There’s no reason why river cruising has to end for you once you’ve explored the many waterways of Europe – that’s just one continent. Next on your list should be Asia.
River cruising in both the south-east of Asia (Vietnam/Cambodia and Myanmar) and the northern part of the continent (China) have both exploded in popularity in recent years. So much has this been the case that the major river cruising brands you’d be familiar with from Europe have been rapidly scouring Asia for existing luxury vessels to their standards as well as constructing brand new craft to their exact requirements.
It’s important to note also that while the width of these rivers in Asia are in parts comparable to their European counterparts, the depth is not. In fact, some parts of these rivers dry up completely during the cooler dry season, making a cruise impossible. Also, most of the ships you’ll find operated by the major lines are significantly different to those you’ll find in Europe. While the comfort & standard of the facilities are at the same high levels, overall guest numbers are a fraction of what you’d find in Europe, so you’ll need to book well in advance.
The first step in deciding which river cruise in Asia might pique your interest is to look at the three major rivers and some of the ports you’ll encounter along the way.
Which lines sail the Mekong? One of the most popular rivers in Asia, the Mekong is plied nearly every day during the peak high-water season from mid-August to March. You’ll find itineraries on sale from APT, Scenic, Avalon Waterways, Uniworld Boutique River Cruises, Aqua Expeditions, Evergreen Tours, Travelmarvel, Viking River Cruises and others.
The “Mighty Mekong” is the lifeblood to many communities along the river and parts of it reach into Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and even China, however most river cruising along this river take place between Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam and Siem Reap in Cambodia, with itineraries ranging in length from seven nights up to as long as two weeks.
As such, a cruise along this river will see you encounter many of these communities, with fisherman lining the banks angling for their harvest to take to the markets. Flotillas of tiny boats will be seen crossing in all directions, making for quite the spectacle. You’ll have the chance to view Gothic cathedrals in Cai Be, visit temples, museums and villages specialising in particular trades such as silver and copper.
A number of brand new vessels have recently begun life on the Mekong, including Scenic Spirit, which launched in April 2016. Others you’ll find here include the RV AmaLotus, sailing for APT, the RV La Marguerite for Travelmarvel, Avalon Siem Reap (another vessel making its debut in the last few years), the Aqua Mekong (Aqua Expeditions), plus a number of ships inspired by the region’s French colonial history such as the Mekong Navigator (used by both Uniworld and Evergreen Tours).
Which lines sail the Irrawaddy? Many of the aforementioned brands cruising the Mekong also sail on the Irrawaddy, but not all. The recent revolution in Myanmar – which led to the country’s first democratic elections in many years and the wider opening to international trade – sees tourism still in its relative infancy. That said, few countries in Asia are now growing as fast as Myanmar, with river cruising playing its part in this growth.
The experience of the Irrawaddy is like the Mekong in some parts, yet totally unique in others. Generally, you’ll find the river significantly wider much of the way, and again busy with fisherman going about their business although often in boats this time rather than along the riverbank. At the same time, there’s plenty of activity in the riverside villages and plenty of UNESCO Heritage List architecture including temples, to view not too far away.
This river runs almost the entire length of Myanmar, however most cruises take place between the towns of Mandalay and Bagan although some continue further down into Pyay.
Like the Mekong, major cruise lines have invested heavily into their operations on the Irrawaddy, building and launching new vessels in recent years. Take APT and sister brand Travelmarvel for example – both beginning operations with the RV Samatha and RV Princess Panhwar – both brand new river boats straight from the building yard and into service.