River cruises are the perfect way to experience Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, China and India in comfort and style. Katherine Lawrey looks at some of the best
Acre upon acre of rice paddy fields, dense jungle brimming with exotic wildlife, colourful floating markets, gilded temples and village life being played out along the river banks. An Asian river cruise has layer upon layer of rich experiences, all framed by beautiful scenery.
With the leisurely pace of a river cruise, the adventure travel experience can be slowed right down, letting guests revel in their surroundings. An attentive crew, comfortable cabins, onboard catering and a tour guide service make a river cruise the easiest way to tour Asia for many who might balk at the idea of travelling independently in the region.
One of the most obvious choices is the Mekong, which runs for almost 5,000km from its source high up on the Tibetan plateau to Vietnam, through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia.
The most popular section to explore is between Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam and Siem Reap in Cambodia, with the spectacular 12th century temple complex of Angkor Wat a highlight.
Cambodia and Vietnam have a limited dry season from November to February before it heats up in March and April. Monsoon season lasts from May to October but it does not have to be a deterrent. It generally rains for an hour a day, in the afternoon, and with excursions scheduled for the morning, you can be back onboard and under cover, cocktail in hand, by the time the heavens open.
All the leading river cruise lines operate ships on the Mekong including AmaWaterways, Avalon, Uniworld, Viking River Cruises, Heritage Line and CroisiEurope. Most ships can accommodate between 50 and 70 passengers but there are some boutique experiences out there. Tom Tiou, featured by eWaterways, and Pandaw Cruises’ Laos Pandaw have just 10 double cabins each, while Avalon will debut Saigon this September, with 18 en suite cabins.
Of course not all Asia’s highlights are conveniently located near a navigable river. Look at Titan, Wendy Wu, APT and Riviera Travel for land and cruise tour combinations. Titan’s Charms of the Mekong combines seven nights in hotels with a seven-night cruise on AmaDara and even one night
on a junk in Halong Bay.
The Mekong may flow through six countries, but the title of Asia’s longest river goes to the Yangtze, stretching over 6,000km from Shanghai through China’s heartland. The most popular area is Three Gorges, a 160km stretch between Nanjin Pass in the east and White King City in the west. The impressive scenery is matched by a world-class engineering project. A series of staircase locks bypass a hydroelectric dam, which is
the world’s largest power station, going by the amount of electricity generated.
China can be neatly packaged to combine a Yangtze river cruise (from Chongqing to Wuhan) with must-see sights – the Great Wall of China (at Beijing), Shanghai and the Terracotta Army at Xian, which is what Viking River Cruises’ Imperial Jewels of China does.
Wendy Wu’s Majestic Yangtze adds Chengdu’s Panda Conservation Centre into the mix, while Uniworld’s Grand China & the Yangtze itinerary features another iconic snapshot straight from a Chinese scroll painting. The landscape around Guilin and the Li River in Yangshuo appears frozen in time, with terraced rice paddies, grazing water buffalo and conical-hatted fishermen against a backdrop of limestone karsts and misty mountains.
It’s best to avoid the Yangtze in July and early August, when it’s hot and humid. The temperatures are more agreeable from May to June and late August to October.
Another epic Asian river that’s becomingly increasingly popular is the Irrawaddy, which runs 2,000km through central Myanmar, from its source in the Himalayas to the Andaman sea.
Myanmar is often referred to as the Golden Land due to the number of pagodas covered in gold. From Bagan’s famous golden-topped temples, rising above the jungle treeline, to Yangon’s reclining Buddha and 99m high Shwedagon Pagoda, a passage along the Irrawaddy is a treasure hunt with obvious clues. APT’s Hidden Wonders of Myanmar includes the spell-binding experience of gliding underneath the world’s longest teak bridge, U Bein Bridge, in a traditional sampan at sunset. It was constructed more than 150 years ago and stretches 1.2km across a lake, perched on more than 1,000 pillars.
It’s handy to have a watch in Myanmar – it’s one of the few countries in the world to operate in an offset time zone, making it 30 minutes behind the majority of Southeast Asia.
The best time to plan a visit is from November to February when it’s the cool, dry season, but days remain warm and evenings are pleasantly balmy.
Those who have ticked off these rivers may be tempted by India and a cruise along Hindu’s holy river. Spiritual, chaotic and colourful, a Ganges river cruise is an assault on the senses and will not be everyone’s cup of tea. Pollution is a problem, but that doesn’t detract from its fascinating sights.
For something a little more refined, tour the palm tree-fringed rice paddies of Kerala’s backwaters by house boat. The Oberoi’s MV Vrinda is one way to do it in style with 24-hour butler service and wi-fi.