Unlock the secrets of Southeast Asia’s most mysterious destination. From Myanmar’s elaborate sacred gold temples to its small villages and Buddha-filled limestone caves, it’s best to experience Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, on a small ship cruise along the Irrawaddy River. Having been to Myanmar several times, once by land and two times on a small ship cruise on the Irrawaddy between Bagan and Mandalay, cruising was an unforgettable experience and is the best way, in my opinion, to see this unique and magical destination.
Although Myanmar is currently considered a high-risk travel destination at the moment, I recommend putting this on your bucket list for when the situation stabilizes.
The Benefits Of Booking A Small Ship Cruise In Myanmar, And Who To Cruise With
To really feel the heart and soul of Myanmar, a small ship cruise for a few days or longer is a must. There are a number of Burmese rivers to choose from, but for a first-timer in Myanmar, I recommend starting with a cruise on the Irrawaddy, which runs nearly 1,400 miles north to south through the country and is the main artery of life for the people of Myanmar.
There were many small ship cruise lines on the Irrawaddy, including Strand, Belmond, Sanctuary Retreats, and Scenic, but one of my favorites is Pandaw, which boasts a fleet of Colonial-style teakwood boats! I’ve sailed with Pandaw on the Irrawaddy twice and also cruised with them in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam and hope to do their Lower Ganges small ship cruise in India shortly.
1. You’ll See Remarkable Architecture And Archeology
During your cruise, you will visit significant archaeological sites and tourist hotspots — without the crowds, and at your leisure. By far the most incredible place in Myanmar for me is Bagan, which was the capital city from 1044 to 1287. With 3,000 pagodas, temples, and stupas of varying sizes and states of repair, you can take a bike, car, or horse-drawn carriage through Bagan to see as much as you wish. When I visited, I tried to imagine why people would have constructed such structures in one small area. The temples of Bagan can also be seen on the shores as your boat moves along the river.
2. There’s No Need To Pack And Unpack Every Day — Or Waste Time Changing Hotels
Taking a small ship cruise allows you to pack and unpack once, which means you will be able to use your time to see the country instead of waiting on hotel check-ins and transfers. The cabins on Pandaw boats are comfortable and while not large like they would be on a luxury cruise ship, there is plenty of room for everything in closets and drawers.
3. You’ll Enjoy Fresh And Local Foods
If you are a fan of fresh fruit and vegetables and enjoy walking and shopping in local markets, a small ship cruise offers walking tours with the chef in small villages along the shores. You’ll have an unparalleled opportunity to learn about unfamiliar products and choose food for your lunch or dinner. The tastes, colors, and freshness of the food and spices used onboard are unmatched by most hotels. We even had the opportunity to cook with the chef after we shopped for all of our fresh ingredients.
4. You’ll Witness Authentic Burmese Life As It’s Been For Centuries
The Irrawaddy is the lifeblood of Myanmar and you will soak it all up as you float up or downstream. You will not want to miss any of it, as ships carrying bamboo, piles of coal, building materials, fruits and vegetables, and pots, among many other products, make stops in the small villages along the muddy banks. Many vessels of all shapes and sizes, used for fishing or as moveable homes, dot the river.
Burmese rivers experience many changes in water levels during the monsoon season and again during the dry season, and life along the banks of the rivers changes accordingly. Temporary villages pop up on the shores during the dry season, then are moved to higher ground during the monsoon. November to February, the cool, dry season, is the best time to see Myanmar.
Visit Mandalay, Ava, and Mingun, and learn about the many monasteries in Myanmar’s Sagaing hills. If you plan ahead, you can arrange a private visit to a monastery to observe a lunch service for nuns of all ages dressed in a sea of pink. While there, you’ll learn more about the importance of monasteries in Burmese culture. In the village of Pakokku, you can see how perfect pottery is made in all sizes using old wheels. If you are lucky, you may get to make one of the pots yourself!
5. You’ll Learn About Burmese Culture Onboard
A river cruise is an opportunity to immerse yourself in local culture, with well-spoken, knowledgeable guides and speakers onboard for the duration of the cruise. I enjoyed learning about each of the villages and cities we visited along the way, plus the storied history of the country and the arts and folklore of the Burmese people. The nightly onboard entertainment on the rooftop deck included Burmese puppet shows, musical acts, and dance performances.
6. You’ll Get To Know Your Staff And Crew
Most of the staff and crew onboard my Pandaw river cruises were local residents who were keen to share their country with visitors. They provided true five-star service when it came to the cleanliness of the rooms, food preparation and service, assistance with shore excursions, and engaging in casual conversations with guests throughout the trip.
A small ship cruise in Myanmar becomes a home in all respects, from shoes being removed when you board the ship (slippers are provided while the staff wash and clean your shoes!) to easy access to tea, coffee, and snacks at all hours. We enjoyed warm and welcoming hospitality at all times and a real sense of pride on the part of the staff. I got to know all of the staff members’ names and even learned about their families. We did feel like family by the end of the trip, thanks to there being under 30 guests and an equivalent number of staff members.
An Additional Myanmar-By-Small-Ship-Cruise Tip
It will be necessary to wait until the travel warnings have been removed before you can book a small ship cruise.
A pre-cruise stay in Yangon at a British colonial hotel and a post-cruise stay for a couple of nights at one of Inle Lake’s luxury resorts are the perfect ways to start and end your visit to Myanmar.