Home' CruisePassenger : Cruise Passenger 59 Contents Twenty years ago, the late actor Peter
Ustinov and a contingent of wealthy
British holidaymakers boarded a luxury
river ship named after Rudyard Kipling’s
poem, The Road to Mandalay.
The genteel journey from Mandalay
to Bagan on one of Asia’s most famous
water ways, the Irrawaddy River, marked
the entry of the first European luxury river
company, Belmond, into Myanmar.
How quickly things have changed. Today,
Myanmar has blossomed into the hottest
destination for river cruises with rival luxury
operators gracefully jostling for business.
The Mekong, Irrawaddy and Chindwin
rivers, which flow through Myanmar, Laos,
Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and China,
have never had it so good.
The mighty waterways are seeing an
invasion of Australian and overseas travellers
who are keen to witness the unspoilt scenery
and traditional way of life in the remote
villages that hug the river banks.
The Mekong flows 4,350 kilometres north
to south through six countries from China to
Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.
While it is not possible to travel the
length of the river without changing ships,
Pandaw River Expeditions is hoping to put
together an itinerary that will include all the
countries that the river passes through.
“You can’t do it on one ship due to
waterfalls and other obstructions, but within
two years we hope to have boats on all these
stretches,’’ Pandaw’s founder Paul Strachan
says. He estimates the journey from Ho Chi
Minh City to China will take at least three
weeks. “ We would ideally get into Jinghong
in Yunnan Province and it could take 21
days in all, with a change of ship on the
Cambodia-Laos border. ’’
But right now Strachan has his hands
full with the coming launch of a 10-night
Mekong cruise in Laos on the company’s
new ship, Laos Pandaw, starting in November
this year. Pandaw will be the first to offer an
itinerary from Laos’s capital city Vientiane to
the Golden Triangle and then further north
to China. Passengers will stay two nights in
the UNESCO World Heritage city of Luang
Prabang and explore the Buddhist temples,
the Royal Palace and then trek deep into the
Pandaw also has a new cruise to Halong
Bay in Vietnam that goes through the Red
River, Tonkinese Alps and includes a visit to
hill tribes near Sapa in North Vietnam.
In the last year, at least two boutique
ASIA SPECIAL REPORT RIVERS
RIVERS ASIA SPECIAL REPORT
A fleet of gleaming new luxury
vessels is vying for a slice of the
action on Asia’s rivers of gold.
Teresa Ooi reports.
operators have unveiled luxury river ships
on the Mekong. These include Aqua
Expeditions’ uber-cool, 40-passenger Aqua
Mekong and Sanctuary Retreats’ stylish,
21-cabin Sanctuary Ananda. Both have super-
spacious cabins, all with private balconies,
large ensuites, designer toiletries, gym and
chic contemporary interiors (with colonial
touches on Sanctuary Ananda). They also have
indulgent spas with local masseurs drawn
from the best in Thailand and Vietnam.
Aqua Mekong has Australian celebrity chef
David Thompson, renowned for his authentic
Thai cuisine, who conjures up tantalising
Cambodian dishes on the vessel’s Siem Reap
to Ho Chi Minh voyages.
The falling dollar has led to more
Australians booking cruises on Australian-
owned ships so that they can keep a portion
of their travel dollars within the country.
Australian group Cruiseco custom-built
the 28-cabin Explorer, which was launched
late last year to cruise Myanmar’s Irrawaddy
River following the success of its vessel
Adventurer on the Mekong River.
Meanwhile Scenic Tours is building a
new five-star vessel, the 34-suite Scenic Spirit,
at a cost of US$8.5 million. The ship will
be launched in January 2016 to cruise the
Mekong between Ho Chi Minh and Siem
Reap. All 68 guests will have a separate
bedroom, living room and balcony with
accommodation ranging in size from 32sqm
deluxe suites to the spacious 80sqm Royal
Panoramic Suite. The vessel will have an
open-air cinema on the sun deck and a choice
of four dining venues.
Scenic Tours managing director Glen
Moroney says: “There are a lot of people
putting ships there [the Mekong], but it is
very much in its infancy. If you look at the
total capacity on that river, how many ships
are there of a 4-star or 4-plus standard?
Maybe 10. The average capacity is probably 70
or 80. There are lots of three-stars and below.’’
Scenic is also planning to build a similar
river ship to cruise the Irrawaddy River,
Moroney says. Currently the line charters
two ships, Irrawaddy Explorer and Mekong
Navigator, from US company Haimark Travel
to cruise the same Mekong itinerary.
APT, another of Australia’s big operators,
was one of the first to raise the level of luxury
on the Mekong when it launched AmaLotus
four years ago. The AmaPura debuted in
Myanmar late last year. In August AmaDara
will be the second river ship to ply the
Mekong between Vietnam and Cambodia,
APT is building its own ship, the 30-suite
RV Samatha, to be unveiled in Myanmar next
year. APT’s Travelmarvel brand has one river
ship, La Marguerite, on the Mekong and
is currently building a second, RV Princess
Panhwar, to cruise in Myanmar in 2016.
Avalon Waterways’ Avalon Myanmar, built
by local craftsmen for 36 guests, cruises the
Irrawaddy, while its all-suite Avalon Siem
Reap operates itineraries on the Mekong.
Uniworld, which has been operating on
the Mekong for three years, offers a Timeless
Wonders of Vietnam, Cambodia & Mekong
15-day itinerary between Ho Chi Minh and
Hanoi on its luxurious boutique vessel River
Orchid. Handcrafted in French-colonial style,
the luxurious ship has 27 staterooms and
caters for up to 58 guests.
Another boutique, French-colonial
style vessel is set to join the Mekong fleet
when Haimark Travel launches the Mekong
Princess in September this year. It will carry
just 24 passengers in 12 suites, all with spa
baths, rain showers and full butler service.
Mekong Princess will also have an onboard
spa offering the most extensive menu of any
ship on the Mekong.
There has never been a better time to
go on a river cruise in Southeast Asia. The
Mekong, Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers are
running hot with spanking-new luxurious
ships offering more exciting shore excursions
than ever before.
If only Peter Ustinov could return to
Myanmar to cruise on Belmond’s newer ship,
Orcaella, he would not want to leave.
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