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers…the mind can never break off the journey."
- Pat Conroy (1945-present),