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Cruising the Irrawaddy

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Cruising the Irrawaddy

story by: Tom Ricketts

River cruising has long been popular on the likes of the Danube in Europe and the Amazon in Brazil, and now Asia is getting in on the fun with cruises now running on the Mekong in Cambodia and Vietnam, as well as the Yangtze in China. But one particularly exciting newcomer is the Irrawaddy, the largest river in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma).

Myanmar has long been off the radar of most peoples travel plans but thanks to a fast changing government, the country is now considered safe and tourism is now being promoted with great success. In 2012 just over one million tourists visited the country, and in 2013 that number doubled to two million!

The mighty Irrawaddy has played a pivotal and fascinating part in Myanmar’s history for many years. It originates from Kachin State in the northeast of the country and runs over 2000 kilometres to the Indian Ocean. Before roads and rail made it to then Burma, cruising the river was the only way to get around the country. The river was home to the Irrawaddy Flotilla, a famous collection of river ships that at its peak in the 1920’s had over 600 ships, carried nine million people, and countless amounts of cargo around the country. The sheer number of ships on the river lead to Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem, ‘The Road to Mandalay’. An excerpt reads…

“Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay:
Can't you 'ear their paddles chunkin' from Rangoon to Mandalay?
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin' fishes play,
An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China
'crost the Bay!”

Today most cruises depart from Myanmar’s second largest city of Mandalay. You’ll be aboard 10-14 days depending on which cruise you choose. Conveniently, most of Myanmar’s major attractions are located close to the river so cruising is a great way to see the country. Sights of particular note are U Bein Bridge, built in 1850 and thought to be the longest and oldest teak bridge in the world, and the awe inspiring temples of Bagan. Considered by many to be of equal greatness to Angkor Wat, Bagan is a floodplain dotted with over a whopping 2000 pagodas. The pagoda’s were built during the 11
th and 13th centuries by many kings and wealthy citizens, each trying to outdo each other by building higher and more decorative pagodas than the last. Climbing the side of one of the taller pagodas gives you stunning views of the plain with thousands of other spires rising from the bush below. This is truly one of the world’s best undiscovered attractions.

As you cruise down the rest of the river you’ll be engrossed in watching the locals go about their daily business. Boats of all shapes and sizes ply the muddy waters, half of which barely look seaworthy (or should that be riverworthy?). On the banks of the river you’ll spot many small towns, some of which are floating and rise and fall with the river. Water buffalo are common and the cutest little kids will smile and wave you down the river until you’re out of site.

There’s only a few operators currently cruising on the river, most in the luxury category. The beautiful old steamers have been lovingly refurbished and feature wooden floors, quality cabins (some with private balconies), ensuites, and top notch food and beverages. Day trips to local attractions can easily be organised by staff onboard, but it’s best to book in advance with your travel agent as they do sell out.

Most cruises end up in the country’s largest city of Yangon (formerly Rangoon). This amazing city of just under six million people was until recently the capital city of Myanmar. It’s known for its huge collection of beautiful colonial buildings and its impressive gold covered Shwedagon Pagoda which rises over 100 metres tall. There’s awesome markets here and plenty of connections to Myanmar’s other attractions. Its airport is the biggest in the country and has easy connections to/from New Zealand through Bangkok, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur etc. 

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