(Enjoying a cuppa aboard the Mekong Pandaw. Image credit: Ben Alcock)
Unlike horizon-to-horizon days at sea, the up-close scenery on a river cruise unfolds moment by moment. And there you are, leaning on the balcony rail, very likely with a cool drink in hand, taking it in, sometimes so close it feels like you could reach out and touch it.
(Life on the rivers of Asia. Image credit: Ben Alcock)
Life and communities thrive by the river. They sustain people and cultures, and provide routes for trade. From Paris to Phnom Penh, river cruising is booming as more Australian travellers than ever test the waters and see the world in a way they haven't before.
(One of the most luxurious vessels on the Mekong, the RV Amalotus. Image credit: APT)
"River cruising has always been popular with Australian passengers, and pre-dates the growth in the number of Australians taking ocean cruises", says Joel Katz, Managing Director of the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) Australasia & Asia.
Yangtze, Irrawaddy, Mekong. A generation ago, these mighty rivers might have seemed remote and mysterious, dangerous even, explored only by the most adventurous, intrepid traveller. Not anymore. These days, comfortable, purpose-built cruise ships ply these waters, opening up places only accessible by these inland waterways, providing new ways to travel between cities and countries.
(Pandaw’s purpose-built ships evoke the days of the legendary Irrawaddy Flotilla Company. Image credit: Ben Alcock)
"Operators are adding new itineraries and stops on some of the great rivers of Asia. It’s even possible now to cruise the upper Mekong through Laos and Myanmar to China", continues Mr Katz.
Compared to their ocean going cousins, river ships tend to be more intimate affairs with berths typically for fewer than 200 passengers, more often around the 50-100 mark. This not only makes for a more intimate experience on board, but also changes the cruise experience completely.
(River ships can pull right into the river bank, bringing guests directly to points and places of interest. Image credit: Ben Alcock)
"Gliding into Phnom Penh at the junction of Cambodia's Mekong and Tonlé Sap rivers at sunrise was an unforgettable experience", says ATAS accredited travel advisor, Wendy MacFarlane from Travel Associates Erina.
"Watching and hearing the city awaken as we quietly approached was lovely. Compared to roaring into an international airport and fighting peak-hour traffic in a taxi, or transferring from a huge cruise ship to shore with thousands of fellow passengers, it's such a gorgeous way to arrive", says Wendy of her Pandaw cruise between Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap in Cambodia.
"There's an ease to travelling on a river, particularly in Asia where established operators deliver a refined experience, offering even the most discerning client excellent service and an attentive crew, making their holiday a memorable one", she continues.
(Up close with life on the Mekong. Image credit: Ben Alcock)
"River cruising gives you an intimate glimpse of the region you're travelling through and allows you to be part of authentic local culture as it unfolds before your eyes along the river banks", says Wendy.
Most river cruises include free daily shore excursions, all meals and some (or all drinks). Smaller passenger numbers mean smaller groups ashore, ensuring personal interactions with locals relatively inconspicuously. The scale of activity generally on a river cruise is very human. It feels like the river is leading you gently on the adventure of a lifetime.
(Shore excursions bring visitors into riverside towns and villages. Image credit: Ben Alcock)
There are also the benefits of the old 'unpack just once' adage, and rarely will you encounter an inside cabin on a river ship. Experienced cruisers also often report attentive service with high staff to guest ratios. And you probably won't have to pack your tuxedo or fancy finery as river expeditions typically enjoy a more relaxed vibe.
CLIA’s Joel Katz says, “Asian river cruising provides the opportunity for guests to immerse themselves in the history and culture of the ancient civilisations they are travelling through, whether it’s history, contemporary politics, tea ceremonies, the diversity of the food and culinary traditions, or classes in the ancient traditions of tai chi and calligraphy."
(Visit riverside monasteries. Image credit: Ben Alcock)
ATAS accredited travel agents can help you with all the information you need to plan and book the perfect Asian river cruise adventure. Their close relationships with cruise operators, hoteliers and airlines mean you’re in good hands at every step of the way.
The Yangtse river is the epicentre of river cruising in China taking visitors through the Three Gorges region, the most scenic section of the navigable reaches of the Yangtze. Yangtse cruises can be a stand-alone experience, but are typically offered as part of a longer touring itinerary.
Myanmar (formerly Burma) is a country of rivers, and cruise operators here offer exploration not just of the legendary Irrawaddy river, but also its main tributary - the Chindwin. For thousands of years, Myanmar's riches were carried on these famed waterways from Mandalay, Pagan and Yangon. In British colonial times the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company became the world's largest fleet of privately owned ships, ever.
Many excellent cruise companies offer a range of Mekong River expeditions that connect these two fascinating countries. Immigration formalities are processed by officials zipping between your cruise ship and the border posts on shore with your passports and visa documentation- a unique experience best conducted during a long lunch aboard your ship. Many Mekong cruises will include an excursion to the river dolphin grounds near Kratie in Cambodia.
In Vietnam's north, small ship cruises also explore the Red River system that flows into Hanoi and on to Halong Bay.
River cruising is relatively new to India, but the Lower Ganges and its tributary called the Hooghly from Kolkata provide the perfect way to see the country from the slow lane.
The Upper Mekong connects Laos with Thailand, Myanmar and its northern neighbour, China. These stretches of the river are being explored by a small number of expedition-style cruise operators. Cruise from gorgeous Luang Prabang in Laos to Jinghing in China.
Contact an ATAS accredited travel agent to plan your Asia river cruise adventure. Travel confident that you have an ATAS accredited travel agent in your corner. After all, without one, you’re on your own.
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