For those who appreciate the art of slow travel and are as interested in the journey as the destination, river cruising is one of the best ways to explore Asia, whether it is travelling on the holy Ganges in India, mighty Mekong in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos or the pristine Irrawaddy in Myanmar.
Many cultures around the world consider rivers to be sacred and refer to them as “mothers” as they support life and fertility on our planet.
Although most Western cultures have moved away from nature worshiping, it is still an integral part of Asian cultures especially in Southeast Asia and often the most interesting and historic towns, cities and sights are found along the rivers.
Of all Asian countries where luxury boat travel is possible, Myanmar is my favourite. It is still relatively untouched and travelling on the river is certainly the most relaxing way of experiencing it, especially for those who wish to avoid too many internal flights.
The Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady) is Myanmar’s largest river, flowing from the northern mountains near the border with Tibet to the south of the country before it merges into the Andaman Sea.
Chindwin River is the largest tributary of the Irrawaddy and flows through some of the least visited parts of the country. Rudyard Kipling has very beautifully captured the essence of the region in his literary works especially his famous poem “Mandalay”.
Together these rivers offer absolutely fascinating and unique routes in Asia where you can explore off the beaten track whilst experiencing luxurious accommodation and amazing service aboard the ship.
There are quite a few well-known and reputable companies that are operating beautiful cruises focusing on environmentally and socially responsible and sustainable travel.
The route between Bagan and Mandalay is the most famous and popular route but there are other longer journeys available for the intrepid travellers. My favourite route is along the Chindwin venturing into areas where time seems to have stood still for centuries.
Launched in November 2014, Sanctuary Ananda is a beautiful custom built boat with 21 spacious and luxurious suites over three decks. All the suites feature floor-to-ceiling windows and a private balcony that are perfect for observing the unhurried life along the river and the beautiful temples, pagodas and monasteries that Myanmar is so famous for.
The food and service are impeccable and leisure facilities include a delightful spa by L’Occitane, sun deck with a plunge pool and a library. The itineraries range from two to four nights between Bagan and Mandalay to longer ten and eleven-night journeys covering Upper and Lower Irrawaddy as well as Chindwin rivers; all filled with superbly guided excursions and memorable experiences.
A hot-air balloon ride over the impressive monuments of Bagan and the stunning sunset views at U Bein Bridge in Mandalay were particularly memorable for me.
Supporting the local communities is at the very heart of Sanctuary Retreats. The boat and all the furniture on board were built by local craftsmen and they have adopted a charming little village under the Sun Kyun Village Project to support the inhabitants.
Since its inception, the project has provided the community with a library, teacher’s living quarters and two classrooms in order to create a better future for the younger generation. The village is visited during the cruise and it was truly heart-warming to see the project’s positive impact on the villagers.
The grande dame of luxury cruises in Myanmar, Belmond Road to Mandalay was the first ever luxury cruiser to be introduced in this region in 1996, long before the country became popular with mainstream international travellers. In that sense, they are the pioneers of river cruising in Myanmar and know the river and the local communities exceptionally well.
The stylish boat was originally designed in Germany and later remodelled in Myanmar. It features 43 cabins with large windows, an observation deck, spa and a plunge pool.
Food is one of the highlight features and in a typical Belmond style, the boat exudes classy and understated luxury with sublime service and attention to detail. The itineraries range from a short one-night stays to longer seven-night journeys on the highly sought-after route between Bagan and Mandalay.
Belmond Myanmar Foundation supports various local initiatives focusing on education, healthcare and economic development. Born out of the inspirational efforts of the ship’s resident doctor Dr Tun, the Foundation’s first project 20 years ago was to build a school for local children in the ship’s port town base – Shwe Kyet Yet.
Over the years, further twenty schools have been added and a free health clinic was set up in Bagan in 2011. Moreover, pop-up clinics are organised in remote areas on a regular basis to support the underprivileged communities.
One of the latest additions to luxury cruises in Myanmar, Heritage Line’s Anawrahta boasts the most spacious cabins on the river. Built to resemble a British colonial paddle steamer, the boat features 23 cabins and three decks, blending the opulence of the British Empire with the purity and serenity of ancient Burma.
All the cabins feature a private balcony and floor-to-ceiling glass door. Leisure facilities include a plunge pool on the sundeck, spa with a sauna and an on board gym.
Cruise itineraries range from two to four-night sailings between Bagan and Mandalay highlighting the central region of the country as well as longer seven and eleven-night journeys venturing into remoter parts of Upper Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers.
With Anawrahta, Heritage Line is aiming to replicate the success of their hugely popular boutique cruises on the Mekong.
For those who wish to venture beyond the well-trodden paths without compromising on comfort and luxury, river cruises are the only option to explore some of the most remote parts of the country. Please feel free to get in touch if you would like to discuss river cruising in Asia further with me.
Images kindly supplied courtesy of Sanctuary Cruises, Belmond and Heritage Line