Rippling green rice paddies, traditional villages scattered along tranquil riverbanks, cities bustling with history and commerce, vibrant cuisines flavored with coriander and lemongrass, and ancient temples tucked into dense jungle foliage — experiencing the distinctive landscapes and vivid cultures of Asia is on many traveler’s bucket list. One of the most convenient ways to visit the region is on a river cruise and, depending on its length and the cruise line you choose, a fascinating mosaic of culture- and history-centric experiences await. Here's everything you need to know about river cruising in Asia.
River Routes & Countries You’ll Visit in Asia
The most popular itinerary in Asia is the Mekong River, which is Asia’s third-longest river. It flows through six countries (China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam) for more than 2,700 miles, from the Tibetan Plateau to the Mekong Basin. (However, river cruises primarily navigate the lower portion in Cambodia and Vietnam.) Some itineraries also include pre- or post-cruise experiences in Bangkok. Meanwhile, there are more limited cruise options on India’s Ganges River, the sacred river of Hinduism that begins in the Himalayas and, at 1,560 miles long, empties into the Bay of Bengal.
The Irrawaddy River, which meanders through Myanmar for 1,422 miles, is the country’s most important river. Cruises here had been quite popular — notably the mystical temple-dotted landscape of Bagan —but after a devastating military coup in 2021 and the global pandemic, cruising is on indefinite hold.
China’s Yangtze River is Asia’s longest at 3,915 miles, and it had been a popular cruise destination for travelers touring China. (The main route is between Chongqing and Wuhan with excursions to the Three Gorges Dam.) However, as of mid-2022, tourism is still prohibited in China due to the pandemic.
Top River Cruise Ports in Asia
Some Mekong itineraries sail round-trip from Hanoi (which isn’t located on the river but is a major air gateway) or Ho Chi Minh City, while others have Siem Reap or Phnom Penh as starting or end points. Hanoi, the former capital of French Indochina, is home to the atmospheric colonial-era Old Quarter and several history and military museums, while Ho Chi Min City (formerly Saigon) is Vietnam’s largest city. Here, you'll find magnificent sights like Ho Chi Minh City Hall, the Reunification Palace, and the old Opera House. Additionally, Kampong Cham in Cambodia boasts beautiful temple complexes, while Phnom Penh (the country's capital) is known for its Royal Palace, which is where you'll also find the spectacular Silver Pagoda. Siem Reap is home to storied Khmer temples of the Angkor Wat complex — a must-see UNESCO World Heritage Site.
On the Ganges, the pace is slow and contemplative as one cruises from Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) to Patna. You'll pass riverfronts lined with people going about daily life: Hindu men bathing in sarong-like dhotis and women in vibrant fuchsia and orange saris doing laundry. The sacred steps leading down to the water are called ghats, and the floating candles are called aarti. A highlight is temple town Kalna, where a shrine dedicated to Lord Shiva features 108 hand-carved mini-temples.
Cruise Lines You Can Book for an Asia River Cruise
On the Mekong:
Most major river cruise lines offer Mekong itineraries, including:
- AmaWaterways features seven-night sailings from Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap and vice versa aboard 124-passenger AmaDara.
- Aqua Expeditions offers a choice of three-, four-, or seven-night cruises departing from Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and Ho Chi Minh City aboard the aptly named 40-passenger Aqua Mekong.
- Avalon Waterways has multiple options, including seven-night river cruises from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh, as well as 15- to 18-night programs combining a river cruise with land tours that visit Ha Long Bay, Hanoi, Siem Reap, and Bangkok.
- Emerald Cruises offers 7- to 20-night programs aboard 84-guest Emerald Harmony.
- Scenic features a variety of itineraries ranging from 10 nights from Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap (with a 7-night cruise) to 23 nights from Hanoi to Siem Reap with a 9-night cruise aboard 68-passenger Scenic Spirit and 44-passenger Scenic Aura.
- Viking River Cruises offers 14-night cruise-and-land-tour itineraries from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City and vice versa aboard the 80-passenger Viking Saigon.
- Uniworld Boutique River Cruises features 13-night programs from Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap and 15-night programs from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi aboard 68-passenger Mekong Jewel.
On the Ganges:
- Avalon Waterways offers several itineraries, including a seven-night cruise roundtrip from Kolkata and 13- to 20-night programs that combine a river cruise with a land tour.
- Uniworld Boutique River Cruises has a 12-night cruise-and-land itinerary from New Delhi to Kolkata aboard 56-guest Ganges Voyager II.
Best Time to Visit Asia on a River Cruise
Cruises on the Mekong are offered between August and March (the rainy season here lasts from April to July), while Ganges itineraries are scheduled in January, February, September, October, and November.
Cost of River Cruises in Asia
Fares vary by cruise line. However, you can expect to pay anywhere from $1,899 to $4,799 per person for a seven-night itinerary and between $5,299 and $6,999 per person for 14- to 18-night programs combining cruises and land tours.
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