Riddled with atmospheric waterways and dotted with exotic isles, Southeast Asia is perhaps best seen by boat. These cruises help reveal the authentic Orient.
Cruising in Vietnam: Bhaya cruise, Halong Bay
Navigate Burma's waterways in style
Despite the influx of visitors to Burma in recent months, the country still retains a charm and innocence that makes it unique. On my fourth trip, I was delighted that it had not lost any of its magic. One of the best ways to explore the country is on the magnificent waterways of the Irrawaddy and Chindwin. Orient Express’s newest vessel, the Orcaella, sets sail this summer. It will sail four routes: two seven-night cruises between Rangoon and Pagan (and vice versa), and two eleven-night cruises – the ‘Gorges of the Far North’, exploring the upper Irrawaddy to Bhamo, and ‘Discovering the Chindwin River’, which meanders towards the India border.
With a pool on the top deck, a spa room and just 25 cabins with wall-to-ceiling windows, it seems that Orient Express has raised the bar again for Burmese river journeys. The luxury of the boat, though, is of course second to the magnificent environment that you travel through and interact with – as a relatively small boat the Orcaella is able to explore the rivers’ more remote regions, and offers superb on-shore excursions too.
A standout highlight is a visit to the Pagan, a breathtaking array of over 4,000 Buddhist temples. However, as each day unfolds there is always something magical to enjoy. Whether onboard or on-shore, the real highlight of the trip is meeting the Burmese people.
Explore Indonesia's many islands
Indonesia is one of the most fascinating places on earth to cruise – thousands of beautiful islands make up Indonesia’s ‘Ring of Fire’, which is home to some of the most diverse marine life on the planet. Travelling here can be something of a complex journey. Infrequent flights mean that these remote, untouched areas remain just that, with only a handful of lucky visitors witnessing the beauty and traditional culture found here.
Sea Trek has simplified this process, operating two beautiful Bugi schooners – the Ombak Putih and the Katharina – which cruise the waters between Sumatra in the west to Java, Bali, Komodo, Sulawesi and on to Papua New Guinea in the east. Both vessels are small, with just 12 and 7 cabins respectively, all with en-suite facilities and air conditioning. Sun decks and outdoor communal dining are features of both ships, as is unlimited snorkelling in to the impossibly clear waters. This is adventure cruising – culturally stimulating and hugely diverse.
To get further off the beaten track, throughout Indonesia’s peak travel season (March to October), seven to nine-night cruises operate in the Lesser Sunda Isles between Bali and Flores, visiting otherwise inaccessible regions. The cruises can be built into a larger touring itinerary of Indonesia, as a way to get further from the beaten track and to enhance the understanding and enjoyment of this fascinating country.
Take a Luang Say cruise
If you have ever been to Laos, you will be familiar with the delightfully slow pace of life there. So flying straight in from busy Bangkok or your hectic life in the UK can mean that your first taste of Laos comes with a bit of a jolt. This is where the wonderful Luang Say Cruise comes into its own.
A two-day cruise down the Mekong from the border with northern Thailand, the cruise sails lazily down through some of the most remote areas of northern Laos, nosing into Luang Prabang at the end of the second day. En route you stop overnight in a lodge that nestles into the banks of the Mekong in a stunning location, and can sit back on the terrace in the evening enjoying fantastic Lao cuisine and a cold beer as the stars come out over the surrounding mountains. The languid pace of this cruise, and the relatively few calls on your energy, make it the perfect way to immerse yourself into the way of life in this charming land.
Sail on the Anantara Song
When I think of Bangkok the first image that springs to mind is of tuk-tuks whizzing around busy streets – a city of hustle and bustle. Bangkok is an exciting and vibrant place to spend time, but when a break is needed, you do not need to look far. The Anantara Song is a lovely three-day cruise from Bangkok, the perfect way to take a break from the city in style and explore the Chao Phraya River.
Cruising along in a 100-year-old rice barge is a novel way to travel. Coupled with classic Thai hospitality, super food and some mesmerising sights, the Anantara Song offers a truly unique experience. There are some fascinating historical sites en route too, with the old capital Ayutthaya and sprawling Summer Palace topping the list.
Of course, as with all river cruises, it is the scenery that makes it. Life on the river is never still, with longtail boats and giant barges constantly plying the waters, saffron-clad monks in monasteries on the riverbanks and floating markets alive with the chatter of bartering. With only four cabins, the Anantara Song is an intimate and relaxing way to explore the Chao Phraya River while enjoying the comfort of a lovely cabin and a very stylish boat.
Board a private sampan on the Mekong
If being cocooned in an air-conditioned hotel on the water seems the perfect way to explore the Mekong, then chartering a private sampan for a day or two is probably not for you! But for a more authentic view of Vietnam, there is no better way to travel. These converted rice barges offer one or two-night cruises along this bustling waterway where you can witness life along this unique stretch of river.
The sampans are run with your own private crew and guide, stopping at key highlights along the way including the Mekong town of Sa Dec. Here, you can visit the former home of Marguerite Duras – the French writer lived here in the early 1900s and caused quite a scandal by having an affair with a Vietnamese lover. Simple activities, such as meeting the locals that sell their fresh fruit and vegetables at the markets, were so memorable; in my case, this included the lovely wife of the captain of my sampan, who was determined to make me try each of her products. My advice: stay away from the durian! However, I returned to the sampan and found a terrific lunch waiting, so the taste did not stay with me for long.
As the sampan bobs along you can sit in a simple but comfortable living room towards the front of the vessel. Keep your eyes peeled – there’s lots to watch, including the local traders transporting goods and livestock in boats that look like they might sink at any moment. There are also some fantastic opportunities to stop off at local businesses including sweet factories, farms, even a brick kiln, where you can truly understand how the local people live off the land.
Another exclusive and touching part of the cruise is the option to have dinner in a local home, where three generations of the same family all live. Friendly faces and a lovely host made this a superb experience and a fantastic insight into family life in Vietnam, as well as enjoying a delicious home-cooked meal. The final morning on board sees you heading to the largest floating market on the Mekong, Cai Rang. Here there is true chaos as traders sell their produce and the bartering ensues. Numerous boats, both large and small, are stuffed to the brim with goods – it is definitely an astonishing sight.