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The ultimate Asia river cruise guide

Cruise Advice

Whether you're a cruising newbie, an experienced river cruiser or an ocean cruise fan ready to try something different, the waterways of Asia offer a wealth of unique and unforgettable travel experiences.

But how do you work out which Asia river cruise is right for you? There is a diverse and ever-growing range of destinations, river cruise lines and travel styles to choose from, which is why we've put together this guide to what's on offer...

The Mekong

The mighty Mekong river stretches from China, through remote Laos and into Cambodia before reaching Vietnam and the sea. On the Upper Mekong there are few river cruises - a few dayboats exist - but the stretch of the river which takes you through Vietnam and Cambodia is becoming increasingly popular, and you have many choices, from tiny adventure style vessels to much larger purpose-built river boats with extensive facilities.

If you are cruising from the Vietnamese Mekong Delta to Phnom Penh or beyond, look to combine your voyage with extended stays in Vietnam (Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Ho Chi Minh City), and of course in Siem Reap for Angkor, whose magical and evocative temples are totally unmissable - put them at the top of your list and visit now. They are busy, but as nothing compared to how they will become.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Each different day will give you new opportunities: floating markets, villages and farms, towns and cities, workshops, temples, schools and more. Taking your floating home with you, you will be able to speak to the locals, come face to face with their daily lives, and learn more about their economy, religion, education system and lifestyle. A sobering day in Phnom Penh will bring you face to face with the disturbing details of the genocide of the Khmer Rouge - some will prefer not to see it.

Can Tho on the Mekong Delta, Vietnam

Myanmar (Ayeyarwady & Chindwin)

If you're looking for a trip that gives you a different 'wow factor' every day, you should really add Myanmar (Burma) to your list. First time visitors should go for a classic programme designed to cover the highlights: three nights on board a river vessel, travelling along the Ayeyarwady between the historic royal cities of Bagan and Mandalay, book-ended by visits to Yangon and Inle Lake. If you have more time, consider a bit of R&R on the coast, a visit to the magical Mergui archipelago, or a journey further north on the Chindwin river at the end of the rainy season (August - October).

U Bein Bridge in Amarapura, Myanmar

Despite the growing numbers of foreign visitors, tour operations can still be challenging and you should be prepared for occasional power cuts, slightly chaotic domestic flights and some communication difficulties. The best operators are those who have invested in retaining their staff and have an established support network throughout the country. You need a company well-versed in the quirks of Myanmar and whose staff are always one step ahead.

Bagan is a highlight, but the real delights come from the chance to sit and talk - a group of novice monks, school children, local craftsmen and traders. The people are very proud to show off their heritage and seem to love meeting visitors - a holiday to Myanmar is really a cultural exchange.

Balloons over Bagan, Myanmar

Don't miss:

The plain of Bagan with its myriad pagodas is captivating at ground level, but take a balloon trip if you can - unforgettable!

Our recommended cruise lines:

Sanctuary Retreats · Belmond · Scenic

The Brahmaputra

India's north-eastern state of Assam is dominated by the mighty Brahmaputra river, whose banks boast tea gardens, lush jungle and the stunning Kaziranga National Park, a World Heritage site which is home to two thirds of the world's great one-horned rhinoceroses.

Rhinoceros in Kaziranga National Park, India

Enjoy extraordinary scenery, with sandbanks and islands newly deposited by the Brahmaputra carrying mud and silt the long distance from its Himalayan source. Visit nomad tribes in their river-side settlements and marvel at pictures straight from our school geography books, of stately women, beautifully clad in brightly coloured saris, picking the first flush tea of vibrant green.

You will be wowed by the wonderful music and local dancing on Mahjuli, the world's largest riverine island, and have time to explore the remains left by Assam's Ahom Kings, visitors from the east who ruled Assam for 600 years. But nothing beats clambering onto elephants at dawn to stride across the plains and watch the rhinos grazing peacefully in the elephant grass.

Taktsang Monastery, Bhutan

Don't miss:

A Brahmaputra river cruise combines beautifully with a trip to Bhutan, the land of the thunder dragon, using Kolkata as your convenient gateway. Try to coincide with one of the festivals or Tshechu.

Our recommended cruise lines:

Far Horizons

Trip reports:

The Ganges

A voyage on the Ganges (and Hugli, in west Bengal) is an opportunity to delve into India's fascinating historical and religious heritage. From colonial Kolkata (Calcutta), former capital of the Raj, venture forth to explore places such as India's Temple City, Kalna, artisan villages, Bengali towns with palaces, mosques, and fine brick temples, examples of the finest terracotta art, as well as the former French colony of Chandannagar.

Varanasi, India

You will see master craftsmen at work, be decorated with intricate henna designs and learn how to tie a sari and a turban. Explore by horse cart and by sampan, and find out more about the Hare Krishna movement. For Hindus, the Ganges is incredibly sacred, especially in holy cities such as Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh, and whilst some Ganges river cruises do not venture that far upstream, please do ask us if that is an itinerary that interests you.

Taj Mahal in Agra, India

Don't miss:

If you've not been to India before, you are in for a treat. Make the most of it by combining your Ganges cruise with a tour of Rajasthan, including Agra for the Taj Mahal. The locations are magical, and the hotels superb.

Our recommended cruise lines:


The Yangtze

China's mighty Yangtze river stretches 4,000 miles from the Tibetan plateau to the sea at Shanghai. River cruisers join on the stretch between the city of Chongqing and Yichan, where the huge Three Gorges Dam is a tourist destination in its own right.

The dam has raised the river levels significantly over the last 20 years, reducing the impact of the Gorges themselves, whose stony cliffs used to tower sheer above the water, but the trip is still fascinating, and side trips to the little gorges give you a good idea of the timeless scenery.

Sanctuary Yangzi Explorer

A Yangtze river cruise is a perfect way to get an insight into rural China, in contrast to the great cities of Shanghai and Beijing, a day at the wall, a visit to Xian to see the Terracotta Warriors, and a boat trip through the magical limestone karsts, watching the cormorant fishermen on the Li River in Guilin.

Karst mountains near Guilin, China

Our recommended cruise lines:

Sanctuary Retreats · Uniworld · Viking

River Cruising Uncovered

Thinking about a river cruise but don't know where to start? Our informative guide is packed full of everything you need to know, including which cruise lines we recommend, what to expect on each river and how to make the most of your trip...

Meet the author

Edwina Lonsdale is Managing Director and together with husband Matthew, owner of Mundy Cruising. Most recently she's cruised on Windstar and has also sailed with Silversea, Seabourn, Regent Seven Seas, Crystal, SeaDream, Ponant, AmaWaterways and Aqua Expeditions. Her favourite destination is the Galapagos however she's also enjoyed cruises in the Mediterranean, Danube, Middle East, East Africa & Indian Ocean, Brahmaputra, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, the Mekong, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, the Caribbean and the Arctic. When she’s not travelling she loves reading, food and wine.

More about Edwina

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