The Irrawaddy River, which flows for 1,300 miles through exotic Burma (Myanmar), has become one of the most popular river cruising destinations in Asia, with new cruise lines and vessels proliferating along the country’s longest waterway.
Itineraries typically run between Yangon (Rangoon) or Bagan and Mandalay, with unforgettable views of pagodas, Buddhist temples, villages, mountains, jungles, gorges, and rice paddies.
Long shunned by the international community for its human-rights violations, Burma has reformed and opened up to the world. A cruise on the Irrawaddy, Burma’s longest river – navigable for nearly 900 miles – is its economic lifeline and offers front-row seats for viewing what is now one of Southeast Asia’s most sought-after destinations. The river (also spelled Ayeyarwady) links Burma’s major cities and many rural villages as it flows south from the Himalayas into the Andaman Sea.
Because Burma was a mostly closed society for so long, it hasn’t changed much – yet – and is still largely untouched by mass tourism. But some of its official nomenclature has changed: “Myanmar” replaced “Burma” some years ago, though it’s still better known by its former name. And you will most likely visit Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon, on your river cruise.
Burma is rooted in the Theravada Buddhist philosophy of metta: benevolence, friendship, goodwill, and kindness. Prepare to receive smiles and perhaps generous invitations from villagers who may greet you on the street. Buddhist monks and nuns in long, flowing robes are treated with great respect; take photos only with permission. Other Burmese women and men wear a traditional sarong, called a longhi.
Irrawaddy River Highlights
1. Rural Burma
The Irrawaddy riverfront offers an ever-changing kaleidoscope of gorges, mountains, lush jungles, verdant rice paddies. tiny villages of bamboo thatched-roof dwellings sometimes built on stilts, small fishing vessels, families on boats selling fruits and vegetables, riverside temples, monasteries, and pagodas – many painted bright gold or white – as well as sarong-clad villagers, saffron-robed monks, and pink-robed nuns.
Stops may include archaeological sites rich in ancient Buddhist artifacts, as well as remnants of the British colonial period – including forts dating from the second Anglo-Myanmar War in the mid-19th century. If you stop in the village of Minhla, you’ll find a pagoda made of solid gold bricks.
Made famous in the West by Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Mandalay” (…An' the sunshine an' the palm-trees an' the tinkly temple-bells; On the road to Mandalay…”), this is Burma’s second largest city and served as the country’s last royal capital.
Still the spiritual center of Burma’s Buddhist culture, it’s home to thousands of Buddhist monks, an array of colorful pagodas and monasteries, and more than 2,500 Buddha images, many carved from alabaster. Cruises often embark or disembark in Mandalay, offering extra time for sightseeing there.
An UNESCO World Heritage Site, Bagan is Burma’s most spectacular city, featuring thousands of temples, pagodas and Buddhas – including the world’s largest reclining Buddha.
In good weather conditions, hot air ballooning rides are available to take in the entire scene from above. Short Irrawaddy cruises (3-4 days) make the voyage from Bagan north to Mandalay, while some cruises embark in Bagan for the journey south to Yangon.
4. Yangon (Rangoon)
Yangon is Burma’s premier city and the usual southern embarkation point for Irrawaddy cruises, which typically include sightseeing here first. It’s a good place to see British colonial architecture side by side with Buddhist religious structures.
Some boats explore the Irrawaddy Delta. To the south of Yangon before embarking on the Irrawaddy itself. Other cruises leave from Mandalay or Bagan and travel south to disembark at Yangon.
Chindwin River Side Trip
The Chindwin is a tributary of the Irrawaddy that offers a scenic add-on possibility to your cruise, complete with temples, cave pagodas, mountains, gorges, jungles and villages. One temple contains some 600,000 Buddha images. Watch for orcaella, the beakless dolphins that inhabit the river.