Myanmar River Cruises

As the world reflects on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, it’s also useful to recall how those societies behind the Iron Curtain emerged as travel destinations. The most successful were those that lay along the Danube River. In the early 1990s the main impediment to travel in the newly opened Eastern European countries lay in the lack of hotels and other travel necessities. Thus the Danube river cruises provided the necessary tool to open up those destinations, providing the beds, the transit and the dining necessary to sustain the new wave of visitors.

Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River finds itself in a similar position today as its country’s best interface with an outside world that wants to travel in it. Today more than 100 ships are plying the Danube, even though a city like Budapest now has a fine inventory of quality hotels. Not long ago, however, just one ship had been plying the Irrawaddy, the pioneering Road to Mandalay.

Until now, The Road to Mandalay’s only competition was with other rivers because essentially it was the only game in town in Myanmar. That all changed this fall when a slew of competitors took to the river: including AmaWaterways, Avalon Waterways, Pandaw, Sanctuary Retreats and Viking River Cruises. Most of these new ships are just a few weeks past their maiden voyages, and so the reviews have yet to come home to roost.

The elements of an Irrawaddy cruise feature, for the most part, the same or very similar excursions to temples and stupas. For everyone Bagan will be the highlight, and surely all itineraries will offer add-on packages to Yangon and Inle Lake. The ships’ kitchens will all attempt to create a luxury version of Burmese cuisine, and all of the new ships will be training staff who are new to travel service jobs. All of the ships will offer sun decks, bars, lounges, restaurants and a variety of cabins.

Only Belmond’s Road to Mandalay can truly claim to have experience on this river, though all of these other companies are experienced river cruise lines.

The ship first began cruising the river in 1995 and the word is that they are planning to really pump up the juice next year to celebrate the ship’s 20th anniversary.

After a 2008 cyclone damaged the ship, it underwent a massive renovation that keeps it at the highest levels of luxury. They’ll complement this with a sterling line-up of guest lecturers. The Road to Mandalay carries some 82 passengers on three tiers of cabins and service, topped by the expansive Governor’s Suite, which comes with private butler service. The ship carries some 87 service staff. On the much shallower Chindwin River, Belmond launched the 50-passenger Orcaella last year.

Avalon will launch the 36-guest Avalon Myanmar on the Irrawaddy in 2015. The newly built Suite Ship will feature 18 Avalon Suites measuring 245 square feet each with the line’s trademark Open-Air Balconies, which are actually floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall windows measuring 14 feet wide with retractable screen systems and doors that slide open a full 9 feet, creating the feeling of sitting outside. In front of each Open-Air Balcony is a private sitting area, complete with love seat, chairs and table.

Each suite has a Comfort Collection Bed with premium mattress covers, Egyptian super-combed cotton linens, European-style duvets, and soft and firm pillows. The ship also has an open-air observation lounge with shade and lounge chairs, complimentary Wi-Fi access in the lounges, a spa treatment room, fitness center and a library. The open-seating restaurant features local cuisine and familiar Western favorites.

AmaWaterways put the new 28-suite AmaPura into service on the Irrawaddy in November. The suites of the 56-passenger ship measure 285, 290 and 420 square feet. Every suite features a private French balcony, a step-out full balcony or both. The suites have an en suite bathroom, sitting area, robe and slippers, spa-quality bath amenities, luxurious linens and Wi-Fi access.

Built in Yangon, the ship was designed to meet the peculiarities of the Irrawaddy. AmaWaterways’ ships offer comfortable lounges with panoramic windows, dining rooms and a choice of dining venues. The Main Restaurant serves Western favorites as well as regionally inspired dishes and Myanmar’s flavorful fusion cuisine.

The ship’s cruise programs include the 10-day “Golden Treasures of Myanmar” and 14-day “Hidden Wonders of Myanmar.” Onboard entertainment includes a traditional Burmese puppet show and other cultural performances or discussions in the lounge. AmaWaterways will offer four-night post-cruise land extensions for both itineraries, featuring three nights in Inle Lake and one night in Yangon, and a two-night pre- or post-cruise extension in Bangkok.

Viking Mandalay is yet another brand-new ship on the river, debuting in 2014. Viking achieves market distinction with a small intimate ship that carries just 60 passengers. Viking will rely heavily on onboard educational and entertainment to supplement the ship experience. Thai puppet shows, onboard multi-media presentations, lectures and more are combined with a thorough selection of excursions in order to, in Viking’s words, “provide a context for your own observations, enhancing your travel experience.”

The ship has a wraparound deck and a Sun Deck with 360-degree views and some shaded seating areas. The Restaurant has panoramic windows and serves both regional specialties and contemporary cuisine. It also has a bar, lounge, library and boutique.

All staterooms have river views, but those on the Upper and Middle Decks have floor-to-ceiling, sliding French doors. Staterooms have hotel-style beds with optional twin-bed configuration, a private bathroom with shower, a safe, hairdryer, and bottled water replenished daily.

Pandaw added three Myanmar ships earlier this year, but the company’s origins are on the Irrawaddy. Pandaw began during Myanmar’s British Colonial period as the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company. That company, which carried cargo as well as passengers, once had 650 ships, which it destroyed in 1942 rather than see the Imperial Japanese Army use them against the Allies.

On the Irrawaddy, Pandaw operates four ships — the Katha Pandaw, the Kalaw Pandaw, the Kalay Pandaw and the Kha Byoo Pandaw. All Pandaw ships carry fewer than 60 passengers and some of their newer ships offer five suites. These smaller ships can also sail the Chindwin.

The Kalaw Pandaw, one of the three new Burmese ships, has 20 cabins and a staff-to-guest ratio of two-to-one.

Sanctuary Retreats began operating the 40-passenger Sanctuary Ananda in Myanmar in November. The ship has 20 spacious suites — the smallest is 291 square feet — on three decks, a sundeck with an outdoor pool, and a panorama lounge. Every suite has a balcony and Wi-Fi access. The ship was custom built for Myanmar with a shallow draft that can navigate the Upper & Lower Irrawaddy and the Chindwin rivers.

Lüftner Cruises operates the Irrawaddy Explorer, which has 26 cabins and two suites. The accommodations include an infotainment system, flat-screen TVs, in-cabin safe and bottled water replenished daily.

It will be interesting to watch how all of these different cruise lines seek to achieve market differentiation. It will also be interesting to see how these ships further establish tourism and the concomitant liberalization that could be its byproduct.


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