There’s No Stopping Southeast Asia River Cruising

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The Apsara Suite on the Mekong Princess, part of Haimark's suite.
The Apsara Suite on the Mekong Princess, part of Haimark’s fleet.

Europe thought it had a phenomenon all its own, but the rivers in Southeast Asia are saying, not so fast.

North American travelers who might’ve been there and done that in Europe’s network of rivers are setting their eyes on Southeast Asia, where in 2014, the rivers—Mekong and Irrawaddy—welcomed even more stunning river vessels that sail past landscapes that are just as equally mesmerizing.Tom Markwell, managing partner, sales and marketing for Haimark, Ltd., which has  truly luxurious ships on the Mekong and Irrawaddy rivers, believes that the rivers of Europe definitely fueled a love of river cruising overall, and that now those same passengers who took to the Danube, Rhine, Main and Seine are looking for new horizons. “It only seems natural that once guests have ‘fallen in love’ after their first few cruises in Europe,” he says, “that they start looking for something different, potentially exotic and/or more active.”Richard Marnell, senior v.p., marketing, Viking Cruises, which has river cruise ships on the Mekong and the Irrawaddy, adds that “countries like Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia have fascinating cultures and storied histories, but for a long time Americans were unable to travel there. So, in a way, Southeast Asia is unexplored territory for even the most experienced travelers—and as these countries have become more accessible, I think it’s natural that the U.S. market has taken a keen interest in discovering what makes this part of the world so special.”And, in fact, if you speak to the principals of the various river cruise lines that sail these far-off waterways, you hear time and again that this is the ideal product for people who want to dig a little deeper, want to explore a “new” destination. In fact, Guy Young, president & CEO of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, which sails the Mekong, says right now a general trend in travel is seeking out new and more exotic destinations, and so, in that regard, “visiting Vietnam and Cambodia has tremendous appeal.”
Avalon Waterways sails along the rivers of Myanmar.
Avalon Waterways sails along the rivers of Myanmar.
avalon waterways
“The Cuba of Asia,” is how Ryan Droegemueller, product manager, Asia, East & South Africa, Globus family of brands, likes to describe Myanmar. “The simple fact that the borders were closed for so long creates a unique sense of intrigue.” And although many visitors at first “experience a great sense of the unknown when they arrive, that feeling is quickly replaced by excitement, and the experience far exceeds what they thought it would be.” He points out that one of the most unexpected elements while sailing the Mekong and the Irrawaddy rivers is the encounter with the locals. “Our customers encounter some of the sweetest and friendliest people they’ve ever met. It shocks many of our travelers to see how happy the locals are with, in many cases, very little when it comes to material possessions.”Avalon Waterways, offering the 14-day Golden Myanmar & the Alluring Irrawaddy, and the 13-day Fascinating Vietnam, Cambodia & the Mekong River, will introduce two new 36-guest Suite Ships next year on the Mekong and the Irrawaddy: the Avalon Siem Reap and the Avalon Myanmar. “On our Suite Ships, travelers will enjoy Panorama Suites (which are 43 percent larger than on our current ship) with large, modern bathrooms, sitting area and 14-ft.-wide, floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall windows that open wide to provide
our travelers unobstructed views. While these changes will improve the onboard experience, the decor on the ship will retain the charm of Southeast Asia through use of natural woods, fabrics and local artwork.“Our goal is to deliver the best experience on both the Mekong and the Irrawaddy,” he says. “To do so we feel having a small ship is necessary. That’s why each of our ships has only 18 suites. When sailing on the Mekong and especially the Irrawaddy, we visit many small villages, and you don’t want to overwhelm the locals with 60 to 100 people or more. Instead, our ships allow us to enjoy fascinating interactions with the locals while not interrupting daily life throughout the village.”
haimark, ltd.
With ships on both the Mekong and the Irrawaddy, Haimark, Ltd. takes the Southeast Asia wellness concept to new heights with the Mekong Princess, which will begin sailing next year. This year, the company debuted the Mekong Navigator and the Irrawaddy Explorer, offering 7-night sailings on the Mekong and a 9-night cruise on the Irrawaddy, but it’s the Princess that really caught our eye. Markwell points out that the ship, which “has been a huge success for Haimark in the development of our Southeast Asia fleet,” offers “a very comprehensive spa-like environment on board. Guests visiting Southeast Asia anticipate this element, but you will find most river ships don’t embrace this concept. Therefore, we have developed the onboard experience to not only include the largest spa treatment menu of any vessel in Asia, but also to include wellness activities both on board and ashore. Combined with our culinary team’s incredible spa menu choices along with both Western and regional cuisines, it creates a complete spa-like experience on board.”And where does Markwell see river cruising in Southeast Asia in five years? He sees these two rivers continuing to grow, and he points to Laos, as well, although “these areas can be challenging to deliver a consistently delivered product to guests due to the navigational challenges.” Markwell takes a detour to India, and says that that’s where the newest growth will be; in fact, Haimark, Ltd. sails the Ganges Voyager on that river. “This is the most incredible and completely misperceived experience of them all. It’s so extremely rich and colorful, authentic and mesmerizing, and a part of India that many people seldom see. It will no doubt be the next wave of river cruise development in the region based on the recent demand of our Ganges River cruise products,” he says.
The Sanctuary Ananda.
The Sanctuary Ananda.

sanctuary retreats
Sanctuary Retreats started sailing the Irrawaddy this month with the Sanctuary Ananda, and according to Marco Rosa, senior v.p., A&K Hospitality, it’s quite a voyage as Myanmar is “largely untouched by the influence of Western civilization. The stunning landscape of pagodas and temples surrounding Bagan has changed little in 1,500 years.” What Sanctuary Retreats brings to the table, or in this case, the river, is, according to Rosa, “a custom-built ship for the rivers of Myanmar, so it can sail year-round. Sanctuary Ananda showcases original Burmese design and contemporary chic in an atmosphere of five-star comfort. In each of the 21 suites, lush silks, polished teak and beautiful lacquerware celebrate Myanmar’s rich heritage of arts, crafts and textiles.” He stresses that “visiting places on the eve of great change affords a unique view, and now is the time for Southeast Asia.”

Sanctuary Retreats offers 3-, 4- and 7-night sailings, as well as 10- and 11-night itineraries along the Chindwin River to Homalin, the Upper Irrawaddy to Bhamo, and cruises between Yangon and Mandalay.

Next year will see the launch of Tauck’s 13-day Myanmar: A Road Less Traveled itinerary, which, says Dawne Andrews, product manager, Tauck Exotics, will have guests “witnessing a boat race on Inle Lake, where the competitors use the region’s traditional ‘leg rowing’ technique. Our guests will also enjoy an early morning hot air balloon ride over the temples at Bagan, they’ll witness the skills of the renowned silversmiths of Sagaing, and they’ll have an opportunity to visit and interact with local children at a nursery school. Guests will also be shown how to wear a traditional ‘longhi’ and try their hand at creating colorful Thanaka face-paint designs.”

All this in a land that was off limits not too long ago; a land, Andrews points out, that “provides our guests with cultural immersion and insights into a way of life that’s so vastly different from their own lives, that they can’t help but be captivated. The diversity is astounding—the colors, the sounds, the people and their lives open up a whole new world, and you return home with both a greater appreciation for different cultures and an enhanced understanding for our shared human experience.” This is a place of incredible opportunity, she adds, because it’s still an emerging destination and isn’t “yet on most people’s radar when they’re planning their travels.” It offers “an unscripted experience.” Tauck, incidentally, is no stranger to Southeast Asia, offering several itineraries that explore Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos.

Your clients can experience Asia with Uniworld.
Your clients can experience Asia with Uniworld.

uniworld boutique river cruise collection
The next five years looks golden when it comes to river cruising in Southeast Asia, according to Young. “Asia, as a destination, is growing in popularity, and we have had more guests travel with us to Europe than we’ve had in Asia, so our own past guests remain an important source of potential clients to Asia.”

Its sailings on the Mekong, with the 15-day Timeless Wonders of Vietnam, Cambodia & the Mekong on board the River Orchid takes visitors to the cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, “and all the relatable history associated with the country and the Vietnam War,” Young points out. And in Cambodia, the itinerary takes guests to Angkor Wat, “which is on many experienced traveler’s bucket list.” He adds that cruising the river itself “provides a unique opportunity to take in the lush scenery, sounds and scents of the beautiful countryside.”

Young, like Markwell, sees a lot of potential on the Ganges. So much so, that the company is setting sail on that river in 2016 with the debut of a 12-night itinerary on board the Ganges Voyager II. “We know that there is interest to visit India, but the perception from U.S. travelers is that this is a difficult destination to travel to because of logistics and how busy the main cities in India can be,” he says. “We believe that the combination of visiting Delhi, Jaipur and Agra on land and then combining this with a leisurely river cruise on the lower Ganges is a winning formula. The excitement and busy pace of Delhi, Jaipur and Agra will be balanced by the leisurely pace of a river cruise. We have only done a soft announcement of this new itinerary and the interest has been incredible.”

viking river cruises
Marnell, of Viking Cruises, does say that interest in Southeast Asia grows each year, but emphasizes that the line is “taking great care that the purity of the experience will be preserved, as that is part of what makes the region so uniquely wonderful.” Reviews of the line’s 16-day Memories of Mandalay itinerary, which launched this year and features the Viking Mandalay, “have been very positive. There is deep appreciation for the natural and spiritual beauty found along the route and the Shwedagon Pagoda, also known as the ‘Golden Pagoda,’ in Yangon, which stands out as a must-see highlight of the trip, as well as Bagan’s 3,000 listed monuments.” And Marnell agrees with Droegemueller’s point that it’s the locals who captivate the visitors. “We also consistently hear from our guests how much they enjoy meeting the local people, who they say are some of the friendliest in the world.”

What makes Viking stand out, says Marnell, is the dedicated team of local experts who have an innate understanding of the culture, as well as the line’s privileged access. He cites an excursion to Tan-Kyi-Taung mountain, where guests ascend by car to see the spectacular view over Bagan, and are then treated to a performance of an elephant dance by villagers on the riverbank as an example. Additionally, “special onboard activities include an evening featuring a traditional Burmese puppet show on the sun deck, lectures on the culture of Myanmar, and regional specialties served during mealtimes,” he points out.

For Mekong enthusiasts, Viking offers a 15-day Magnificent Mekong that explores life along that body of river.

who to target
So who is truly the perfect client? It seems that across the board, many of the river cruise line principals repeat the word “active,” and those seeking an experiential vacation. Sanctuary Retreats’ Rosa speaks of “experience seekers; educated, active, accomplished professionals and entrepreneurs with an intense curiosity about the world.” Young, meanwhile, says that Uniworld is targeting a younger demographic as this is a more active itinerary and can certainly appeal to younger travelers, although, of course, the line’s core client base continues to be “well-educated, well-traveled and in the 50-plus age demographic.” And don’t dismiss clients who don’t normally like traveling with a group, says Tauck’s Andrews. “We anticipate that the new Myanmar trip will bring guests to Tauck who’ve never traveled with us before…the sort of people who may not normally opt for a guided experience, but who will nonetheless welcome the ease and assurance of guided group travel in a more exotic destination,” she says.

contact information
Avalon Waterways: (877) 797-8791; or
Haimark, Ltd.: (800) 798-4223; or
Sanctuary Retreats:
Tauck: (800) 788-7885; or
Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection: (800) 257-2407; or
Viking River Cruises: (800) 706-1483; or

Irrawaddy with AmaWaterways
Almost as we speak, AMAWaterways is introducing its special brand of luxury on the fabled Irrawaddy in Myanmar, with the debut of its river cruiser, AmaPura, on Nov. 24. The 56-passenger, all-suite ship was custom-designed to sail this exotic waterway between Yangon and Mandalay. And AmaWaterways’ president, Rudi Schreiner, points out that passengers are in for a different—but no less captivating and all-comforts—kind of cruise from those on European rivers. “In this part of the world, people live on the rivers—both on floating islands and riverside villages, making their living from fishing, selling their produce from colorful floating markets—that flow through countries like Myanmar. It’s by boat that we best discover and appreciate this mysterious and captivating land, whereas in Europe, the emphasis is on land tours, exploring great cities along the great rivers.”

AmaPura will sail on two itineraries, both starting in Yangon: a 14-day Golden Treasures of Myanmar cruise and a 16-day Hidden Wonders of Myanmar cruise.

Come Aug. 17, 2015, the luxury 124-passenger AmaDara will join the AmaLotus on the company’s Vietnam, Cambodia & the Riches of Mekong River cruise schedule. This brand-new vessel will be sporting even more stylish accessories—two restaurants, a spa and
fitness room, a large pool, a hair salon—than her sister ship.

(800) 626-0126; or

(Carla Hunt contributed the AmaWaterways editorial.)