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Irrawaddy River Cruise Review: Discover Exotic Myanmar!

Currently, US and Canadian advisories warn against traveling to Myanmar. But once the country is open to travel again, a Myanmar river cruise should be high on your bucket list!


Our horse cart clip-clops along a sand track, stirring up swirls of red dust as we weave around Bagan’s brick pagodas.

Once a magnificent kingdom, Bagan is studded with some 4,000 temples and stupas built by the kings of Myanmar between 1044 and 1287.

We’re on an Irrawaddy River cruise excursion. And we can see temples, burnished by the baking sun, spreading out for miles.

Sulamani Temple, Bagan

Irrawaddy river cruise review

So what’s it like to cruise the Irrawaddy River (Ayeyarwady River)?

Most river ships ply the section between Bagan and Mandalay to the north. These Myanmar river cruises are typically 3 to 4 nights long.

The Belmond Orcaella in Myanmar

It’s also possible to experience a longer cruise along the southern stretch of the Irrawaddy River between Bagan and Myanmar’s fascinating capital, Yangon.

We’ve enjoyed several river cruises over the years, and we’d previously cruised from Bagan to Mandalay (the shorter cruise).

This time, we want to do a longer cruise on the Irrawaddy River. Our cruise from Yangon to Bagan is 7 nights long.

It’s a leisurely river cruise in Myanmar

After leaving the bustle of Yangon, the first few days of our Ayeyarwady River cruise are languorous ones. 

We lie under pink umbrellas by the pool, sipping fresh-squeezed lemonade while gazing at the river traffic.

Lounging by the pool on our Myanmar river cruise

We see long barges hauling sand for construction, rafts festooned with bamboo huts and fluttering laundry, and skiffs with fishermen in conical hats reeling in their nets.

After lunch (perhaps grilled river prawns with lemongrass and a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc), we usually head to our stateroom.

But we also leave the sanctuary of our river ship on shore excursions.

Myanmar river cruise excursions

Our first is to the country village of Danuphyu.

We hop on trishaws and are pedaled to the colorful market.

Spices at the Magwe market in Myanmar

So many spices, fruits and veggies!

There are mangoes, carrots, lettuces, herbs and baskets of red chilis and other spices.

Outside of Yangon, 80% of the people don’t have electricity, but they eat well.

They love their sweets too. A turbaned vendor hacks off a slice of dry “cake” made from rice flour and palm sugar for us to try.

We notice many girls and women have their faces and arms smeared with thanaka, a yellowish-white paste made from ground bark (worn as a cosmetic and sunscreen).

Myanmar lady with thanaka on her face

Then we stop by a cheroot-making shop where four women deftly roll up yellow cornhusk cigars, pausing occasionally to puff on their own fat cheroots.

When we return to our river ship, tied to the riverbank, our trishaw driver gives us a huge grin, displaying a mouth stained red from chewing betel-nuts.

Another afternoon, we visit the splendid Shwesandaw Pagoda in Pyay.

Shwesandaw Pagoda, Pyay, Myanmar

It’s said to date back to 589 BC and contain hairs of the Buddha (its name, “Shwesandaw,” means the “golden hair relics”).

Red-robed monks walk softly about, some chatting on their cell phones.

As pale-skinned foreigners, we’re still a rare enough sight here that some locals want to take our picture.

young-monks-photo-belmond

The closer we get to Bagan on our Myanmar river cruise, the greener the banks of the silty Ayeyarwady become.

Golden pagodas sprout up among tall palm trees, and we see villagers washing their clothes on the river banks.

One trip by ox cart takes us to Gwechaung Fort, designed by Italian architects for the Burmese king in 1860 to keep the British at bay (though it fell in a day).

Ox cart in Myanmar

We’re always intrigued by the local conveyances for each excursion, and this primitive ox cart ride is the most unusual.

And challenging! We’re seated on cushions on the wooden cart, while the driver sits or stands between the two oxen, tapping them with a stick to make them move.

It’s very bouncy and we have to hang on tight to avoid sliding off.

Back onboard, we surrender our dusty sandals to waiting staff, who will later deliver them to our stateroom, magically clean once again.

And we eagerly accept the welcome-back drink – this time, fresh mint, dragon fruit and soda.

That evening, we’re treated to a special stir fry and barbeque dinner in the Min Hla Fort. Torches and candles shed flickering light on Burmese dancers swaying to music played on traditional xylophones and harps.

And our lovely ship staff? They’re here too, refilling our glasses with champagne.

There are more memorable outings too on our Myanmar river cruise.

Like our tuk tuk ride to the gilded Myathalon Pagoda in Magwe, which draws people from miles around during religious festivals.

And our wander through Salay village to a fancifully carved teak monastery, now a quaint museum.

Oxcart ride on our Myanmar river cruise

We visit Bagan

But the most astonishing sight – Bagan – awaits at the end of our Myanmar river cruise.

Inside Ananda Temple, Bagan, Myanmar

Each of the temples here is unique.

Some are crumbling relics overgrown with weeds and bougainvillea.

But most are fantastically preserved bell-shaped structures and ornate pyramid-style monuments that look like giant wedding cakes.

With a little imagination, it’s easy to envision the “gilded city alive with tinkling bells and the swishing sounds of monks’ robes” that Marco Polo once wrote of.

Temple painting in Bagan, Myanmar

We learn a temple is a structure that can be entered, while a stupa is solid throughout (“pagoda” refers to both).

And, surprise! Who knew many Bagan temples have fascinating murals and Buddha statutes inside?

Our favorite is the 12th century Sulamani Temple.

Demon head sculptures decorate the outside (to prevent bad spirits from crossing the threshold).

Sulamani Temple, Bagan, Myanmar

In the inner chambers, beautiful wall paintings in red, green and black colors show daily life at the time – a decorated elephant, a woman having her long hair brushed, a man smoking a pipe.

It strikes us that, in many ways, life in Myanmar hasn’t changed much.

The present is knocking on the door. But for now, it’s as exotic a country as you could hope to visit.

And we can’t think of a finer way to experience it than by cruising on the Ayeyarwady River, the country’s lifeblood, on a beautiful river ship.

Read other Irrawaddy River cruise reviews, and we think you’ll agree too.

Companies offering river cruises in Myanmar

Sunset over Bagan

Due to the troubled political situation in Myanmar (Burma), most cruises along the Irrawaddy River have been suspended for now.

But these companies are ones to check in future:

Our river cruise from Yangon to Bagan was with Belmond.

Our first cruise from Bagan to Mandalay was with Abercrombie & Kent.

Where to stay in Yangon

In Yangon, we stayed at the lovely Savoy Hotel.

Our top travel tips and resources

Hotels: Booking.com is great for scoring a “wow” hotel – or at least a decent one. (We especially like their flexible cancellation policy!)

Vacation homes, condos and rentals: We prefer and use Vrbo (Vacation Rentals by Owner).

Tours: For the best local food, walking and other guided tours, plus skip-the-line tickets to attractions, check out Viator (a TripAdvisor company) and GetYourGuide.

Car rental: Renting a car is often one of the best ways to explore off the beaten path. Discover Cars searches car rental companies so you get the best rates.

Travel insurance: SafetyWing is designed for frequent travelers, long-term adventurers and digital nomads. It covers medical expenses, lost checked luggage, trip interruption and more. We also have and recommend Medjet for global air medical transportation and travel security.

Travel gear: See our travel shop to find the best luggage, accessories and other travel gear. (We suggest these comfy travel sandals for city walking, the beach and kicking about.)

Need more help planning your trip? Check out our travel tips and resources guide for airline booking tips, ways to save money, how to find great hotels and other crazy useful trip planning info.

Pssst! If you make a booking or purchase through our site, we may earn a small commission (at no cost to you). Thanks!


Photo credits: 1 to 3, 5 to 12, 14 to 16, 18 to 22 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | 4 Belmond


About the authors

Luxury travel journalists and SATW, NATJA and TMAC “Best Travel Blog” award winners, Janice and George Mucalov are the publishers of Sand In My Suitcase. Between them, they’ve traveled to all 7 continents. See About.

Find destination guides, global food-and-wine stories, luxury hotel reviews, articles on cultural explorations and soft adventure trips, cruise reviews, insanely useful travel tips and more!

Suze

Saturday 29th of October 2016

What a stunning river boat, I'd love to take a dip in that pool and to visit Myanmar

Janice and George

Saturday 29th of October 2016

It is of the most luxurious riverboats in Myanmar - perhaps THE most luxurious? So, yes, you'd love the trip :-).

Anita and Richard

Thursday 27th of October 2016

I loved your photos of Myanmar which is truly a unique place (on our bucket list) where it seems that only superlatives can describe it! The temples and stupas of Bagan are truly magical. Definitely a trip of a lifetime! Anita

Janice and George

Thursday 27th of October 2016

Agreed :-) Myanmar is a fascinating, one-of-a-kind destination!

Michele Peterson

Wednesday 26th of October 2016

It seems as though now is the time to visit Myanmar before it gets swamped by mass tourism. A riverboat seems like a way to immerse yourself in the country yet not give up any comforts.

Janice and George

Wednesday 26th of October 2016

Yes, like the Galapagos and Antarctica, Myanmar is one of those places you want to visit soonish if you can :-). And a riverboat is a delightful way to see many of the top spots in the country...

Doreen Pendgracs

Tuesday 25th of October 2016

Wonderful post, Janice. I was sure I'd already left a comment here, but as it doesn't show, either it went into the abyss, or I was dreaming! Myanmar definitely looks like a dream. Your wonderful photos have drawn quite an ethereal mood for us.

Janice and George

Tuesday 25th of October 2016

Found your comment :-). And you're not dreaming when it comes to Myanmar -- it's quite the country that draws you in to another time...

Anda

Tuesday 25th of October 2016

Your pictures caught the atmosphere of Myanmar so well, Janice. I've read a lot about this place but I'd love to visit it in person. The river cruise must have been quite a treat, what a luxury! It seems expensive however. $11,000/couple for a week plus the airfare... I wish I could be invited on one like you (ha,ha,ha!)

Janice and George

Tuesday 25th of October 2016

Yes, Belmond does target the luxury market... We feel very fortunate to have had this opportunity to experience Myanmar this way...