From the mystical charm of the Irrawaddy to the touching beauty of the Mekong, river cruises Southeast Asia present a mosaic of striking landscapes, fascinating cultures, and intriguing history.
What other tour enables you to explore 1000-year-old temples, discover forgotten tribal villages, or sail into the heart of unspoiled jungles?
Your river journey is more than a mere escape from the bustling world; it is an adventure of a lifetime. Here is our top pick of the best river cruises Southeast Asia in 2021.
Miles of rice paddies, swathes of fish farms, thatched-roof villages, and bright floating markets. These are the stunning sights that await you along the mighty Mekong river.
Flowing from its source in the Tibetan Plateau, the Mekong traverses six countries before discharging into the South China Sea, making it the longest river in Southeast Asia.
The river has two parts: Upper Mekong runs through China, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand, while Lower Mekong covers Cambodia and Vietnam.
The Upper Mekong is mostly untamed due to its boulders, myriads of waterfalls, and fast flows. On the contrary, the Lower Mekong throbs with life. Here, you will see vendors selling wares on narrowboats, river taxis racing with each other, and tourists lounging at cafes and restaurants on the riverbanks.
Surprisingly, a vast portion of the region remains untouched by the bustles of human activity. Amidst the creeping development of the district, you will find tangled jungles, mangrove forests, and uninhabited wetlands that are home to incredible biodiversity.
Undoubtedly, an excursion to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam is one of the most popular river cruises in Asia.
Explore the dynamic city of Ho Chi Minh, shop at the hectic Cai Be Floating Market. Walk the historic tunnels in Củ Chi.
Visit the impressive Cao Dai Temple, the cavern pagoda on Sam Mountain, the traditional candy factories in Vinh Long, and the cotton weaving village of Long Khanh.
You can also take a side trip to Halong Bay to wonder at the striking karst formations looming from the waters.
For the budget-conscious, Avalon Waterways and Threeland Travel offer exciting best value cruises. For a more luxurious experience, check out Pandaw Mekong River Cruises or the Aqua Mekong Cruise.
2. Myanmar @ River Cruises Southeast Asia
Sailing the Irrawaddy, Myanmar’s largest river, is one of the most sought-after luxury river cruises in Asia. Coursing from the Himalayas down to the Andaman Sea, the Irrawaddy is the lifeblood of the country. Its enigma inspired many artists, including great writers Rudyard Kipling and George Orwell.
The Irrawaddy passes through some of the most exotic sceneries in the country, including gilded temples emerging above old forests, river villages crammed with stilt houses, and locals going about their everyday pursuits.
Most river cruises begin in the vibrant city of Mandalay and end in Bagan, the UNESCO World Heritage Site, famed for its thousands of ancient temples and hot-air balloon rides. Longer cruises continue to Yangon, the country’s old capital and most modern city. It is home to a large number of tourist attractions, including notable temples, British colonial buildings, buzzing markets, and the iconic Shwedagon Pagoda.
If you want to tread the off-the-beaten-path, try the Chindwin River cruise instead. The tour allows you to reach the remotest parts of Myanmar, including the far-flung Nagaland region, inhabited by the eccentric but warm Naga tribe.
You can also explore the 300-year-old cave pagodas of Phowintaung and Shwe Ba Taung and marvel at their myriads of Buddha statues and murals. Don’t forget to head to Sambuddhay Pagoda, a building complex that house around 600,000 Buddha images.
For the ultimate luxury river cruise in Asia, check out The Sanctuary Ananda or the Belmond Road to Mandalay.
If you’re considering an alternative route for your Southeast Asia river cruise, check out the tours in Laos. Often overshadowed by its neighbor countries Thailand and Vietnam, Laos is a gem of a destination waiting for the intrepid traveler to discover. A cruise on the Mekong will reveal the hidden wonders of this exotically enthralling country.
Surrounded by land, Laos does not have a coastline to boast. But what it lacks in beaches, it makes up for with natural beauty. An example of this is Si Phan Don, also known as the 4,000 Islands. This tranquil riverine archipelago swarms with islands and sandbars littered on the Mekong River.
The country packs in other pleasant surprises accessible only by water. As your cruiser glides through the Upper Mekong, you will pass deep jungles, rugged gorges, and sleepy rural villages, all drenched in a laid-back mood that is unique to Laos.
Most river cruises depart at Vientiane, a captivating city in its own right, and end in Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The town has its fair share of stunning sights, including Buddhist temples, the Royal Palace, French colonial buildings, vibrant cafes, and night markets.
Take a detour to Kaung Si, where you find a spectacular three-tiered waterfall, hidden pools, and a butterfly park. Explore the village of Ban Phanom and observe locals weave textiles using traditional methods. Head to Pak Ou Caves, a group of caverns carved naturally into limestone cliffs, and marvel at its hundreds of Buddha statues.
Check out Top Mekong Cruises and Heritage Line for luxurious accommodations while cruising the Mekong River in Laos.
4. Cambodia @ River Cruises Southeast Asia
Despite its growing popularity among travelers in recent years, Cambodia manages to stay relatively unspoiled by tourism. The country captivates with its lovely landscapes, colorful customs, and time-tested traditions, as well as its welcoming locals and poignant history.
It is rife with experiences to enjoy and sights to see, and unsurprisingly, most of these are along the Mekong river.
A cruise on the river will allow you to immerse in the country’s culture, witness stunning sceneries unfold. Embark on an unforgettable adventure without sacrificing luxury and convenience.
There are plenty of companies that offer Mekong river cruises and tours in Cambodia. The majority of these focus on the country’s bustling capital, Phnom Penh, before heading to Siem Reap, home of the enchanting Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. However, some of the most mesmerizing sceneries in Cambodia are in the countryside.
Off the beaten path is the idyllic town of Kampong Chhnang, famous for its floating villages and markets. At this point, some cruises make a side trip to Tonlé Sap River, a tributary of the Mekong. Be sure to visit the nearby Tonlé Sap Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia.
Head to Kampong Tralach, where you will find an old pagoda covered with murals showing scenes of rural life hundreds of years ago. Take a boat to Koh Oknha Tey, a river island known for its silk-weaving industry. Then walk around the rustic town of Preah Prosop to examine traditional Cambodian stilt-houses and observe authentic village life.
Plenty of luxury river cruises promise the utmost comfort and relaxation during the tour; among these are Aqua Expeditions and Scenic Luxury Cruises and Tours.