From north to south, the Irrawaddy River flows nearly straight through the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). It’s been a vital commercial waterway for centuries; now, the mighty river is the main reason Myanmar is emerging as a river cruise destination.
Since a 50-year military dictatorship ended in 2011, Myanmar has been slowly opening up to the rest of the world. However, it’s one of the least-developed countries in Southeast Asia and lacks infrastructure for land-based tourism, which makes river cruising an excellent way to see some of the country’s incredible sights.
Most itineraries begin in the former capital of Yangon (formerly Rangoon), still the country’s largest city. There’s lovely architecture left over from British colonial days – check out the restored Strand Hotel. And, don’t miss Shwedagon Pagoda, considered the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar. The gold and diamond-encrusted pagoda contains relics of four Buddhas and many colorful temples, statues and other works of art.
While it’s often the first stop on an Irrawaddy River cruise, Yangon isn’t on the river. A quick flight will take you to Pyay (if you’re sailing upstream) or Mandalay (if you’re traveling downstream).
Mandalay is Myanmar’s cultural and religious center, with Buddhist monasteries, more than 700 pagodas and a giant image of Buddha carved from a single block of marble. Mandalay Palace, home to the last kings of the Burmese monarchy, was mostly destroyed during World War II: but, a faithful replica was constructed in the 1990s.
As you sail the Irrawaddy, you might stop to visit the workshops of silversmiths, wood carvers and potters; bustling, fragrant markets; and strategically important forts. The lush scenery includes mountain ranges, steep valleys, rice paddies and forests of teak.
On the plains around the ancient city of Bagan, you’ll see the remains of more than 2,000 temples, pagodas and monasteries. Five times that many structures were originally raised between the 11th and 13th centuries, when the city was the capital of the Pagan Empire.
While Myanmar’s climate is tropical all year long, the May to October rainy season makes November through April prime time for river cruising.
With many miles of coastline along the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, Myanmar is poised to become a destination for ocean-going cruises, too. To make your plans to see Myanmar via cruise, talk with your Cruise Holidays personal cruise expert.