China’s Yangtze, with its ancient temples and the world’s largest dam, is the most-cruised river in Asia. But Mekong cruises through Vietnam and Cambodia and Irrawaddy voyages in Myanmar have exploded in recent years and lesser-known waterways like Vietnam’s Red River and Laos’ Upper Mekong are also making their mark.

“Having knowledge of the main Asian rivers, the attractions and cruise operators will help agents grow their business. Clia’s website has resources and learning modules to support member agents wanting to do this”

ANDY HARMER, UK & IRELAND DIRECTOR CLIA

Perfect 10

  1. Temples galore: Take an early-morning hot-air balloon ride over the vast collection of temples and stupas at Bagan on the banks of the Irrawaddy in Myanmar

  2. Chinese wonders: Peer behind China’s bamboo curtain to the cliffs of the Three Gorges and the Three Gorges Dam on a voyage along the Yangtze

  3. UNSECO treasures: Discover the ancient temple complex of Angkor near Siem Reap in Cambodia on a Mekong cruise

  4. Turbulent past: Take a history lesson on the Vietnam War in Ho Chi Minh City where American forces were driven out by the Viet Cong on a Mekong sailing

  5. Cultural cornucopia: Breathe in the sights, sounds and experiences of India’s holiest of rivers, the Ganges, on a sailing that brings to life its cultural riches

  6. Local life: Explore the caves and waterside villages of Vietnam’s Red River, which stretches from the ethereal beauty of Halong Bay to the French- accented city of Hanoi

  7. Buddhist rituals: Watch the atmospheric dawn alms-giving on a cruise along the Upper Mekong in Laos as saffron-robed monks queue along the streets of the former ancient capital of Luang Prabang

  8. Ancient and modern: See the contrast of Xian’s Terracotta Warriors and the skyscrapers of Shanghai: some of China’s most famous sights are bolted on to Yangtze cruises

  9. Wet and wild: Look out for tigers and rhinos on an elephant-back safari in the Kaziranga National Park during a cruise along the Brahmaputra through India’s Assam region

  10. Off radar: Venture to the edge of remote tribal lands in Myanmar on a Chindwin voyage to Homalin on the Indian border, where tourists rarely go

Rising demand

China accounts for a large percentage of river cruising in Asia, with sailings along the Yangtze, while Mekong cruises through Vietnam and Cambodia and Irrawaddy voyages in Myanmar (Burma) make up the dominant triumvirate of this region.

After seeing an impressive uptake by UK customers in 2016, APT is boosting its Asia product with extra itineraries and a new vessel.

Wendy Wu Tours and Amadeus River Cruises have unveiled river cruise brochures featuring the region, where cruises operate year-round on different rivers.

Demand for Wendy Wu’s Mekong Odyssey tour has jumped by 50% over last year, its Hidden Treasures of Burma itinerary rose by 35% and Yangtze bookings are 25% up, according to Ben Briggs, Head of Marketing.

Amadeus’s new Exotics programme features the Mekong, Irrawaddy and India’s Ganges River, while Wendy Wu has a debut programme to Myanmar, with voyages on the Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers, plus the Mekong and Brahmaputra River, which runs through the Indian state of Assam.

Viking River Cruises reports increased demand for its Imperial Jewels of China package, which includes a five-day Yangtze sailing.

AmaWaterways is looking to return to Myanmar after its Irrawaddy sailings finished in March. The line hopes to resume operations in 2018/19 with a new purpose-built luxury vessel.

Boutique operator Pandaw arguably offers the most innovative itineraries in Asia, having introduced Vietnam’s Red River, the Upper Mekong through Laos and into China, and the most comprehensive programme of voyages along Burma’s Chindwin River into the tribal territories of Nagaland.

Cruising the Irrawaddy

As I scramble up the sheer steps to the top of the Pyathetgyi Pagoda in the fading golden glow of evening light, I know this is going to be sunset to remember.

I’ve arrived at the ancient Burmese capital Bagan, the beating heart and undeniable highlight of cruises along Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River. Bagan is famous for its vast collection of temples and stupas scattered across a tropical plain as far as the eye can see.

Tourists are permitted to climb a handful of temples for a better vantage point though as I soon discover, you need to be nimble-footed and unafraid of heights. The beautiful views of the sunset amid the peace of the surroundings make it worthwhile as I watch the sun’s dying rays illuminate the terracotta hues of the temples spread in front of me.

The silence is broken by a softly tolling bell as the sun disappears over the horizon amid a chorus of clicking camera shutters that forever capture this special split-second.

But this Irrawaddy sailing, aboard Sanctuary Retreats’ luxurious and stylish vessel Sanctuary Ananda, is full of memorable moments, though it is the striking landscapes and friendly people that are the real stars of the show.

Rudyard Kipling famously wrote of the country: “This is Burma. It is quite unlike any place you know about.”

And his words still ring true today.

What the experts say

“River cruises in Asia explore the region’s incredible countries in style and comfort, with great food and service, in areas often difficult to reach by land. The smaller vessels have a more intimate atmosphere, while that sense of sailing off the beaten track means these holidays appeal to luxury buyers, the more adventurous and culturally aware. ”
ANDY HARMER, UK & IRELAND DIRECTOR, CLIA

What’s new

Itineraries: Pandaw has introduced a new itinerary through the Irrawaddy Delta in Myanmar. From next March round-trip sailings start from Yangon and will spend a week exploring the delta’s labyrinth of waterways.

Emerald Waterways has unveiled its debut programme to Asia for 2018, with three Mekong itineraries, ranging from 14 to 21 days, which explore Vietnam and Cambodia.

AmaWaterways has added a new Charms of the Mekong sailing on AmaDara from Prek Kdam to Hanoi.

Wendy Wu has introduced two-night Irrawaddy voyages this year as part of its tours to Myanmar.

New riverboats: APT is debuting the luxury purpose-built riverboat RV Samatha in the UK this year. It will offer two new 17- and 20-day Hidden Wonders of Myanmar itineraries.

This August sees French line CroisiEurope add the RV Indochine II to its four-strong fleet of vessels on the Mekong, where it will sail 11-day cruises between Siem Reap and Ho Chi Minh City.

Revamped riverboats: Sanctuary Retreats has unveiled the new-look Yangzi Explorer following a comprehensive refit which combines contemporary style with local Chinese influences. The boat has 38 deluxe cabins and 20 suites and offers three- and four-night sailings on the Yangtze.

Experiences: Belmond is injecting spiritual enrichment to its cruises along Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River with two mindfulness cruises featuring yoga and meditation. Passengers can choose from a seven-night voyage from Bagan on October 7 or a three-night ‘taster cruise from Mandalay on October 11.

Where to book it

Wendy Wu’s 14-day Majestic Yangtze tour from Shanghai to Beijing, which features a four-night Yangtze sailing, is priced from £2,790pp. This includes flights, hotels, excursions, all meals and visa fees.