Twenty years ago, the late actor Peter Ustinov and a contingent of wealthy Britons 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 waterways, the Irrawaddy, marked the entry of the first European luxury river company, Belmond, into Myanmar.
How quickly things have changed. Today, Myanmar is the hottest destination for river cruises, and its many luxury ship operators are experiencing enormous growth.
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 European, Australian and American travellers keen to witness the unspoilt scenery and traditional way of life in the remote villages that hug the river banks.
And Asians are quickly following suit.
When Cruise Lines International Association Australasia announced new record numbers of cruisers in the region last month, its statistics revealed a dramatic rise in interest in Asia’s cruise market.
More than 60,000 Australians booked Asian cruises during 2014 – 6800 on the region’s rivers, a rise year-on-year of 50.6 per cent.
The Mekong is the star. It flows 4350 kilometres north to south through six countries from China to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.
This year will see some of the biggest lines launch new ships on the river. Pandaw River Expeditions is hoping to put together an itinerary that will include all six countries for the first time.
“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,’’ said Pandaw founder Paul Strachan.
He estimated the journey from Ho Chi Minh City to China would 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.”
In the past year, two boutique operators have unveiled luxury river ships on the Mekong: 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 the best local masseurs from 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.
Australian group Cruiseco’s custom-built 28-cabin Explorer, which was launched late last year to cruise Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River, follows the success of its vessel Adventurer on the Mekong.
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 said: “There are a lot of people putting ships [on 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 said. 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, joining AmaLotus.
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 15-day Timeless Wonders of Vietnam, Cambodia & Mekong 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.