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Unmissable Asian River Cruise Sights

David Pettitt

Some of the world’s greatest rivers are found in Asia and many of them are ideal for river cruising. The variety of landscapes, diversity of cultures and range of options make this a unique river cruise region. One of the reasons for this is that although part of a holiday, an Asian river cruise can also have a functional aspect making it both an enjoyable way to travel but also a way to explore remote regions or cross normally hard-to-reach country borders. From days to weeks, leisurely in style or exploratory, within a single-country or multi-country, an Asian river cruise is certain to include a multitude of unmissable sights, some famous, others little-known. Below are some of our favourites.

The temples of Bagan in Myanmar

Nearly all Irrawaddy cruises will include Bagan but, as one of the most important archaeological sites in Asia, this should come as little surprise. Lining the banks of the Irrawaddy River, in its entirety the site spans a vast area and was estimated at one time to have many more thousands of temples, pagodas and monasteries than survive today. Since the first temple was erected over 1,000 years ago, changes in fortune and, latterly, a series of earthquakes have reduced the original number of structures yet, despite this, more than 2,000 still remain. Showcasing a range of architectural styles that correlate with the site’s long occupation period, in many of the structures the original interior frescoes remain in good condition whilst others house statues or exhibit elaborate gilded features.

Featured in ‘A River Cruise through Burma

Sunset in Asia with temples in the foreground
Sunset over Bagan

Luang Prabang in Laos

Occupying a magical setting at a confluence of the Mekong River, enveloped by jungle-clad hills and framed by misty mountain peaks, arriving in Luang Prabang is an instantly memorable experience. Yet what marks Luang Prabang out as one of the region’s most charming towns is its eclectic mix of architecture, a relaxed atmosphere and first-rate food. In many ways, all three can be related to its cosmopolitan and richly varied history. A royal capital for centuries, a major religious centre, trading outpost and setting for the establishment of the French protectorate, the town has always held a prominent role in Laotian affairs. Historic monastic complexes and elaborately decorated temples stand side-by-side with graceful French colonial mansions whilst the Buddha statues that line the walls of the fascinating Pak Ou caves are a short journey upriver.

Featured in ‘Cruising the Mekong: From Laos to China

Monks in saffron robes collecting alms from people in Laos
Monks collecting alms in Luang Prabang

North East India’s Kaziranga National Park

India’s remote north east flies under the radar for most visitors to the country. The mighty Brahmaputra River, lifeblood of the region, continues to dominate everyday life and, to this day, retains its status as an important arterial route through what is one of the least-explored parts of India. This section of the river between Patna and Jorhat widens, and the vast plains that stretch north and south pass through a number of ecologically significant areas. One of the best known and most important of these is Kaziranga National Park which is home to a large population of one-horned rhinoceros as well as a wide variety of birdlife. The upper reaches of the Brahmaputra between Kaziranga and Dibrugarh is exceptionally diverse with highlights being the tea estates close to Dibrugarh and the weaving villages of Majuli Island.

Featured in ‘Cruising the Lower Brahmaputra – From Guwahati to Silghat

Rhinoceros wading into water in Kaziranga National Park, India
One-horned rhinoceros, Kaziranga National Park

Vietnam’s Mekong Delta

Located at the southern reaches of Vietnam, the Mekong Delta is where one of Asia’s greatest rivers, divided into a multitude of meandering channels, finally reaches the South China Sea. Vietnam’s rice bowl, this is an incredibly fertile region, constantly growing, vibrantly green, with busy commercial towns but also quiet rural backwater villages. The Mekong here, lined with swaying palms, orchards and coconut groves, is the lifeblood of the region, is famous for its colourful floating markets and, importantly, links Vietnam to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. All of this makes the Mekong Delta a fabulous place for a river cruise, culturally but also logistically, and also provides the opportunity for further travel upriver to Seem Reap and the temples of Angkor Wat.

Featured in ‘A Short River Cruise between Saigon and Phnom Penh

Busy floating market with people selling their wares in the Mekong Delta
Floating market in the Mekong delta

Mandalay and neighbouring ancient sites

Mandalay is a large city right in the centre of Myanmar. Although Mandalay is little more than 400 years old, it was the last royal capital of the Burmese kingdom and the surrounding region is the setting for some of the country’s most important historical sites and, as such, is a mainstay of nearly all cruises on the Irrawaddy River. Most of the key things to see are close to the river either to the north or south of the city with highlights being U Bein’s Bridge and Mahagandayon Monastery, to watch the young monks collecting alms, both of which are in Amarapura, the ancient remains of Inwa which was capital of the Burmese Kingdom between the 14th to the 18th centuries, Mingun, site of the world’s largest intact bronze bell, and Sagaing which is an important religious centre.

Featured in ‘A River Journey on the Upper Irrawaddy

Person walking towards the camera on an ancient wooden bridge in Mandalay
U Bein's Bridge near Mandalay
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The unique culture of Majuli Island in Assam, India

A World Heritage Site, Majuli is located in the Brahmaputra River and is the largest inhabited river-island in the world. Located close to Jorhat on the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra, the island has long served as a monastic retreat to the local Vaishnavite community and is known for its indigenous communities, religious retreats and local crafts. The island is home to a number of small Assamese and Mishing villages, complete with characteristic stilted buildings. Salmora, a village known for its pottery making, and the mask making village of Samoguri are particularly fascinating. Similarly, Majuli is also home to a vibrant religious community with the 16th century Vaishnavite Hindu monasteries of Kamalabari Satra, Auniati Satra and Benganti Satra providing a glimpse into the centuries-old practices of the region.

Featured in ‘A Private Brahmaputra River Cruise – Rhinos and Monks of Assam

Two people cycling through lush countryside in Assam
Majuli Island, Assam

Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake

Tonle Sap Lake is South East Asia’s largest body of fresh water and, in many ways, is a remarkable place. Tonle Sap is fundamentally important to everyday life in Cambodia, dominating the geographical centre of the country, playing a major logistical role in linking capital Phnom Penh to the west of the country, providing a huge proportion of Cambodians with food and employment opportunities and one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems to boot. Tonle Sap’s dimensions change tremendously depending on the season – during the rainy period the lake’s width, swollen with water from the Mekong River, increases from 22 to 65 miles – and it is this phenomenon which accounts for both the extraordinary range of birdlife and the numerous stilt villages specifically designed to adapt to the rising water levels.

Featured in ‘A Cambodian River Cruise between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh

Large lake with small islands and wooden boat in the foreground
Tonle Sap wetlands in Cambodia

Ancient Prome in Myanmar

In a country of filled with historical treasures, the town of Prome is one of Burma’s most historic. Known locally as Pyay, Prome has long been an important trading centre for the settlements of the Irrawaddy Delta and lies in an area that once served as the capital of the Pyu people from the 7th century AD. Serving as a logistical centre for the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, with the arrival of the British also came archaeologists and the subsequent 20th century excavations revealed the extent of the ancient capital, subsequently named Sri Ksetra, and brought to light a Pyu culture distinct from the rest of the country. Prome is also home to a number of grand pagodas including Shwesandaw and Shwe Nat Taung pagodas. The town also serves as a starting point for many of the Irrawaddy cruises that journey upstream to Mandalay.

Featured in ‘A River Cruise through Burma

Male monk in saffron robe smiling at the camera in Myanmar
Young monk in Myanmar

The Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh

Cambodia’s riverside capital is located at the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers. The decline of the Khmer Rouge regime heralded a welcome regeneration in the city’s fortunes yet, despite this growth, Phnom Penh still retains much of its charm. In many ways Phnom Penh is the quintessential South East Asian city. The French influence is seen with sweeping tree-lined boulevards and attractive art deco homes, the grand Central Market is a cornucopia of fresh produce, flowers, clothing and jewellery, the bustling riverfront is ideal for an evening promenade and there are a number of grand Khmer buildings including the Royal Palace and Wat Phnom. The city also provides an opportunity to understand the country’s challenging recent history at Toul Sleng Museum and the Khmer Rouge ‘killing fields’ at Choeung Ek.

Featured in ‘The Classic Mekong River Cruise: From Siem Reap to Saigon

Highly decorative golden architecture of a temple in Phnom Penh
Royal Palace in Phnom Penh

Historic Murshidabad in West Bengal, India

Known in Bengali at the ‘Hooghly’, this major distributary of the Ganges River flows south through West Bengal through Kolkata before emptying into the Bay of Bengal. The towns lining the Hooghly River are testament to the original European settlers that set up the first trading outposts here during the 17th century. The arrival of the Dutch, British, Danish and French, and the trade that resulted, brough great wealth to the region and led to the development of many of the neighbouring riverside towns. One of the grandest of these towns is Murshidabad which was the capital of the Nawabs of Bengal and one of the first British trading centres. Today Murshidabad is an enchanting mix of mosques, mansions, tombs and palaces making it a popular stopping point on most Hooghly cruises.

Featured in ‘Cruising the Lower Ganges – From Kolkata to Farakka

Grand edifice of a large mansion in Murshidabad, India
Historic mansion in Murshidabad
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Charming Irrawaddy town of Katha in Myanmar

Unassuming Katha will forever be associated with George Orwell’s iconic novel ‘Burmese Days’. This sleepy town on the western banks of the upper reaches of the Irrawaddy River was the home of the acclaimed novelist for six months during the late 1920s and provided him with the inspiration for fictional ‘Kyauktada’. Today many of the places mentioned in the book can still be seen including the old British Club, police station, hospital and jail as well as the building where Orwell lived which is now a museum. The town itself has many colonial-era buildings and in 1942 was also the final resting place of the original Irrawaddy flotilla which was scuppered to stop the vessels falling into the hands of the Japanese. Katha is best reached by river on one of the Irrawaddy cruises that travel north from Mandalay.

Featured in ‘A River Journey on the Upper Irrawaddy

Two people fishing in a river in Myanmar from a small wooden boat at sunset
Irrawaddy River at sunset

Hanoi, capital of Vietnam

Vietnam’s capital city, Hanoi is a bustling metropolis home to over 16 million people. Although very much Vietnamese, Hanoi was once one of the most important cities in the French Empire and boasts a fine collection of European colonial architecture and a charming historic centre of tree-lined boulevards, lakes and tree-fringed parks. Yet Hanoi is also a dynamic Asian city. Scooters vie for space with pedestrians, graceful temples and pagodas offer respite from the hustle and bustle, markets, laden with wares and produce, flow onto the city streets and, at night, informal restaurants serve some of the best street-food in Asia. Linked to the coast by the Red River, a small selection of cruises are now operating between Ha Long Bay and the remote villages to upstream from Hanoi.

Featured in ‘Cruising Ha Long Bay and Vietnam’s Red River

Busy street scene and illuminated shops in Hanoi
Busy Hanoi street

The remote Chindwin settlement of Sitthaung in Myanmar

The main tributary of the Irrawaddy River, the Chindwin is little-known and even less-frequently navigated. Originating in the hills that straddle the northern Indo-Burmese border, the Chindwin meanders its way south, closely following the border for over 1200kms, before bending inland to finally meet the Irrawaddy between Mandalay and Bagan. Flowing through some of Myanmar’s most spectacular, and pristine, scenery the Chindwin traverses a region with few cars and even fewer roads, small unspoilt villages and strong regional cultural traditions. A highlight is isolated Sitthaung, a tiny Chindwin settlement where remains of Irrawaddy Flotilla Company ships, scuppered during World War II, can still be seen in the water. The Chindwin is difficult to navigate and only vessels with the shallowest of drafts are able to do so.

Featured in ‘Cruising the Remote Chindwin River

Elderly woman in colourful clothing at a local market in rural Myanmar
Sitthaung local

Laid-back Vientiane in Laos

Laos and the Mekong River are inextricably linked. Hugging the western edge of the country, the Mekong meanders through Laos providing a link between Thailand in the north and Cambodia to the south. Located in the centre of the country is the Laotian capital of Vientiane which lines the eastern bank of the Mekong River. Much the same as the rest Laos, easygoing Vientiane is a sleepy city, where everyday life is unhurried, laid-back and serene. A former French trading post, large parts of Vientiane have a Gallic flavour, from patisseries and bakeries to street-side cafes and wide tree-lined boulevards. Highlights include gleaming Pha That Luang stupa, Wat Sisaket and the Anousavari monument which has more than a passing resemblance to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

Featured in ‘A River Cruise through the Upper Mekong

Group of monks in scarlet robes walking past a golden temple stupa in Laos
Pha That Luang, Vientiane

India’s capital of art, history and culture, Kolkata

One of India’s most important cities, Kolkata is a cultural behemoth, the birthplace and inspiration for many of India’s greatest writers, poets, artists and scientists. During the 17th and 18th centuries Kolkata developed from a quiet backwater to one of the world’s wealthiest trading centres, capital of the British Raj for more than a hundred years and a place that nurtured India’s fledgling independence movement. Evidence of this heritage can be found throughout the city, including the Victoria Memorial, St John’s Church, General Post Office and Writers Building. Bisected by the Hooghly River, Kolkata is the starting point for a number of river cruises – shorter journeys that incorporate the European settlements of Chandernagore, Serampore and Murshidabad, or longer ones that travel all the way to Patna and Varanasi.

Featured in ‘A River Cruise on India’s Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers

Grand Victorian architecture of the marble Victoria Memorial in Kolkata
Victoria Memorial, Kolkata

Lan Ha Bay in Vietnam

Although not technically a river, Ha Long and its less well-known neighbour Lan Ha Bay offer a selection of some of the most acclaimed and iconic cruises in Asia. Located in a region of spectacular limestone scenery of 3000 islands and rocky outcrops, geologically this UNESCO World Heritage Site dates back over 20 million years. Tradition states that the impressive scenery was formed by a dragon that crashed into the sea, forming the fragmented landscape and creating cave systems and jungle-clad islets. Explore the region’s largest island, Cat Ba, lounge by the sea, sunbath on deck or visit a traditional fishing village. The majority of cruises exclusively sail the bays, however exploratory journeys also head inland, following the Red River as it makes its meandering journey north towards Hanoi.

Featured in ‘Vietnam – Land of the Ascending Dragon

Small fishing boat surrounded by towering limestone rocks and islets in Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay

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