Since ancient times, Myanmar’s rivers have evoked a sense of mystery and romanticism, as well as being an essential lifeline for the people. With Myanmar’s infrastructure still developing, cruising offers a unique way to see the highlights and the opportunity to travel in comfort to some of the country’s remote regions. From the classic Irrawaddy River route between the royal cities of Mandalay and Bagan, to the secluded tribal areas along the Chindwin River in Nagaland, there are itineraries of varying length to suit every interest.
Which cruise companies do Tour Mandalay work with in Myanmar? Tour Mandalay are able to book / provide quotations for any river cruiser in Myanmar, and having experienced most of them first-hand, we can also provide you with a good idea of what the experience involves. Although this list is not comprehensive, a list of our preferred companies can be found below.
Anawrahta by Heritage Line
Belmond Road to Mandalay
What are the highlight experiences associated with each of the cruises mentioned? Excursion wise, we do not feel there is currently much that sets any of the cruise ships apart. Regardless of whether it’s a short cruise or a long cruise, they more or less include the same destinations and entertainment programmes (with a few minor variations here and there). There is however a big difference when it comes to the quality of cabins, staff and cuisine served on-board. Here’s our brief thoughts on each of the companies listed.
Anawrahta – this is the largest cruise ship on the river and it also boasts the largest entry level cabin. At 32-square metres, it’s huge and it also comes with a private balcony. Out of the cruises we’ve experienced first-hand, the guiding is the best and they use the very best available when it comes to outsourcing entertainment. The ship’s highlight for us was the swimming pool on the top deck, which offers an amazing 360-degree view of the passing scenery. The bar’s also impressive and the folding windows extend fully to allow a nice breeze to pass through.
A short description, as per Anawrahta’s website: “With the largest cabin space on the Ayeyarwady, and the highest crew to passenger ratio, The Anawrahta offers the finest on-board experience in Myanmar. This impressive vessel is named after the founder of the Burmese nation, modern day Myanmar. During his reign, from 1044-1077, he introduced and spread the religion of Theravada Buddhism throughout the land.”
We would also recommend reading our recent review of the Anawartha by clicking here.
Strand Cruise – Operated by the Strand Hotel, this is arguably the best option for any self-confessed foodies. Although it’s currently the most expensive cruise option and the entry level rooms are a little bit on the small side, the contemporary style and focus on fine cuisine puts this experience into a category of its own. The Strand even have their own foreign Entertainment and F&B managers to provide constant support to the Myanmar staff, in turn helping to make sure service levels don’t slip. Weather permitting, the BBQ on the side of a sandbank would surely make for a cruise highlight. Most of the dining options are a la carte (not buffet!) and the ship has, without a doubt, the grandest bar area on the river. The Head Bar Manager at the time of writing, Mr Win, previously worked for the opulent Governor’s Residence, and his international training in Dubai received after that really shows. In the evenings, Bilu (the Entertainment Manager), also keeps passengers amused with his witty humour and mind boggling card tricks.
A short description, as per The Strand Cruise’s website: “The Strand Cruise is the latest Luxury Cruise to sail the magnificent Ayeyarwady River of Asia’s hidden treasure that is Myanmar. Embark for an authentic journey of discoveries from visiting temples, pagodas, palaces and monasteries to remote villages aboard this ship, which mirrors the heritage and reputation of its sister property.”
We would also recommend reading our recent review of The Strand Cruise by clicking here.
Belmond Road to Mandalay – Unfortunately Tour Mandalay have not yet had the opportunity to inspect the Road to Mandalay overnight, but it’s best described as the “original” 5-star Myanmar river cruise. It boasts a very distinct shape and style, looking more like a long yacht than a river cruiser. Belmond have also announced that they will start providing electric buggies to passengers in Bagan – basically providing passengers with safer 4-wheeled alternative to e-bikes. Being Belmond and the longest established 5-star cruise, it attracts some of the best staff in the industry and the overall quality is exceptional.
A short description, as per the Road to Mandalay’s website: “Cruise along the mighty Ayeyarwady River, taking in the country’s most mesmerising landscapes from the deck of our luxurious river cruiser. Stop off to explore rural villages from a bygone era, see saffron-robed monks go about their daily rituals, and marvel at the golden spires of pagodas which soar out of the lush jungle. Prepare for the journey of a lifetime.”
Those wishing to embark upon a longer cruise may wish to read up on the Belmond Orcaella with its 7-night minimum cruise length.
Sanctuary Ananda – A great 5-star option that does what it says on the tin. Due to the brand’s positive worldwide reputation, many travellers are happy to book straight onto this without considering anthing else, but that’s not to say it’s necessarily the best. Aesthetics wise it feels a bit like the Strand and it’s decorated with plenty of locally sourced textiles to give it that Myanmar touch. They claim their Deluxe Suites are the largest entry cabins on the river, but that’s not true at the Deluxe Rooms on the Anawratha are larger by 5-metres squared. There’s talks of them inviting a local artist on-board to carry out presentations, which would surely make for a nice addition to the obligatory longyi / thanaka demonstration and cooking show.
As per the Sanctuary Ananda’s website: “Our luxurious all suite ship will take you in style on voyages of breathtaking beauty and discovery on the mysterious rivers of Myanmar (Burma). Visit temples, pagodas, palaces and monasteries along the Irrawaddy River on a choice of cruises from Mandalay to Bagan, Bhamo or Yangon. Journeys on its great tributary, the Chindwin, will take you to places visitors rarely see – through the jungles of the north, forgotten villages, and ancient towns almost to the Indian border.”
We would also recommend reading our recent review of Sanctuary Ananda by clicking here.
Pandaw – The longest operating cruise company in Myanmar and easily the best value for money – for a 3-4 star product, the service on here is exceptional! Due to them having operated in Myanmar for so long, we find the excursions are extremely well-oiled and the cruise captains know the Irrawaddy’s challenging sandbank gauntlet better than anybody. The rooms aren’t huge on the Pandaw and it’s fair to say they’re not very private when the cabin’s curtains are open. This does however encourage passengers to get out and socialise and judging by the multiple times we’ve sailed with them, Pandaw really cares about the guests coming together. Another important point is that, even though the ship is still considered luxurious (certainly by Myanmar standards), it’s not as “bling” or in your face as some of the options listed above. The conditions in the areas cruise companies choose to moor up at at are usually very basic and it’s common for passenger to feel uncomfortable when they turn up in a luxury vessel. We regard Pandaw as the experienced, slightly more humble option. Although it’s only a small thing, it’s worth mentioning that they have the most powerful showers on the river – you’ll be sure to appreciate this even more after a long, often sweaty day of touring.
As per the Pandaw’s website: “We began in Burma. The unique Pandaw river expedition concept evolved here from the vestiges of the colonial Irrawaddy Flotilla Company. Our first ships were built here and in Burma we learnt to master river navigation at its worst. These lessons were applied to the other rivers of Asia.
Burma, after 1987 renamed by the regime Myanmar, is the largest mainland South-East Asian country and with the greatest variety of scenery from Himalayan peaks to tropical beaches. We have yet to meet a visitor to Burma who does not feel that this is the most beautiful, friendly and culturally interesting Asian country ever visited.
Most of the population live in three great river valleys encircled by impenetrable horseshoes of mountains. River life dominates the country and still to this day forms the main system of transportation, irrigation and from its rich fishing grounds the principal protein source for the majority of the population.
In the river valleys two millennia of Buddhist art, architecture and archaeology survive, including the 3000 standing monuments at Pagan. There is no other Asian country with so vast and varied a range of cultural sites. Almost everywhere there are temples and monasteries, festivals and ceremonies. The Burmese are a deeply pious people and Buddhist activities dominate every aspect of life.
The Burmese are also very warm and friendly people who since Independence in 1947 have suffered terrible impoverishment and deprivation. We do our best to support the local domestic economy and make sure our suppliers and contractors are small local businesses. We are very careful to make sure our clients’ money falls into the right hands. Sanctions and the politically correct refusal of most NGOs and international charities to work in the country has served to exacerbate deprivation and entrench the regime further.
Our Pandaw passengers believe that by visiting Burma we are doing something to help as has been proved by the many schools our passengers have built, not to mention the outstanding contribution made by our passengers after Cyclone Nargis struck in 2008. Most of the Burmese our passengers encounter tend to agree with this assumption. These cruises are the most acclaimed luxury vacations on the Irrawaddy river.”
Paukan – A very similar product to Paukan, although the cabins on their newer boats are slightly more luxurious. Tour Mandalay have only travelled overnight on their entry level (the 1947) and they were more or less like for like. Service on-board is always excellent and they offer a variety of short or long cruise options to suit most itinerary needs.
As per the Paukan’s website: “Ayravata Cruises was founded in the 2003 by three Myanmar entrepreneurs with the support and management of a European expert in cruises on Asian rivers. Thanks to the vast experience of the founders in the Myanmar hospitality and tourism business coupled by the expertise of the foreign executive director, Ayravata Cruises is not just a successful cruise operator but a shipbuilder as well.”
Do you have any information on logistics and timings? Cruise schedules frequently change so we would recommend having a browse through the respective company’s website first. If your dates are flexible it won’t matter so much, and Tour Mandalay would be more than happy to design a tour programme that works with your preference. Brief information about schedules, along with links to the website, can be found below.
Anawrahta – Anawrahta currently offers 10 cruise options, varying in length from 3 to 11 nights. The most popular cruise would surely be the 3-night Ancient Capitals/Golden Land cruise, with the crème de la crème being the 11-night Exotic Chindwin, which only sets sail in August and September. Information for each of these cruises including logistics and timings can be found by clicking here.
Strand Cruise – Currently the Strand only offer a 3-night and a 4-night cruise from Bagan to Mandalay and vice versa. The ship departs on Monday from Bagan to Mandalay (4-nights) and Friday for Mandalay to Bagan (3-nights). They only operate from July to April. For more information about logistics, please click here and select ‘Programme Details’.
Belmond Road to Mandalay – The Belmond Road to Mandalay offers five cruise options varying from 2-nights in length to 7-nights. In order to view the logistics and dates, click here and select ‘view journey’. Once the page has loaded, you can then view the sailing dates by clicking on the drop down box from the side.
Sanctuary Ananda – The Sanctuary offers seven itineraries, with the most popular being the 3 and 4-night cruises from Bagan to Mandalay and vice versa. Their 10 and 11-night cruise up the Chindwin and the Upper Irrawaddy also look outstanding, but these can only be joined in July and August when the river levels are high enough. Details of these programmes can be found by clicking on here and sailing dates by clicking here.
Belmond Orcella – The Orcaella has 4 programmes varying from 7 to 12-nights in length. The Ayeyarwady Experience (Bagan – Yangon) and Jewels of the Ayeyarwady (Yangon – Mandalay) are the most frequent, but each route only operates once a month in high season. The longer Chindwin and Upper Irrawaddy cruises only operate in August and September. In order to view the logistics and dates, click here and select ‘view journey’. Once the page has loaded, you can then view the sailing dates by clicking on the drop down box from the side.
Pandaw – The Pandaw offers 11 cruise options ranging from the 1-night Bagan to Mandalay short cruise and a 10-night ‘Golden Land’ itinerary, which sails you all the way up to the northernmost point of the Irrawaddy. All of the expeditions can be found on the front page of their website (click here), and by clicking on ‘Learn More’ you can access the detailed itinerary and scheduled departure dates. For something truly unique, be sure to have a browse of the ‘Voyage to Nagaland’ programme.
Paukan – The Paukan boasts 10 itineraries, with the shortest being 1-night and the longest being 10. The 1 and 2-night itineraries between Bagan and Mandalay (and vice versa) are the most popular and the 9-night Irrawaddy Explore offers something slightly different as it departs from Prome (Pyay). In order to view the details please click here and select ‘Details & Pricing’. Dates can be viewed by clicking ‘Check Availability’.
Are there any other points you’d like to bring to our attention? If we were forced to be picky, we’d like to bring the following to your attention.
Anawrahta – It’s a large ship and due to it being relatively new on the scene, occupancy might be a bit low. This is also an advantage as you’ll have more staff waiting on you per head.
Strand Cruise – Due to it being a new ship, they are struggling to fill the boat. This does however increase the likelihood of an upgrade. The entry level cabins are small and it’s very expensive.
Belmond Road to Mandalay – Again, the entry level cabins are very small. The boat is a little bit older and it’s not designed to travel on shallow waters – in March (the time of year when the river’s at it’s lowes level) there’s a good chance of it getting stuck on a sandbank.
Sanctuary Ananda – The swimming pool area’s a bit small and it’s as though it’s part of the bar area. Whilst it’s of course a generalisation, a lot of passengers book onto this because of the brand.
Belmond Orcella – Long cruise options only and the rooms are very small considering the price you pay.
Pandaw – Rooms are small and the type of boat changes depending on passenger occupancy. The smaller boats are a little bit noisier (due to the engines). They can sometimes switch around last minute in case of a charter.
Paukan – Drinks, local spirits not included unlike the Pandaw.
So, in conclusion? In our opinion, the best all-round cruise option is the Pandaw due to their unrivalled experience, excursion quality and value for money. The Paukan would be a close second, with it also representing great value for money. These cruises however, are nowhere near as opulent as the 5-star alternatives. If you’re happy to splash the cash, we’d personally recommend the Heritage Line’s Anawrahta as the luxury go-to. The rooms are huge, they have the best guides, best facilities and the grandest ship. The Strand Cruise beats however when it comes to culinary experience.
If you are keen to book onto one of the above-mentioned river cruises, or require information on any not listed, please get in touch by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.