There are plenty of ways to explore Southeast Asia. And river cruising is one of them. In fact, it’s becoming increasingly popular amongst those with a little more money to spend and those looking for a touch more luxury. This part of the world is no longer the preserve of dreadlock-sporting backpackers. A new breed of traveller is moving in. And river cruising suits them beautifully.
River cruising in this part of the world combines cosmopolitan cities, exotic landscapes, colonial history and incredible monuments. It’s a great way of seeing lots of different sights in one trip yet at a leisurely pace. Harder to reach pockets of Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar are made accessible by boat. And that’s why we’ve recently launched a range of new itineraries that include river cruising in Southeast Asia. So here we look at some of the river cruise options available in these countries.
The Mekong River
The Mekong traces a 4,350km-long route from the Tibetan Plateau through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Known as the ‘rice bowl of Asia’, it’s a lifeline for over 60 million of people and as far as fish species are concerned, the Mekong is surpassed only by the Amazon River in terms of diversity. And along its banks are traditional villages, rural towns and distinct cultures that make the Mekong River an absolute delight to explore by boat.
The majority of river cruising trips on the Mekong connect Vietnam with neighbouring Cambodia. Here are the routes you’ll find on our new private itineraries:
Saigon to Siem Reap
The most popular route connects Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) in Vietnam with Siem Reap in Cambodia. This route takes passengers from a fast-paced and history-packed city to the spectacular temple ruins of Angkor. Along the way you’ll visit floating markets, rural village communities, stunning palaces, ancient temples and great lakes.
This route takes 8 days / 7 nights though the itinerary varies according to the water level. Take this into account when booking your river cruise. For instance, you might not be able to visit Tonle Lake when the water level is low.
Recommended tour: Cruise Saigon to Angkor Wat – 11 days
Saigon to Phnom Penh
If you have less time on your side, it’s possible to travel smaller sections of this popular route. For an insight into life on the Mekong Delta, the 4 day / 3 night cruise between Saigon and Phnom Penh is a top choice. Highlights of this portion of the river cruise include a traditional sampan ride to Binh Thanh Island.
This cruise is not affected by high and low water levels so you don’t need to worry about missing out.
Recommended tour: Cruise Saigon to Phnom Penh – 6 days
Siem Reap to Phnom Penh
If you’d rather focus solely on Cambodia, this portion of the journey is for you. It connects Cambodia’s top attraction – the temples of Angkor – with its delightful capital, Phnom Penh. On this route you’ll discover the best of rural Cambodia, visiting local villages and exploring pre-Angkorian temples that have been claimed by the jungle.
This cruise is affected by water levels so bear this in mind when booking.
Recommended tour: Cruise Phnom Penh to Angkor Wat – 9 days
There are plenty of boats operating on the Mekong River. With our pre-packaged private itineraries you can choose from one of the following:
Influenced by a French cruiser, the Jayavarman marries art deco design with Khmer and Vietnamese craft. The ship measures 190 feet in length with 27 cabins, a lounge, bar, dining hall and spa, plus a Jacuzzi on the sun deck for beautiful views as you unwind in the bubbling water. There are three categories of cabin, each with a private balcony and floor-to-ceiling windows from which to observe the daily rituals of life along the Mekong.
This romantic cruiser evokes the opulence of British India, taking its name from the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan who ruled during the 17th century. The colonial-era styling can be seen in the atmospheric East India Club and Observatory Lounge. Spread across the three decks are also the Apsara Spa, a fitness centre and choice of dining venues. The 26 luxurious cabins each benefits from a private balcony, espresso machine and sound system.
The Irrawaddy River
The Irrawaddy River is the largest river in Myanmar, travelling from north to south before meeting the Andaman Sea. It has been an important trade and transport route since the 6th century with the vast majority of it still navigable by boat. From its starting point in the Himalayas to its branches that sprawl across the Irrawaddy Delta, the river is a journey through the timeless charm and cultural riches of Myanmar. And cruising the Irrawaddy is fast becoming one of the best ways to travel through Myanmar.
The majority of river cruise itineraries focus on the portion of the Irrawaddy that connects Mandalay with Bagan but there are longer itineraries that head further afield. Here are the best:
Mandalay to Bagan
The most popular river route in Myanmar is the journey between the last royal capital of Mandalay and the temple-filled plains of Bagan. River cruise itineraries are just four nights long (two or three nights if operating in reverse from Bagan to Mandalay) so it’s perfect for travellers short on time. You’ll find some of Myanmar’s top attractions along this portion of the river, including U Bein Bridge, Mount Popa and the unfinished pagoda of Mingun.
If you’re interested in seeing more of Myanmar along this route, there’s an 11 night itinerary that features many more stops. Highlights include the rich archaeological site of Tagaung, a tuk tuk ride to George Orwell’s former house in Katha and the precious religious texts of the Kuthodaw Pagoda.
And for those looking to sail the route less travelled, there is also a selection of special itineraries that combine the gems of the Chindin River with those of the Irrawaddy River as the boat cruises between Mandalay and Bagan.
Recommended tour: Hidden Myanmar by Luxury Cruise – 14 days
Round-trip from Bagan or Mandalay
If you prefer to end where you started, there’s also the choice of a round-trip itinerary from either Bagan or Mandalay. These seven-night itineraries give you the chance to travel both down and upstream with different stops in each direction. A round-trip itinerary is ideal for those looking to spend a little longer in either Bagan or Mandalay.
Mandalay to Yangon
The most comprehensive route along the Irrawaddy River is that between Mandalay and Yangon, which was until 2005 the capital of Myanmar. As well as all the highlights between Mandalay and Bagan, on this 11 night itinerary you also get to visit the charming small town of Danuphyu, the staggering Akauk Taung Caves and the postcard-perfect town of Thayet, home to colonial houses and white-washed pagodas.
There are numerous different boats operating on the Irrawaddy but this is the one that gets our vote:
The 5-star Sanctuary Ananda is a luxury river cruiser that combines contemporary luxury with Burmese style. It’s an all-suite ship with 20 spacious suites over three decks. Each features floor-to-ceiling windows and balconies. There’s a sundeck, outdoor pool and a panorama lounge where guests can soak up the beautiful river views. The award-winning on-board chef ensures a delicious offering of classic Asian and international dishes.
When to go
This will largely depend on the cruise schedule. However, in general the best time to cruise in Southeast Asia is during the drier period of December to March. Cruises operate throughout the year though itineraries that visit Tonle Sap in Cambodia vary with the changing water levels. Monsoon patterns do change but generally speaking, this region experiences the highest rainfall between July and October.
Tips for booking a river cruise in Southeast Asia
To make the most of your river cruise adventure, bear these few things in mind:
- Take insect repellent – protect yourself from mosquitoes at sunrise and sunset, plus the rather annoying gnats and fire ants that can bother you during the day.
- Prepare for the heat – this region of Southeast Asia can be hot and humid for much of the year so pack light, loose-fitting clothing, a good sun hat and plenty of sunscreen.
- Book in advance – with fewer than 30 cabins on a ship, popular routes can quickly sell out during the peak travel season so get in early and secure your cabin.
- Consider extending – if you have the time, build a longer holiday around your cruise and see more of Cambodia, Vietnam or Myanmar.