If you want to stay off-the-beaten tourist track while uncovering the treasures of Asia, you might consider an Asian river cruise. These intimate voyages get you closer to the region’s hidden gems, from secluded caves filled with Buddhist relics, to quiet fishing villages untouched by Western influences. The rivers of Asia meander through magnificent scenic landscapes, including lush Laotian rice patties, thriving Indian backwaters, and craggy Vietnamese coves. Get away from the hustle and bustle of the Asian capitals and see this culturally-rich region from a new angle. Choose from a collection of stylish small cruisers, perfectly suited to luxurious life on the water. All aboard!
Myanmar and the Majestic Irrawaddy
Sailing past the picturesque farmland and ancient hilltop temples that line the Irrawaddy’s shores, you might never guess that this river is a commercial lifeline in Myanmar. The stretch from Mandalay to Bagan – the preferred route for cruising the river, and the one offered by Belmond’s Road to Mandalay – comprises former royal capitals and ancient monasteries. As you pass, the air is filled with traditional chants and songs. Locals wait by the river to greet you when you disembark, and wave you off after a day’s exploration of markets and gilded temples. Back on board, you’ll experience more Burmese hospitality in the boutique setting of a former Orient Express ship.
Discover China from the Yangtze
On China’s Yangtze River, you’ll celebrate the extraordinary achievements of man and nature. The highlight of this voyage is passing through the Three Gorges; for some, the operation of the eponymous dam with its five-stage ship lock – the largest in the world – holds the most excitement, while for others, taking in the trio of Wu Gorge, Qutang Gorge, and Xiling Gorge is much more memorable. Together, these three gorges are considered the most attractive stretch of the Yangtze. Watch them float past from your private balcony on a Century Yangtze River Cruise, while sipping a cold local beer purchased from a charming dockside vendor. These voyages draw a mix of Westerners and locals, so the atmosphere is more relaxed than your typical cruise.
Hang Around Vietnam’s Halong Bay
With its 1,600 limestone islands – some tall and rocky, others blanketed in lush green foliage – this postcard-perfect pocket of northeast Vietnam is the sort of place where cares just fall away. Drifting along the serene turquoise waters of Halong Bay, you might even be tempted to stow your timepiece and switch off completely. It’s a goal wholeheartedly supported by Bai Tho Junk Cruises, whose sailings skip the traditional post-dinner entertainment and jam-packed schedules of so many larger ships. Instead, you’re invited to relax over long, leisurely seafood dinners showcasing an impressive variety of fresh local shellfish.
2-Day Halong Bay – Bai Tho Junk Cruises
International Adventures on the Mekong
Though the Mekong River flows through six countries, it arguably cuts its most striking path through Laos. Here, from a sunbed on the deck of the Mekong Explorer, you can watch the changing landscapes of dramatic green hills and bamboo forests. Along the way, you’ll meet orange-clad monks on their early morning promenade, peek inside a sombre cave packed with Buddha statues cast in metal and carved from stone, and sample vibrant local cuisine laced with the fresh flavours of papaya and mint. Alternatively, board Pandaw’s Classic Mekong cruise from Vietnam to Cambodia.
Suggested Itinerary:8-Day Classic Mekong
Cross the Kerala Backwaters in India
Cruising the magical Kerala Backwaters in the south of India is an opportunity for quiet contemplation. Whether you’re a fan of people watching or nature spotting, you’ll have plenty of chances to observe local life from on board your private houseboat. Staffed by a small, attentive (but non-intrusive) team, the boat will be your base for a one- or two-night tour of the rivers and lagoons. You’ll be served generous portions of sumptuous Keralan cuisine, fragranced with spices like cardamom and black pepper, which grow wild throughout the region. This area is especially thrilling for bird watchers, who will appreciate the opportunity to spot magnificent native birds like kites and kingfishers.
4-Day Kerala Backwaters Cruise
Test the Waters on Thailand’s River Kwai
In Thailand’s rarely explored Kanchanaburi province, the River Kwai promises a rewarding adventure for any armchair historian. Board the RV River Kwai, a cruiser built in the colonial style of the Irrawaddy Flotilla, for a four-day journey up this placid waterway. Along the way, you’ll be treated to intimate lectures on regional history. The ship accommodates a maximum of 20 guests, so you’ll have no trouble getting any questions answered. In addition to World War II-era historic sites like the JEATH War Museum, the Donrak War Cemetery, and the famous River Kwai bridge, you’ll visit 13th and 14th century Khmer temple ruins at Mueang Sing Historical Park.
An Asian river cruise is the best way to get a more intimate and in-depth look at the region you’re visiting, with the benefits of highly personal service through a higher crew-to-passenger ratio than bigger ships can offer. Also, without the hassle of packing and unpacking on a land-based journey, river cruises leave you more time to relax and enjoy your unique trip.