Irrawaddy river cruises

The Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady) bisects Myanmar from north to south over 2,000km, its valley the country’s cultural and historical heartland. The stretch of river between Mandalay and Bagan is especially striking, passing several former royal capitals, colonial-era hill stations and handsome tiered pagodas topping teak monasteries. During the British Raj, flotillas of paddle steamers would travel the 700km from Yangon (then Rangoon) giving it the nickname ‘The Road to Mandalay’. Today it remains an important commercial artery – you will frequently pass rafts loaded with rice or teak wood, heavily laden ferries and fishermen flinging their nets from small boats, while on the banks women scrub clothes against rocks and farmers tend their fields with bullock carts and ploughs drawn by oxen.

During the dry season (October to May) the Irrawaddy’s waters recede, exposing sun-baked banks, then return to life in the spring monsoon, bringing floodwaters teeming with fish, replenishing the soil and demonstrating the wisdom of villagers building their thatched homes on stilts.
In the river’s lower reaches before it empties into the Andaman Sea can sometimes be seen rare Irrawaddy dolphins and saltwater crocodiles. Burmese pythons wind through forested areas, while it’s said there are small numbers of Bengal tigers, leopards and Asian elephants in the delta, though your chances of seeing them are minute. What you would definitely see are huge numbers of migratory seabirds. This is a river that simply bursts with life.
Irrawaddy river cruises will visit markets, hill-stations and little villages, where you might see monks at prayer or children playing by the riverside. Some of these communities may directly benefit economically from your vacation through a foundation set up to help build schools and health clinics. Stops could include a walk through the Sagaing Hills with their many pagodas, to watch the sunset at the U Bein Bridge, famously constructed from 1,000 teak logs, or to take a scenic pony-and-trap ride through the rural scenery. It’s a marvellous way to travel a country that is still so little-known and consequently untouched by the modern world.

Practicalities

Irrawaddy river cruise vacations from Mandalay to Bagan last around 11 days, and are tailor made in that while you’ll follow a mostly set itinerary you can travel any time of year, and upgrade to more luxurious accommodations on land, or berths on the boat. Cruises typically begin in Yangon, where you’ll spend a day or so exploring the capital and its colonial-era center with a guide, before an hour-long domestic flight north to Mandalay where you will board a handsome and well-equipped cruise vessel.

From Mandalay to Bagan is only 180km, a distance it takes under 24 hours to cover, so that you’ll cruise leisurely and take regular excursions with local guides, spending around a week in total on the boat. En suite, airy cabins and suites are detailed with teak wood and silk furnishings, some featuring writing desks and seating areas. It’s an exquisite way to travel – after a day trip you can refresh with handmade soaps before cocktails on deck (complimentary shoe cleaning is provided each day), and enjoy al fresco dinners under the stars: tealeaf salad, tender grilled meats and seafood, tempura and noodle dishes in an international fusion of Burmese, Thai, Indonesian, European and Indian cuisine. The ship has shaded seating and even a swimming pool on the observation deck, as well as a piano bar and a wellness spa where you can indulge in yoga classes, manicures and pedicures, thanaka facials and coconut and jadestone massages.

Tailormade trips mean that you can travel any time of year, but probably the best time for Irrawaddy river cruises is from October through to March, when both the river levels and the humidity are lower, while the weather is usually balmy and dry. The ballooning season in Bagan is between early October and mid-April, and you should aim to avoid traveling during Chinese New Year, when popular locations become very busy.

Our top River cruising Vacation

Irrawaddy river cruise, Burma

Irrawaddy river cruise, Burma

Sail the mighty Ayarwaddy in a unique experience of Myanmar!

From £2999 to £5999 11 days ex flights
Tailor made:
This trip can be tailor made throughout the year to suit your requirements
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about River cruising or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

What will I see?

Must-see landmarks in Yangon include the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda and Sule Pagoda, which dominate the city skyline. The reclining Buddha in the Chauk That Gyi pagoda is also impressive, while a tour of Bogyoke Aung San Market (Scott Market) and its stalls selling gemstones, handicrafts and artwork is sure to yield a few souvenir ideas (we recommend avoiding anything teak unless you’re certain of its provenance as illegal logging in Myanmar is a serious issue).
The walk up Mount Popa, viewed as the sacred home of ‘Nats’ (spirits) and topped by a Buddhist temple, is a big highlight of an Irrawaddy cruise, as you trek a winding path lined with monasteries, shrines and pagodas. A short walk in the Sagaing Hills will also require a bit of puff, but the panoramas from what is considered the living center of the Myanmar’s Buddhist faith reward tenfold.
Bagan is among the most popular places in the world for a hot air balloon flight. Thousands of ancient temples and stupas, some crumbling, some still being repaired after the devastating 2016 earthquake, and some (controversially) restored dot the plains, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can explore Bagan by mountain bike or horse-drawn cart, but a sunrise balloon flight, when it’s cooler and the pilots can get closer to the architecture, is mind-blowing. Ask your operator for recommendations of reliable ballooning companies to use.

Should I visit Myanmar?

We ended our boycott of Myanmar in 2011 and while the political situation there has worsened further in recent years with the appalling persecution of the Rohingya people, seemingly with the approval of Aung San Suu Kyi, now State Counsellor, we are not at present in favour of another boycott. The reason is that, given the boom in tourism to Myanmar in recent years, if operators were to pull out en masse it would have a devastating impact on local people and their small businesses rather than the government.
Around half of the country is covered by forest, but that is dwindling fast due to illegal logging – be wary of buying teak souvenirs. It’s also important to be respectful and restrained with photography in Myanmar, asking permission from people before taking their portraits so as not to cause offence.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Drouyn Cambridge] [Top box: David Stanley] [What will I see? (Shwedagon Pagoda): Richard Shaw] [Should I visit?: Sebastien Goldberg]
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