Our Guide to Exotic River Cruises

by John Roberts

Our Guide to Exotic River Cruises

by John Roberts

While Europe's waterways are typically the first thought in river cruising, more far-flung locations in Asia, Africa, and South America are opening up to cruisers who want to experience something completely different. And since the line handles the logistics (transfers, guided shore excursions), these voyages make it easy to explore destinations where it's not as easy to get from point A to point B. Another bonus: far fewer ships travel these routes, so you won't be joining the masses at every port. Here are seven exotic river itineraries to stoke your sense of adventure.

7
Banteay Srei Temple of Angkor in Siem Reap / iStock / goikmitl
Bagan, Myanmar
1 of 7
1. Irrawaddy River

The Irawaddy bisects Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma. This once-closed nation has recently opened its borders after a long time under the rule of an oppressive military regime. The most popular routes operate between the temple-studded Bagan and the former royal capital of Mandalay, where you can tour gold-leaf workshops and cross a teakwood bridge. But it’s the remote northern reaches that are a step back in time. Starting in Bhamo and descending south, you’ll encounter sugar-palm farmers, pottery villages, maroon-robed monks, and school children, all while soaking up views of scattered stupas, grazing water buffalo, and baby elephants at home in a nursing camp.

The Irawaddy bisects Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma. This once-closed nation has recently opened its borders after a long time under the rule of an oppressive military regime. The most popular routes operate between the temple-studded Bagan and the former royal capital of Mandalay, where you can tour gold-leaf workshops and cross a teakwood bridge. But it’s the remote northern reaches that are a step back in time. Starting in Bhamo and descending south, you’ll encounter sugar-palm farmers, pottery villages, maroon-robed monks, and school children, all while soaking up views of scattered stupas, grazing water buffalo, and baby elephants at home in a nursing camp.

Three Gorges Dam
2 of 7
2. Yangtze River

The third-longest river in the world meanders along almost the entire length of China, flowing from west to east. Itineraries are often packaged with land tours and hotel stays, so that travelers can catch many of China’s blockbuster attractions — the Forbidden City in Beijing; the terra-cotta warriors in Xian — on the same trip. The cruise portion explores the scenic Three Gorges Dam area, mountainside villages, and cliff-side pagodas. Highlights include the pandas at Chongqing Zoo and the 2,000-year-old Ghost City of Fengdu.

The third-longest river in the world meanders along almost the entire length of China, flowing from west to east. Itineraries are often packaged with land tours and hotel stays, so that travelers can catch many of China’s blockbuster attractions — the Forbidden City in Beijing; the terra-cotta warriors in Xian — on the same trip. The cruise portion explores the scenic Three Gorges Dam area, mountainside villages, and cliff-side pagodas. Highlights include the pandas at Chongqing Zoo and the 2,000-year-old Ghost City of Fengdu.

Sphinxes in Karnak
3 of 7
3. Nile River

Since ancient times, this fabled waterway has been the lifeblood of Egypt. Sail from Luxor to Aswan past the High Dam, which created the nearby Lake Nasser. Along the way, you’ll tour ancient temples, pharoahs’ tombs, and museums. Key stops include the Valley of the Kings, the burial ground of Old Kingdom rulers; Edfu, a Ptolemaic temple; and Kom Ombo, dedicated to the crocodile god Sobek. You’ll also swing by the Temple of Philae, on an island outside Aswan, and the colonnaded Luxor and Karnak temples. If you’re flying into Cairo, you can also catch the Grand Pyramids in Giza and King Tut’s treasures in the Egyptian Museum.

Since ancient times, this fabled waterway has been the lifeblood of Egypt. Sail from Luxor to Aswan past the High Dam, which created the nearby Lake Nasser. Along the way, you’ll tour ancient temples, pharoahs’ tombs, and museums. Key stops include the Valley of the Kings, the burial ground of Old Kingdom rulers; Edfu, a Ptolemaic temple; and Kom Ombo, dedicated to the crocodile god Sobek. You’ll also swing by the Temple of Philae, on an island outside Aswan, and the colonnaded Luxor and Karnak temples. If you’re flying into Cairo, you can also catch the Grand Pyramids in Giza and King Tut’s treasures in the Egyptian Museum.

Khmer Cambodian dancers in Angkor
4 of 7
4. Mekong River

Surrounded by farmland, the more than 2,500-mile-long heart of the "rice bowl" is a vital force for sustaining life in the region. Cruise through Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, weaving through rice paddies, orchards, and floating villages. Don’t miss the charming French colonial city of Hanoi; Siem Reap’s impressive temples; the haunting Tuol Sleng Museum in Phnom Penh; and Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon), with its bustling street markets and food stalls.

Surrounded by farmland, the more than 2,500-mile-long heart of the "rice bowl" is a vital force for sustaining life in the region. Cruise through Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, weaving through rice paddies, orchards, and floating villages. Don’t miss the charming French colonial city of Hanoi; Siem Reap’s impressive temples; the haunting Tuol Sleng Museum in Phnom Penh; and Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon), with its bustling street markets and food stalls.

Amazon River
5 of 7
5. Amazon River

Whether you travel the Amazon in Brazil or Peru, you'll voyage into lush, biodiverse rain forest teeming with wildlife. Naturalists lead excursions and jungle treks into the river’s tributaries, which shelter native birds, pink river dolphins, sloths, piranhas, and howler monkeys, as well as some spectacular flowers among a thick canopy of trees. You'll also have a chance to interact with some of the indigenous villagers who inhabit the floodplains.

Whether you travel the Amazon in Brazil or Peru, you'll voyage into lush, biodiverse rain forest teeming with wildlife. Naturalists lead excursions and jungle treks into the river’s tributaries, which shelter native birds, pink river dolphins, sloths, piranhas, and howler monkeys, as well as some spectacular flowers among a thick canopy of trees. You'll also have a chance to interact with some of the indigenous villagers who inhabit the floodplains.

Women drying sarees in West Bengal
6 of 7
6. Ganges River

A sacred river for Hindus and the site of everyday rituals such as bathing, the Ganges River runs through India (and Bangladesh). Routes typically leave from Kolkata and take passengers to regions known for terra-cotta temples, colonial-era buildings, and farming and silk production. You’ll also explore palaces (the thousand-door Hazarduari in Murshidabad) and museums (the marble-faced Victoria Memorial Hall). Keep an eye out for the Ganges River dolphin, too.

A sacred river for Hindus and the site of everyday rituals such as bathing, the Ganges River runs through India (and Bangladesh). Routes typically leave from Kolkata and take passengers to regions known for terra-cotta temples, colonial-era buildings, and farming and silk production. You’ll also explore palaces (the thousand-door Hazarduari in Murshidabad) and museums (the marble-faced Victoria Memorial Hall). Keep an eye out for the Ganges River dolphin, too.

Giraffes in Chobe National Park
7 of 7
7. Chobe River

The Chobe River borders Namibia and Botswana, running alongside Chobe National Park. This is the route for animal lovers. On the banks, you’ll spot herds of hippos and elephants, plus sables, giraffes, and pukus. The three to five day cruises combine safaris by boat, fishing excursions, and four-wheel drive treks into Chobe National Park — home to nesting raptors, hyenas, and large prides of lions and herds of buffalo.

The Chobe River borders Namibia and Botswana, running alongside Chobe National Park. This is the route for animal lovers. On the banks, you’ll spot herds of hippos and elephants, plus sables, giraffes, and pukus. The three to five day cruises combine safaris by boat, fishing excursions, and four-wheel drive treks into Chobe National Park — home to nesting raptors, hyenas, and large prides of lions and herds of buffalo.

Up next...

10 Best Ports for Fun Fall Activities

Koblenz, Germany
Go Back
Find The Best Cruises
Find a cruise

Find the best deals!

Click on multiple sites to get the lowest prices

Click on multiple sites to get the lowest prices