Drifting along the Irrawaddy or the Mekong, or further out at sea, is an adventurous way to see this region’s most exotic corners, says Caroline Hendrie.
Cruising in South-east Asia has traditionally meant a trip along the Mekong River. But today’s adventurous boat traveller is increasingly spoilt for choice with sea and expedition cruises, plus river trips along blossoming Burma’s (Myanmar) Irrawaddy, all bringing exotic parts of this scattered region into reach. With nearly a dozen countries and 620m people, South-east Asia is wonderfully diverse.
From Burma (Myanmar) in the northwest to the 18,000 islands of Indonesia scattered far to the south-east, this is a region of rich and contrasting cultures. From Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok to tiny fishing villages and ancient temple complexes, there is enough to keep a backpacker going forever. But on a single holiday you can now dip into several countries on an ocean cruise, or explore pristine beaches and remote communities on board an expedition ship. And there’s no better way to get into the rhythm of rural life and religious customs than sailing on two great rivers, the Mekong through Vietnam and Cambodia or on the Irrawaddy in Burma.
The former British colony (renamed Myanmar by the military junta in 1989) is South-east Asia’s most inward-looking country, discouraging tourism and getting few visitors for three decades before Aung San Suu Kyi called for a tourism boycott in 1992. Since 2011 when she gave the go-ahead for tourists to return, the trickle is becoming a deluge. With too few international-class hotel rooms to match demand, plus a still-fractured infrastructure, touring by boat makes sense. Classic cruises on the country’s major waterway, the Irrawaddy, travel between the 19th-century capital Mandalay and the temple-studded plains of Bagan.
Among the river’s ever-growing number of vessels is an established fleet of colonial-style Pandaw boats, named after an original Clyde-built steamer which was operated by the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, established in 1865. Pandaw have been offering cruises on elegant brass and teak ships since 1995 and will have eight boats in Burma by October 2015. Another Burma pioneer, Road to Mandalay celebrates 20 years on the Irrawaddy next year, recently joined by the 25-cabin Orcaella. Both boats offer three-, seven- or 11-night cruises.
As the Irrawaddy becomes busier, cruises are moving on to the Chindwin tributary, sailing close to the Indian border. Boats call into the town of Mawleik, travelling through thick jungle and gorges, with stops at remote temples and pagodas. The luxury 21-suite Sanctuary Ananda is one recent addition.
New this year is a cruise north of Mandalay taking in the great gorges carved by the Irrawaddy as it flows south from the Himalayas. The new 20-cabin Kindat Pandaw will sail through dramatic mountainous scenery and thick forests, and you’ll visit the old colonial town of Katha where George Orwell lived and wrote his first novel, Burmese Days.
Well off the tourist trail, Arakan, a little-visited corner of western Burma bordering India, was an independent kingdom until the 18th century. With almost no tourist infrastructure and its own language and culture, Arakan still feels distant from the rest of the country. Next autumn, pioneering seven-night cruises, aboard the new RV ‘Kaladan Pandaw’, will explore Arakan’s river system. Visits include Mrauk U, a 15th-century Buddhist temple city; Sittwe, a former colonial port on the Kaladan river; and villages on the Le Myo river where women tattoo their faces. The seven-night cruise, departs 2 October 2015.
A rice barge in Laos
You can get a feel for rural life in southern Laos aboard ‘Vat Phou’, a converted rice barge that now contains 12 guest cabins and sails on the Mekong River from Pakse, near the Thai border.
On a two-night cruise, you will visit the hidden temple of Oum Moung, sail through the 4,000 islands and see the Pha Pheng falls that form the dramatic border between Laos and Cambodia.
This cruise is offered by Travel Indochina as part of a 22-day tour of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam that also includes a seven-night cruise departing from Ho Chi Minh City and ending in Siem Reap.
Vietnam and Cambodia
The Mekong invariably comes with the words “mighty” or “magnificent” attached when described in tourist brochures. And it is, flowing 4,350km from the Tibetan Plateau to the South China Sea, with more than 60m people depending on it. Cruises are available year-round, but the rainy season (May to October) provides access to smaller tributaries.
Most cruises sail for seven nights between Siem Reap in Cambodia – gateway for the ancient Angkor temples – and Ho Chi Minh City. A cruise to the heart of the two former French colonies, usually part of a longer itinerary, is a good way to observe the contrasts between busy Vietnam and slower-paced Cambodia. Cruises call at Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, for sobering visits to the Killing Fields and Genocide Museum, as well as floating markets and pagoda visits.
Maiden voyages, from villages to Angkor Wat
The ‘Aqua Mekong’ from Peru-based Aqua Expeditions launches this October with 20 spacious suites, but is nifty enough to explore the Mekong’s tributaries and penetrate Vietnam’s Tra Su Cajuput Forest jungle. In Cambodia, it visits remote floating villages on Tonle Sap River.
‘Avalon Siem Riep’ launches in January with 18 cabins that have wall-to-wall windows that fold away to create a balcony. A week on the Mekong is bookended with two days at Angkor Wat and two nights in Ho Chi Minh City.
Two new luxury vessels launching in Burma this year include ‘The Irrawaddy Explorer’ in September, and Sanctuary Retreats Ananda in November. Avalon Waterways also launches its ship, ‘Avalon Myanmar’, on the Irrawaddy river in September 2015.
Out at sea, ‘Silver Discoverer’, the new ultra-luxury expedition ship from Silversea has soft adventure and butler suites for 120 passengers. A 17-night trip from Palau to Bali, visiting Komodo and remote Indonesian islands, departs on 10 March, 2015.
If you fancy a touch of Gallic chic on your voyage, ‘L’Austral’ is a French super yacht with 132 cabins. The 11-night Best of Vietnam cruise sails between Hong Kong and Singapore on 30 October, then on 10 and 21 November. The trip includes sailing on Halong Bay and the Saigon River.
Hit the seas for a broader sweep
While river cruises offer a more immersive experience, an ocean cruise can take you to more places, with excursions to key sites and a glimpse of different cultures. Expedition ships can explore further off the beaten track, taking passengers ashore in zodiac boats. Expedition ship ‘National Geographic Orion’ offers wildlife voyages in Indonesia and Malaysia, visiting Camp Leakey orangutan reserve and rehabilitation centre in Borneo. Contact The Cruise Portfolio (020 7399 7620; thecruiseportfolio.co.uk) for prices and booking.
Princess Cruises is the mainstream line with the biggest regional presence, basing its large resort ship, the 2,700-passenger ‘Sapphire Princess’ in Singapore for winter 2014/15. Itineraries of three to 11 nights to Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand can be combined for cruises of up to 21 nights.