Impossibly vast, with no one corner quite like another, Asia spoils for choice when it comes to both destinations and modes of travel. Cruising its waterways however can open up local communities and sides of its most famous countries most visitors never get to see on Asia tours. Here are three great rivers to consider adding to your Asia cruising experience.
Mekong – Vietnam and Cambodia
Many visitors to Southeast Asia get to know the Mekong via a day in the Mekong Delta, departing from Ho Chi Minh City. But this is one of Asia’s great river systems, sustaining communities throughout Laos, Cambodia, and southern Vietnam. Most travellers on classic Southeast Asia tours will bypass those communities completely on their way to the ruins of Angkor and other well-known sights. But if you want to see the “real” Cambodia and Southern Vietnam, a Mekong River cruise can open up these regions in new and surprising ways.
In Vietnam, a couple of days on the water is the best way to experience the Mekong Delta. Besides bringing you up close and personal with the local communities, it’s a chance to see the local birdlife that thrives along these waterways. There’s even a century-old cathedral tucked away on one of the islands, along with a Taoist temple, where the monks will read the fortunes of curious visitors.
Tonle Sap, the great lake at the centre of Cambodia, is the country’s beating natural heart. Besides sustaining the country’s agriculture and fishing, the waterways of Tonle Sap lead you to some of Cambodia’s most active and intriguing communities, some of whom live on the water itself. Right on its banks sits Phnom Penh, the country’s ever-growing and modernizing capital. Step ashore to visit the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, along with the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields for a sobering glimpse of Cambodia’s terrible years under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.
Going further upstream gives you the chance to go beyond Cambodia’s regular tourist stops on Asia tours and visit the more remote communities such as the “silk island” of Koh Okhina Tey. Besides being known for its fine silk production, the island is a great place to see a demonstration of Bokator, Cambodia’s unique martial art. Some of these upstream waterways also provide a safe harbour for Irrawaddy dolphins, particularly Kratie, often the last stop before passengers disembark at Siem Reap, the modern gateway to Angkor.
Irrawaddy – Myanmar (Burma)
Flowing from high in the country’s north to its mouth at the Andaman Sea, The Irrawaddy – sometimes spelled Ayeyarwady – River defines Myanmar, also known as Burma. This indecision about names is typical of a country that offers several different faces and perspectives, and is rarely what visitors expect. Myanmar isn’t just a Southeast Asia vacation. For many Globetrotters, it’s a step into the unknown. Those willing to take that step will find themselves amid centuries of history and a culture that always seems to have another layer, waiting to be revealed. There’s no better way to experience it than on the Irrawaddy.
Connecting Yangon to Mandalay, the Irrawaddy unlocks Myanmar at its most intriguing, opening up the smaller communities between these two famous cities. Considering so much of Myanmar is still unknown to outside travellers, this is a golden opportunity to explore a country still largely undisturbed by mass-tourism. Visit Donabyu, where the First Anglo-Burmese war ended after a disastrous campaign that devastated both sides.
The vast collection of 2,200 stupas that make up the Bagan temple complex is now almost as famous as Cambodia’s Angkor ruins. It’s mind-boggling to imagine that over 10,000 Buddhist temples once stood here. Yet Bagan, perhaps unsurprisingly, is not Myanmar’s only great archaeological site. The ruins at Thiri-ya-kittiya mark the former centre of the Pyu civilization, dating back to the fifth century. More recent, though still over two centuries old, is the Mingun Pagoda, an unfinished landmark begun by King Bodawpaya.
Not all the Irrawaddy’s glories lie in the past however. A cruise on the river is also a chance to meet Burmese communities, including Kyauk-myoung, famous for its enormous 50-gallon water pots.
Yangtze – China
As immense as it is diverse, there are so many ways to experience China on Asia tours, it’s easy for cruising to be lost in the milieu. The Yangtze River however is one of the world’s great waterways, and as you sail between the dramatic cliffs of the Three Gorges, it’s easy to see why. On the edge of the Himalayas, there’s a wow factor to China’s natural landscape that takes many western travellers by surprise.
The Yangtze has sustained Hubei and the nearby provinces for centuries. A more recent development has been the incredible Three Gorges Dam Project. Controversially forcing the resettlement of 1.2 million people, the Three Gorges Dam spans a massive 2.3 kilometres, and reaches over 180 metres in height. Besides its awesome size, it raises fascinating questions about China’s steady march toward the future, balancing environmental concerns with its massive population. It’s not the only feat of ambitious engineering along the Yangtze. The 816 Underground Project carved the world’s largest artificial military cave into the mountains of Jianzishan over 50 years ago, dug by over 60,000 workers over a 17 year period.
Of course, rural Chinese communities still thrive along the river, along with the native plants and animals of the Yangtze region. The Tujia boatmen are some of its more famous inhabitants, who will take fortunate passengers ashore aboard a traditional sampan. The region is also home to traditional trackers villages, with mud huts containing basic, yet surprisingly functional kitchens.
Passenger vessels that traverse the Yangtze, such as the Sanctuary Yangzi Explorer (the spelling of the river’s name varies widely according to who you ask) also offer curious Globetrotters the chance to experience local culture onboard. Local dishes and highlights of regional cuisine make every onboard meal a memorable part of the experience. If passengers really want to get into the local spirit, they can rise early for a traditional Tai Chi lesson led by a certified master, before informative talks help put each day’s discoveries in context.
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