Sailing in Asia

U Bein Bridge, believed to be the longest teakwood bridge, can be viewed by guests cruising to Mandalay in Myanmar.
U Bein Bridge, believed to be the longest teakwood bridge, can be viewed by guests cruising to Mandalay in Myanmar.

Asia’s golden temple spires are undeniably gorgeous, but just as often it’s the smiles of little children and scenes of everyday life unfolding that most captivate luxury river cruisers. Looking for authenticity? Voyages in India and Myanmar certainly deliver that, but travelers also will sail in pampered comfort on upscale river ships.

Exotic India

On January 6, Haimark Limited will launch the new all-suite Ganges Voyager II. The 56-guest ship — boasting only 28 suites for the ultimate pampering — will sail seven-night roundtrip itineraries from Kolkata (on a Ganges tributary river) with pre- and post-trip extensions available in Delhi, Varanasi and India’s “Golden Triangle” of Jaipur, Agra and Delhi. This is the sister ship to Haimark’s Ganges Voyager I, newly launched this year and sailing eight-day cruises roundtrip from Kolkata on a Ganges tributary.

Pandaw Cruises’s itineraries on India’s Brahmaputra River give guests a chance to hop aboard elephants while exploring the wilds of Kaziranga National Park.
Pandaw Cruises’s itineraries on India’s Brahmaputra River give guests a chance to hop aboard elephants while exploring the wilds of Kaziranga National Park.

Cruisers will zip along on a fun rickshaw ride through Kalna to the 1800s-era Rajbari complex, built by a maharaja with 108 so-called “eight slope roofed” temples. Or, during time ashore in Matiari, Haimark’s guests can test their bargaining skills at the colorful bazaar. Highly recommended: Check out the handcrafted brass pots and platters made by local craftsmen from recycled copper. The 400-square-foot “Maharajah Suite” is forward on Ganges Voyager II’s upper deck; its floor-to-ceiling glass doors open onto a French balcony. Looking out, you’ll likely see locals washing clothes in the river, children playing or fisherman at work. When it comes time to relax, the onboard spa awaits. We’ve learned Haimark will introduce two new signature treatments on Ganges Voyager II. One is a traditional deep-tissue massage using mustard oil, the other a more relaxing massage with an aromatic Ayurvedic oil blend — a mix of frankincense and sandalwood along with such lesser-known oils as kewda and brahmi.

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THE WIND PALACE is a big attraction for guests cruising to the Indian city of Jaipur.
A Colonial Suite on Haimark Limited’s Ganges Voyager offers 260 square feet of space and is decorated with original artwork.

Starting in January, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection is also using Ganges Voyager II for 16 India cruises. We particularly like that travelers receive five pampering nights onshore at three Oberoi Hotels and Resorts in New Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. In total, the new 13-day “India’s Golden Triangle and the Sacred Ganges” itinerary combines that luxury hotel component with a seven-night roundtrip Kolkata voyage.

Uniworld’s guests will tour many “bucket list” sites including the Taj Mahal, Red Fort and the pink city of Jaipur, but then luxury guests will head for a quieter, less frenetic part of India for their Kolkata-departing cruise. What’s nifty: Uniworld includes two visits to the Taj Mahal in this itinerary so travelers can soak in the stunning views both at sunrise and sunset.

THE WIND PALACE is a big attraction for guests cruising to the Indian city of Jaipur.
 
The Wind Palace is a big attraction for guests cruising to the Indian city of Jaipur.

Cruisers staying in the high-end Maharaja Suite (No. 304), or either of two 360-foot Viceroy suites (Nos. 313 and 314) will enjoy daily butler service, laundry service, a bottle of wine upon embarkation, evening canapes and one complimentary spa treatment per person per suite. Maharaja Suite guests additionally receive in-suite dining and other perks.

Upscale operator, Pandaw Cruises, offers a nice portfolio of voyages from Kolkata as well, but we’re most intrigued by its adventurous itineraries farther north on India’s Brahmaputra River. Via a partnership, Pandaw offers voyages on the Mahabaahu between Guwahati and Jorhat. Top highlight: From our perspective, we love that Pandaw’s guests can hop aboard elephants while exploring the wilds of Kaziranga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Travelers should watch for elephants, wild water buffalo, swamp deer and the one-horned Indian rhinoceros. Did you know this park also boasts the highest density of tigers among all protected reserves worldwide? While it’s tough to spot the big cats, given the tall grasses, the guide will point out evidence of their presence, such as paw marks on the ground. Cruisers might just get lucky and spot the real thing, though.

Burmese Voyages

With suites from 285 square feet to 420 square feet, AmaWaterways’ new 56-passenger AmaPura is now sailing Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River. All accommodations are suites and all have either a private French balcony, an outside balcony or twin balconies. We personally like the aft Category SB, suites No. 317 or No. 318, as they have twin balconies and 420 square feet of space, but for those preferring a forward curved view, the Category SA suites, No. 301 or No. 302 are also quite nice although with a bit less square footage at 290 square feet.

The Maharaja suite on the Ganges Voyager has floor-to-ceiling glass doors that open onto a French balcony.
 
The Maharaja suite on the Ganges Voyager has floor-to-ceiling glass doors that open onto a French balcony.

For the 16-day “Hidden Wonders of Myanmar” itinerary in 2016, cruisers spend one night at the Sule Shangri-La or a similar Yangon property, then fly to Mandalay and embark on a 14-night cruise that ends in Yangon. We like this itinerary’s destination immersion and range of experiences. It’s lovely to head by horse-drawn carriage to tour Inwa (Ava), capital of the Burmese kingdom for more than four centuries. At Bagan’s archaeological sites, guests can visit an observation tower for sunset views, then transfer to a temple and participate in a candle lighting ceremony, or, alternatively, watch the sunset from atop Guni Temple and then head to the temple for the ceremony.

When it’s time to savor Asian cuisine onboard AmaPura, the soup of the day might be Burmese glass noodle or savory Tom Yam with shrimp. Among entrée options are Thai red curry fish marinated in lime and fresh local herbs and spices, or grilled pineapple chicken marinated in pineapple sauce, mustard and white wine and served with couscous and vegetables. For desserts, we’re partial to the stuffed glutinous rice ball in plum sugar, known as Mote Lone Yay Paw, or sago with coconut cream and tapioca.

Avalon Waterways’ Myanmar river cruises on the new Avalon Myanmar, one of the line’s new Suite Ships launched this year, take cruisers to such exotic sites as Bhamo’s dramatic cliffs and Katha’s teak forests and elephant camps. Among the itineraries are a 14-day roundtrip Yangon trip, a 17-day itinerary between Bangkok and Yangon, and a robust 19-day “Golden Myanmar & the Alluring Irrawaddy with Bangkok and Inle Lake.” Avalon Myanmar carries just 36 guests, but guests will spread out in a spacious dining room, open-air observation lounge, Sky Deck and air-conditioned Panorama Lounge.

In addition to viewing elaborate temples and palaces, we suggest cruisers watch for Irrawaddy dolphins. For a glimpse into rural life, Avalon’s guests can walk through Shwe Pyi Thar village to visit a farmer’s home and see how sweet, smoky palm candy is made. Farmers harvest sap from a palm tree, cook it over a wood fire and then form the thickened pieces into candy.

With a wealth of Myanmar river products, Pandaw Cruises is launching a new ship, Kha Byoo Pandaw, on the Irrawaddy in January 2016; it will operate seven-night Mandalay to Pagan cruises through the end of March 2016. Built in Yangon, this intimate vessel has 10 staterooms accommodating up to 20 guests.

Along the Upper Irrawaddy, conditions in Kachin state recently caused several nations’ foreign service offices to issue traveler advisories; that’s impacted insurance. So Pandaw adapted its normally scheduled voyages from Pagan to Mandalay, Katha and Bhamo (in Kachin state) to a new itinerary from Pagan, Mandalay, Katha and back to Mandalay.

Eager for adventure? Pandaw operates three off-the-beaten-path “Voyage to Nagaland” cruises on the Chindwin River this month and again in September 2016. Not all vessels can sail the river, given the shallow depth. One that can is the small, ultra-low-draught Kalay Pandaw; it’s able to journey beyond Homalin in the high water season. Guests will find that the onboard experience is more akin to sailing on a private motor yacht than a river ship.

Kalay Pandaw has just four main-deck cabins and one owner’s suite (shown here), all decked out with nice finished brass and teak elements.
 
Kalay Pandaw has just four main-deck cabins and one owner’s suite (shown here), all decked out with nice finished brass and teak elements.

Kalay Pandaw has just four main-deck cabins and one owner’s suite, all with nicely finished brass and teak elements. Cruisers headed to this experience will find many pampering perks and service, as well as complimentary local beer and local spirits, but they shouldn’t expect phones, Internet or TVs. Instead, this is a more relaxing and intimate experience. One nice perk?

This ship carries mountain bikes for guest use.

Viking River Cruises has successfully operated Viking Mandalay on the Irrawaddy for two years. The 2016 season will feature an eight-day cruise plus land stays in such cities as Yangon and Mandalay for a 15-day total “Myanmar Explorer” vacation. All staterooms are outside with a river view, and upper and middle deck staterooms boast floor-to-ceiling, sliding French doors. Viking and other lines will transport cruisers to an amazing site, the Sale Monasteries, which actually comprise 50 monasteries that are home to some 7,000 people. Don’t miss the historic Yout-Saun-Kyaung, with its spectacular wood carvings.

Sagaing in Myanmar has numerous Buddhist monasteries and is an important religious and monastic center.
 
Sagaing in Myanmar has numerous Buddhist monasteries and is an important religious and monastic center.

Haimark offers Myanmar sailings on its luxurious Irrawaddy Explorer. Luxury cruisers can spread out in the sumptuous Mandalay Suite with 409 square feet of space (including the balcony).

Scenic also uses that same vessel for its Myanmar offerings. For those wanting a lengthy vacation, Scenic offers a 30-day two-river combination extravaganza, “Treasures of the Mekong and Mystical Irrawaddy” from Siem Reap to Yangon. Among the highlights? At Monywa, it’s incredible to “take in” the visual impact of sandstone grottos decorated with incredible murals, as well as hundreds of Buddha statues inside cave niches. Scenic also offers a range of 10- to 18-day Myanmar sailings.

Seeking a shorter cruise with more land time? Tauck’s 12-night itinerary, “Myanmar: A Road Less Traveled,” offers three of those nights onboard Belmond Road to Mandalay along the Irrawaddy. Whatever line or ship travelers choose, they’ll find diverse sites and, all along the way, many friendly smiles. 

Norwegian Star’s Three-Bedroom Garden Villa can accommodate seven guests. It comes with a living room, a dining room and three bedrooms.
Norwegian Star’s Three-Bedroom Garden Villa can accommodate seven guests. It comes with a living room, a dining room and three bedrooms.

Seagoing Adventures

Many oceangoing cruise lines also have enticing luxury options to Asia destinations. Here’s a look at a few of those.

In a first for Silversea Expeditions, Silver Discoverer will visit Myanmar on three 2016 voyages during November and December. Luxury guests will explore the pristine Mergui Archipelago and Yangon’s ancient temples. On the voyage that departs November 21 roundtrip from Phuket, one interesting perk is the chance to meet Nobel laureate, Ma Theingi, former assistant to Myanmar’s Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Seeking local color? Lindblad Expeditions will sail to Vietnam and Cambodia in 2016 using the all-balcony, 48-guest Jahan for voyages along the Mekong River, two days in Angkor and time in Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh. During a visit to Kampong Tralach along the Tonle Sap River’s banks, cruisers learn about subsistence fishing and ride oxcarts through rice paddies to see how locals cultivate the crop.

For the full shebang, Crystal Cruises’ 2018 World Cruise collection includes Crystal Symphony’s first full World Cruise since 2003; Crystal Serenity’s 15th global expedition; and the ability for travelers to start on Crystal Symphony, then switch to Crystal Serenity in Sydney for a journey through Asia, India, and Holy Land; or set sail on Crystal Serenity before joining Crystal Symphony in Sydney for a South Pacific route to Miami. The longest of the itineraries is 129 days.

And finally, several couples traveling together and wanting a big ship experience with all the bells and whistles might opt for Norwegian Cruise Line’s humongous three-bedroom Garden Villa on the recently refurbished Norwegian Star. It has 6,694 square feet of space including private outdoor dining space and a garden with hot tub. Inside, up to seven guests lounge in a living room, dining room and three bedrooms, each with its own bath; butler and concierge service is included. On a 21-day cruise from Dubai to Singapore on November 20, 2016, Norwegian Star will make maiden India calls at Mumbai (overnight), Goa (Mormugao), Mangalore and Kochi (Cochin), while repositioning for Asia and Australia cruising.

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