The Mighty Mekong projects an aura of calm first thing in the morning.
The Mighty Mekong projects an aura of calm first thing in the morning.

There’s no reason why river cruising has to end for you once you’ve explored the many waterways of Europe – that’s just one continent. Next on your list should be Asia.

River cruising in both the south-east of Asia (Vietnam/Cambodia and Myanmar) and the northern part of the continent (China) have both exploded in popularity in recent years. So much has this been the case that the major river cruising brands you’d be familiar with from Europe have been rapidly scouring Asia for existing luxury vessels to their standards as well as constructing brand new craft to their exact requirements.

It’s important to note also that while the width of these rivers in Asia are in parts comparable to their European counterparts, the depth is not. In fact, some parts of these rivers dry up completely during the cooler dry season, making a cruise impossible. Also, most of the ships you’ll find operated by the major lines are significantly different to those you’ll find in Europe. While the comfort & standard of the facilities are at the same high levels, overall guest numbers are a fraction of what you’d find in Europe, so you’ll need to book well in advance.

The first step in deciding which river cruise in Asia might pique your interest is to look at the three major rivers and some of the ports you’ll encounter along the way.

Mekong River

Ships you'll find on the Mekong look starkly different to those in Europe - however the luxury is very similar. Brands include APT, Scenic, Avalon Waterways, Travelmarvel, Evergreen Tours, Uniworld and more.
Ships you’ll find on the Mekong look starkly different to those in Europe – however the luxury is very similar.

Which lines sail the Mekong? One of the most popular rivers in Asia, the Mekong is plied nearly every day during the peak high-water season from mid-August to March. You’ll find itineraries on sale from APT, Scenic, Avalon Waterways, Uniworld Boutique River Cruises, Aqua Expeditions, Evergreen Tours, Travelmarvel, Viking River Cruises and others.

The “Mighty Mekong” is the lifeblood to many communities along the river and parts of it reach into Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and even China, however most river cruising along this river take place between Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam and Siem Reap in Cambodia, with itineraries ranging in length from seven nights up to as long as two weeks.

As such, a cruise along this river will see you encounter many of these communities, with fisherman lining the banks angling for their harvest to take to the markets. Flotillas of tiny boats will be seen crossing in all directions, making for quite the spectacle. You’ll have the chance to view Gothic cathedrals in Cai Be, visit temples, museums and villages specialising in particular trades such as silver and copper.

A number of brand new vessels have recently begun life on the Mekong, including Scenic Spirit, which launched in April 2016. Others you’ll find here include the RV AmaLotus, sailing for APT, the RV La Marguerite for Travelmarvel, Avalon Siem Reap (another vessel making its debut in the last few years), the Aqua Mekong (Aqua Expeditions), plus a number of ships inspired by the region’s French colonial history such as the Mekong Navigator (used by both Uniworld and Evergreen Tours).

Irrawaddy River

River cruising in Myanmar is on a massive upward trajectory of popularity.
The popularity of river cruising in Myanmar is on a massive upward trajectory.

Which lines sail the Irrawaddy? Many of the aforementioned brands cruising the Mekong also sail on the Irrawaddy, but not all. The recent revolution in Myanmar – which led to the country’s first democratic elections in many years and the wider opening to international trade – sees tourism still in its relative infancy. That said, few countries in Asia are now growing as fast as Myanmar, with river cruising playing its part in this growth.

The experience of the Irrawaddy is like the Mekong in some parts, yet totally unique in others. Generally, you’ll find the river significantly wider much of the way, and again busy with fisherman going about their business although often in boats this time rather than along the riverbank. At the same time, there’s plenty of activity in the riverside villages and plenty of UNESCO Heritage List architecture including temples, to view not too far away.

This river runs almost the entire length of Myanmar, however most cruises take place between the towns of Mandalay and Bagan although some continue further down into Pyay.

Like the Mekong, major cruise lines have invested heavily into their operations on the Irrawaddy, building and launching new vessels in recent years. Take APT and sister brand Travelmarvel for example – both beginning operations with the RV Samatha and RV Princess Panhwar – both brand new river boats straight from the building yard and into service.

Read more: APT & Travelmarvel expand into Myanmar with one new ship each.

Both Scenic and Avalon Waterways have also gone to market in the very recent past. For Scenic, the custom-built Scenic Aura is only a couple of months old, while Avalon launched the 44-passenger Avalon Siem Reap and the even more compact 36-guest Avalon Myanmar a few short years ago.

Yangtze River

China's Yangtze River is extremely picturesque in many parts.
China’s Yangtze River is extremely picturesque in many parts.

Which lines sail the Yangtze? River cruising in China is a different beast and is much more tightly controlled by the Chinese government. That said, you’ll still find many of the well-known brands operating here, albeit delivering their product on luxurious chartered river ships as opposed to their own hardware.

The Yangtze River is the longest river in Asia at 6,300 kilometres. Most river cruising takes place in the Three Gorges region of the river, much of which is lined by mountainous peaks covered with lush vegetation, making for sights unlike anywhere else you’ll find in the Asian river cruising landscape. Cruise itineraries available in Australia for this part of the world are also somewhat shorter than on the Mekong and Irrawaddy, lasting around 4-5 nights on average and often combined with land touring taking you to other parts of China or beyond.

One major advantage of cruising the Yangtze, like other parts of Asia, is that you’ll have the ability to see parts of the country that would otherwise be extremely difficult to reach if you didn’t have the means of transportation at your disposal. Furthermore, river cruises often provide access to parts of a community you wouldn’t get if travelling independently, with some cruise itineraries taking guests into local schools and even the homes of local citizens.

The largest cruise company sailing on the Yangtze River is Victoria Cruises, which operates a fleet of seven luxurious ships. Many of these are utilised either in part or in full by Australian touring companies such as Travelmarvel for their Chinese river cruises. Other ships you might find yourself sailing aboard may include the Century Legend or Century Paragon (the latter used by both Uniworld River Cruises and Avalon Waterways).

Another ship, the smaller 124-passenger Sanctuary Yangzi Explorer is at the exclusive beck-and-call of APT, while Viking River Cruises has its own much larger and purpose-built ship for its use in the form of the 256-passenger Viking Emerald.