Melissa on the Mekong River, Laos. Matthew Klein / Creative Commons
They're not oceans or rivers, they're roads to adventure. These four cruise experiences connect travelers to some of Southeast Asia's cities with a surfeit of history, culture and adventure – with a healthy helping of luxury travel and gorgeous natural views thrown in!
Cambodia & Vietnam Via the Lower Mekong River
The mighty Mekong River traces a course from China down through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, carving a swath through each country's livelihood, history and culture as it passes. Navigable down the majority of its length, the river connects some of the region's most travel-worthy places.
Several cruise itineraries make the most of the Mekong, many of them using adjacent cities like Viet Nam's Ho Chi Minh City as departure points. From here, travelers can trace a course through some of the Mekong Delta's most interesting sights: the provincial capital of My Tho; the floating markets of Cai Be; the silk weavers of Tan Chau; and the architecturally interesting towns of Chau Doc and Sa Dec.
Across the border in Cambodia, cruises connect to the capital Phnom Penh (itself a major draw for its Royal Palace, the Wat Phnom Temple, and the somber Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum). The capital then leads out to several interesting towns upstream, among them the silk-weaving village of Koh Chong; the hilltop stupas of Oudong; the ancient Wat Kampong Leu Pagoda at Kampong Tralach; and the rural port town of Kampong Chhnang, one of the largest fishing ports on the life-giving Tonle Sap lake.
If this kind of adventure floats your boat, try one of these ASEAN Golden celebration packages: one that cruises 14 days down the parts of Laos, Viet Nam, and Cambodia along the Mekong on the RV Mekong Prestige II; and an eight-day, seven-night deluxe cruise that connects Ho Chi Minh City in Viet Nam to Siem Reap in Cambodia, aboard the luxury river cruiser Toum Tiou.
Cruising around Komodo National Park, Indonesia. Image courtesy of Mike Aquino
Cruising from Bali to the Rest of Eastern Indonesia
Travelers who visit Indonesia and stop at Bali are missing out on the fun to be had further east. Seagoing cruises take off from Bali to explore the rest of the Lesser Sunda Islands, among Lombok and Flores.
From the ferry ports along Amed Beach on the eastern coast of Bali, you'll ride a small cruise across the Lombok strait to venture to further adventures in the following islands:
Gili Islands: Gili Trawangan, Gili Meno, and Gili Air feel like a throwback, its lack of motorized transportation only enhancing the charm of its unspoiled white-sand beaches, jungles and laid-back villages. Dive, surf and snorkel around the Gilis in the day, party hard at Gili Trawangan after dark.
Lombok: located directly east of Bali, this island is dominated by the Gunung Rinjani volcano, and many of the island's adventures take place within sight of its peak. From hiking up Rinjani from the village of Senaru, to living the beach life at Senggigi, to taking in the bustling city culture at Mataram, the island of Lombok offers no shortage of adventure.
Komodo National Park: Visit the world's largest lizard on Rinca and Komodo Islands, accessible from the Flores Island city of Labuan Bajo. End the day by climbing up Padar Island, watching the radiant sunset suffuse the islands below you in a rosy pink glow.
Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand via the Malacca Strait and Andaman Sea
The Malacca Strait sits at the very heart of Southeast Asia, a waterway long essential to global trade. The Strait's many significant cities attest to the Strait's cultural and economic weight – all accessible in the space of a week's cruise.
The city-state of Singapore – a center for cruise travel in Southeast Asia – serves as the jump-off point for many of the region's luxury cruises. After exploring the city's attractions - among them Civic District's heritage buildings, Marina Bay's futuristic skyline and the shopping centers around Orchard Road – make your way to the Cruise Centres at the south of the island or at Marina Bay and board a cruise to connect you to the other key stops along the Malacca Strait up to the Andaman Sea.
The closest of these ports to Singapore, the former royal capital of Melaka, recreates its trading-post heyday in the old town's historic structures, among them the shophouses of Chinatown (notably those in Jonker Street), Christ Church and the adjoining Stadthuys.
The Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur – accessible from Port Klang – combines Malaysian past, present and future in British-era structures and futuristic grand architecture like the Menara KL and the Petronas Twin Towers.
The island of Penang was once the British Empire's pride and joy, a former trading post that still displays European influence through old buildings down historic George Town. Finally, the nearby island of Langkawi shows the best of Malaysia's natural side, a UNESCO World Geopark made notable by sites like Machincang Cambrian Geoforest Park, Kilim Karst Geoforest Park and Dayang Bunting Marble Geoforest park.
Finally, Phuket in the Andaman Sea off Thailand sets out a lavish beach-and-sea experience to look forward to at the end of a long cruise. The beaches and smaller islands off Phuket represent some of Thailand's most gorgeous landscapes: the action-packed beaches of Karon and Kata Noi; the romance of Phuket's Promthep Cape; the nightlife of Patong; and the history behind Wat Chalong and the Peranakan buildings on Thalang Road.
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To start on a cruise experience up the Melaka Strait into the Andaman Sea, and points further north, check out these cruise itineraries at www.aseantourism.travel.
Irrawaddy River Cruise Up Myanmar
The Irrawaddy River follows a course down Myanmar that flows past some of its most historic cities. The former capital of Yangon sits on a tributary of this mighty river; the former imperial capital Bagan sits right on the Irrawaddy's banks. Shipping still continues down the Irrawaddy as it has for hundreds of years; a number of cruise lines take advantage of this broad, deep river to take tourists deep into the heart of the rapidly-opening nation.
Many cruises depart from Bagan, from one-day sunset-viewing cruises to multi-day jaunts that go upstream as far as Bhamo near the border with China.
Cruises between Mandalay and Bagan take no longer than four days, and offer a magnificent short experience. Bagan's thousands of temples and Mandalay's ruins, palaces and shrines run together with breathtaking scenery as seen from your cruise ship window.
Longer voyages connect the southern ports of Yangon and Pyay to Bagan, or further north from Bagan to Bhamo, or up the Chindwin River to Homalin near the border with India.
Whatever length of voyage you choose, schedule your trip during Myanmar's rainy season (between July to as far as April), where the waters' rise permits safer travels between ports.