Founded in 1755, Yangon, the former capital of Burma, was christened with a name meaning "end of strife." Yet Burma is a country that has endured three Anglo-Burmese Wars with Britain between 1824 and 1885, as well as the devastation of World War II during which the Japanese defeated the British before Allied troops launched a series of counteroffensives that ravaged the country.
Decades of military rule and oppression were followed by Cyclone Nargis in 2008, the worst natural disaster in Burmese history, which left more than 1 million Burmese homeless.
One day on the motor coach, our guide breaks down as she attempts a response to a question about life under the military regime. Her heartfelt soliloquy about the regime's impact on her family leaves her listeners stunned and silent.
And yet in spite of such deprivation and hardship, it's likely that nearly everywhere that you travel throughout Burma, you will be greeted with smiles and ingenuous offerings of hospitality and kindness.
With a 1,200-mile coastline along the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, Burma has been attracting visitors since at least the 1st century AD when sailors, as recounted by Ptolemy, crossed the Bay of Bengal on trading voyages from the Ganges to the Strait of Malacca. For centuries, visitors to Burma have served as ambassadors, reporting back to the rest of the world. Obama's visit in November 2012, two weeks after his re-election, was the first visit to the country by a sitting President of the US.
"You are here before this country has been sanitized by tourism," another guide asserts. The dissolution of the military junta occurred in March 2011 and the first stirrings of democracy now appearing in Burma are perhaps not unlike the first months after the Americans threw off the British military in 1783.
Burma's newly-introduced flag features three stripes, which symbolize solidarity, peace and tranquility, and courage. Nearly 90 percent of Burma's population is Buddhist and Buddhist monks were at the forefront of the independence movement in 1948, which was a harbinger to the Saffron Revolution in 2007.
The most sacred pilgrimage site in all of Burma is the 2,600-year-old Shwedagon Pagoda, a reliquary of four Buddhas, which includes eight hairs from Lord Buddha, the founder of Buddhism. Topped by a 76-carat diamond and sheathed in gold plates (with more than 4,500 diamonds), the pagoda's 320-foot stupa dominates the Yangon skyline.
A visit to Shwedagon in the evening, around sunset, is one of the most mystical experiences imaginable in Burma. Buzzing with the chants and prayers of Buddhist monks and worshippers, Shwedagon is a wonderland of shimmering light and candles, flowers and flags, and the glow of gold in the gloaming. In the words of Rudyard Kipling, Shwedagon is "a golden mystery...a beautiful winking wonder."
If you yearn to travel to Kipling's "winking wonder," you might consider a cruise aboard the Aegean Odyssey, a mid-sized ship designed for coastal cruising. Winner of the "Best Specialist Cruise Line 2012," Voyages to Antiquity's Aegean Odyssey inaugurated their Southeast Asia cruises two years ago.
An eight-deck ship with a capacity of 380 passengers and 180 crew members, the Aegean Odyssey easily navigates the great rivers of Southeast Asia and fits comfortably into smaller harbors. The two-to-one passenger/crew ratio affords a remarkable degree of pampering aboard a ship where the drink of choice is Champagne and where the majority of guests hail from Britain, the US, and Canada. More than one third of the passengers are repeat visitors, which creates a convivial on-board atmosphere similar to an extended family reunion. Daily lecturers include the estimable British war correspondent Martin Bell and the authors of tomes on Burma's Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi and the history of Burmese democracy.
As Kipling wrote in 1889, "This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about." A cruise on the Aegean Odyssey provides the perfect opportunity for that "once-in-a-lifetime" visit to a land that has fascinated travelers since the ancients.