The very mention of Asia is enough to stir the imagination and conjure up visions of exotic faraway destinations. And if you’re looking for a Asia river cruise like no other, it could be time to expand your horizons and head east.
The choice of Asia river cruise tours is increasing all the time, from big names such as Viking River Cruises, APT, AmaWaterways and CroisiEurope to the smaller specialists including Pandaw, Far Horizon Tours and G Adventures. But whoever you choose, you can be sure of a comfortable base from which to explore these incredibly exciting destinations and their rich diversity of cultures, landscapes and cuisines. From Vietnam and Cambodia to China and India, here’s a round-up of the best Asia river cruises and what you can expect to see and do.
Known as the ‘Mother of all Rivers’, the 2,700-mile Mekong is Southeast Asia’s longest waterway. Flowing through Vietnam and Cambodia, the Lower Mekong has led the expansion of long-haul cruising. Offering ever-changing panoramas through the lush landscapes and contrasting cities of what was once French Indochina, a Mekong river cruise is a must.
In Vietnam you’ll experience cosmopolitan Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, where crossing roads jam-packed with cars and hooting motorcycles is an art form. Outside HCMC, the Cu Chi Tunnels are an extraordinary experience. This 75-mile labyrinth was dug by Vietnamese soldiers during their wars against France and US, with underground living areas, kitchens, hospitals and command centres. Thousands sheltered down here, even surviving US carpet-bombing in the 1960s. The tunnels are incredibly narrow, but a few sections have been widened so today’s visitors can get some sense of the soldiers’ subterranean existence.
Other authentic excursions include visits to floating fishing villages, and rides in ox carts to meet the locals in small towns. Cruise passengers can also opt for a pre or post-cruise stay in enigmatic Hanoi, the country’s capital, with centuries-old buildings and Asian, Chinese and French influences.
Rising in China and flowing through northern Vietnam, the Red River connects Hanoi to UNESCO-listed Halong Bay, a maze of 1,600 islands forming a spectacular seascape of limestone pillars. Guests spend time in both destinations as well as enjoying a tranquil river cruise, visiting temples and seeing a performance of xoan, an ancient Vietnamese form of storytelling that incorporates singing, dancing, acting, chanting and drumming. A voyage along this less travelled waterway is the perfect choice for anyone who has already sailed on the Mekong.
Get on Board
Bust The Budget 15-day ‘Vietnam and Cambodia’ cruise, including free business flights, departing August 2019, from £4,840, aptouring.co.uk
Luxe For Less 13-night ‘Halong Bay and Five-Star Vietnam River’ cruise, departing 22 Nov 2019, from £2,995 inc pre-cruise hotel stay and flights, newmarketholidays.co.uk Wallet Winner 7-night ‘Mekong River Experience’ from Siem Reap to HCMC, departing 8 Sept 2019, from £1,299 cruise only, gadventures.co.uk
Only a decade ago, Burma – now Myanmar – was a destination for only a few intrepid travellers, but a growing tourism infrastructure has opened up this captivating and mystical country to visitors.
Culture-rich cruises on the Ayeyarwady River were pioneered by small-ship specialist Pandaw, whose charming vessels with their gleaming teak decks and brass fittings recall the 19th century Irrawaddy Flotilla company that once plied these waters.
Other mainstream lines have followed suit, with ships that also provide a fitting but comfortable home for modern-day passengers. With Pandaw and Sanctuary Retreats, intrepid travellers can even explore the Chindwin, a less-visited tributary of the Ayeyarwady that rises in the north, near the Indian border.
Stretching for 1,350 miles, Myanmar’s longest waterway takes its name from the ancient sanskrit word airavati, meaning elephant river, and the country remains a significant habitat for these noble but now endangered beasts. The Ayeyarwady valley is the nation’s cultural and economic heartland, and cruise passengers enjoy a waterborne journey past hundreds of glittering temples.
Cruises are generally combined with overnight stays in the enchanting cities of Yangon – formerly Rangoon – and Mandalay, immortalised in the famous poem by Rudyard Kipling. In Yangon, the jewel-encrusted Shwedagon pagoda is a landmark. Mandalay, the former royal capital, looks like a vision against the pagoda-studded hills of Sagaing, and Mandalay’s wooden Shwenandaw monastery is renowned for its intricate carvings.
The greatest concentration of temples, pagodas and monasteries can be found on the plain of Bagan, where around 2,200 of the original 4,450 survive, all built between the 11th and 13th centuries.
With few roads or railways in this remote northern region, the Chindwin is still a working transport artery, and visitors will see small wooden boats transporting locals and essential supplies between villages. Highlights include the town of Monywa, with its colourful Thanbodi Temple and amazing 381ft golden Buddha, the largest in Myanmar.
Get on Board
Bust The Budget 14-night ‘The Irrawaddy’ cruise, round trip from Yangon to Mandalay via Bagan, departing 18 November 2019, from £4,538 cruise only, pandaw.com
Luxe For Less 7-night ‘Ayeyarwady Adventure’ cruise, round trip from Mandalay via Bagan, departing 18 December 2019, from £2,112 cruise only, belmond.com
Wallet Winner 7-night round-trip cruise from Bagan, departing 7 August 2019, from £920 cruise only, sanctuaryretreats.com
Follow the Mekong into Cambodia and you’ll call at Siem Reap, gateway to cultural treasures including the 12th century UNESCO-listed temples of Angkor Wat; imposing Angkor Thom, with 216 faces of Buddha carved into its towers, and mysterious Ta Prohm, where huge tree roots entwine with the ruins (Lara Croft fans will recognise it from Tomb Raider).
South of Siem Reap is Tonlé Sap, Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake, a unique biosphere that shrinks by three quarters in the dry seasons and submerges trees when it floods. More than three million people inhabit these shores, the majority earning a living by fishing and farming the lush banks.
In the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, the Royal Palace is a fine example of traditional Khmer architecture, set in glorious gardens. Here you can see the ornate Silver Pagoda, paved with 5,000 silver tiles, and a solid gold Buddha adorned with 9,500 diamonds. For a more sobering excursion, the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum bear testimony to the dark days of the Khmer Rouge regime that murdered hundreds of thousands of its own people in the 1970s.
In the riverside town of Sa Dec, visitors can explore the crowded market before sipping a refreshing cup of jasmine tea at the ornate former home of Huynh Thuy Le, the wealthy merchant’s son who inspired Marguerite Duras’ semi- autobiographical novel, The Lover. Some cruises also feature a visit to a splendid pagoda, isolated in the middle of rice fields in Kampong Tralach, where monks bless visitors and shower them with jasmine and lotus petals.
Throughout Cambodia, elegant colonial buildings offer tantalising glimpses of the past, while street-food vendors sell baguettes, pastries and other reminders of the region’s history as part of French Indochina.
Get on Board
Bust The Budget 14-night ‘Treasures of the Mekong’ cruise from Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap via Sa Dec and Kampong Tralach, departing 4 April 2020, from £5,790 inc flights, scenic.co.uk
Luxe For Less 14-night ‘Journey on the Mekong’ cruise from Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap, departing 6 October 2019, from £2,899 inc flights, rivieratravel.co.uk
Wallet Winner 10-night ‘From the Mekong Delta to the Temples of Angkor’ cruise, departing 15 August 2019, from £2,331 cruise only, croisieurope.co.uk
Landlocked by Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar and China, mysterious Laos makes an alluring off-the-beaten-track choice for a voyage along the fast-flowing Upper Mekong.
Cruising is relatively new here and most itineraries are bookended by the charming UNESCO-listed French colonial city of Luang Prabang and the Laotian capital, Vientiane. Between the two lie isolated villages where time seems to stand still. Some itineraries include the northern Thai province of Chiang Saen, once notorious as the Golden Triangle drug-trading zone (its dark past is explored at the Hall of Opium Museum).
River ships sail through a lush green landscape of jungle and conical mountains. Impressive sights include the Pak Ou caves, set in sheer limestone cliffs and containing thousands of Buddha statues. Other natural highlights are the pools at the cascading Kuang Si waterfalls. This is a deeply religious country, and many cruises include a centuries-old baci ceremony, where local singers and dancers come aboard to tie cotton strings round passengers’ wrists to bring good luck.
The modern-day capital, Vientiane, is compact, quiet and walkable. Most tours will take in Wat Sisaket, the city’s oldest temple, which is filled with tens of thousands of carved Buddhas in a variety of poses, each with a symbolic meaning.
Bust The Budget 21-night ‘Halong Bay, Red River & Laos Mekong’ combination itinerary, departing 30 January 2021, from £4,974 cruise only, pandaw.com
Luxe For Less 13-night ‘Mekong Explorer’ cruise from Chiang Rai to Vientiane via Luang Prabang and Pak Ou, departing 19 January 2020, from £3,995 inc flights and 2-night hotel stay, vjv.com
Wallet Winner 10-night ‘The Laos Mekong’ cruise from Vientiane to Chiang Saen, departing 23 February 2020, from £3,004 cruise only, pandaw.com
Cruising a stretch of the 3,915-mile Yangtze is a wonderful way to sample the seemingly endless cultural riches of China. The scenery is stunning, too, as Asia’s mightiest river flows through misty mountains and sheer gorges, passing serene riverbanks dotted with pagodas.
Itineraries typically include a land-based stay in Beijing and Shanghai, with internal flights to reach your ship, so be ready for some dramatic changes of scene as you shuttle between vast global cities and undeveloped countryside.
The most dramatic stretch of the Yangtze is the 190-mile Three Gorges region, and a tour of the Three Gorges Dam – 610ft high and one-and-a-half miles wide – provides an opportunity to marvel at the immensity of the world’s largest engineering project.
The sheer size of the river means that ships can dwarf anything you’ll see on European waterways. Some passenger cruisers stand five decks tall, carrying up to 250 guests in all-balcony cabins, with onboard shops, spas and other amenities you’d expect to find only on an oceangoing cruise ship. Itinerary highlights include the 100-acre expanse of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square – gateway to the famous Forbidden City, China’s largest and most intact group of ancient buildings.
Outside the city, most tours visit the Badaling Hills section of the Great Wall, an especially well-preserved section of this giant edifice that once stretched for 4,000 miles, symbolising China’s isolation from the rest of the world. Usually at the end of your Yangtze cruise, an internal flight will take you to another of China’s most jaw-dropping sights, the Terracotta Army.
Get on Board
Bust The Budget 13-night ‘Best of China’ tour including Yangtze cruise, Great Wall, Terracotta Army, 3 nights in Shanghai and Beijing, departing 30 October 2019, from £6,195 inc flights, aptouring.co.uk
Luxe For Less 13-night ‘Imperial Jewels of China’ cruise with 3 nights in Beijing and 2 nights in Shanghai, departing 20 Aug 2020, from £3,495 inc flights, vikingrivercruises.co.uk
Wallet Winner 12-night ‘Treasures of China’ tour with 3 nights in Chengdu and 2 nights in Beijing, departing 5 May 2020, from £2,699 inc flights, titantravel.co.uk
Rising in the glacial Himalayas and flowing 1,569 miles to the Bay of Bengal, this sacred waterway is India’s lifeblood. Sailings on the Upper Ganges visit Varanasi, the holiest city of Hinduism, where it’s magical to watch the evening aarti ceremony, when hundreds of candles are floated out on the water.
Cruises on the Lower Ganges, also known as the Hooghly, run between Farakka and Kolkata. This lesser-known stretch was once a vital artery for India’s jute trade but today it offers a peaceful journey through the Bengali countryside, where banks are lined with rice paddies, mango orchards, mustard fields and reminders of the days of the colonial East India Company.
Evocative sights including the memorial at the battlefield of Plassey, where Robert Clive’s victory in 1757 delivered Bengal into British hands, changing the course of history and leading ultimately to the foundation of the British Raj.
India’s fastest flowing river rises in the Himalayas and courses 1,800 miles to the Bay of Bengal, running the entire length of the north-eastern tea-growing state of Assam. Rising by the height of a three-storey building during the monsoon season, the Brahmaputra is a remarkable waterway that shapes the surrounding landscape. Visitors are a rarity in this region, and attract curious but polite attention.
Standout excursions include Majuli, the world’s largest river island, where you can see monks worship through a joyous ritual of song and dance. A natural highlight is Kaziranga National Park, home to India’s ‘big five’.
Bust The Budget 12-night ‘India’s Golden Triangle & the Sacred Ganges’ itinerary from New Delhi to Kolkata including Agra, Jaipur and a 7-night Ganges cruise, departing 2 January 2020, from £6,479 cruise only, uniworld.com
Luxe For Less 9-night ‘Kolkata & The Mighty Brahmaputra River’ cruise/stay, with 2 nights in Kolkata and a 7-night river cruise from Guwahati to Jorhat, from £2,799 inc flights, fredrivercruises.co.uk
Wallet Winner 11-night ‘Along the Banks of the Hooghly’ tour, including 3 nights in Kolkata and a seven-night Hooghly River cruise, upstream from Barrackpore to Farraka, departing 7 April 2020, from £2,195 inc flights, vjv.com