Cruises on the Irrawaddy go from strength to strength – and there’s more commission still to be made from add-ons, says Sue Bryant
Myanmar’s tourist arrivals have rocketed from just over 700,000 in 2007 to more than three million in 2014. Hotel development is barely able to keep up – and new riverboats are being launched on a regular basis to satisfy demand for luxury cruises on the Irrawaddy.
River cruising in Myanmar used to be the preserve of Belmond’s Road to Mandalay. Belmond (Belmond.com) added a second ship, the 50-passenger Orcaella, in 2013, to sail the Chindwin river, the largest tributary of the Irrawaddy. Pandaw Expeditions (pandawexpeditions.co.uk) is also well-established in Myanmar, having been here since 1995 and today operating several ships on the Irrawaddy and Chindwin.
But from 2014, the Irrawaddy became anybody’s game as one luxury operator after another launched river cruisers. Sanctuary Retreats (sanctuaryretreats.com) introduced the luxurious Sanctuary Ananda in 2014, around the same time as Amawaterways (amawaterways.co.uk) launched AmaPura. Viking (vikingcruises.co.uk) introduced the 60-passenger Viking Mandalay, while Avalon Waterways (avalonwaterways.co.uk) enters the market later this year with Avalon Myanmar, bringing the company’s ‘Suite Ship’ experience to Asia; the whole wall of each suite will slide back to create a balcony.
The issue now is who can sail where; the Irrawaddy has enormous variations in water level over the seasons and the race is on to build smaller vessels with shallower drafts in order to get further upriver. Because Avalon Myanmar has the required shallow draft and just 18 cabins, it can navigate further upriver and will offer cruises from Bagan to the much lesser-known port of Bhamo as part of a 14-night itinerary that includes a stay in Yangon. David Binns, Avalon UK’s general nanager says: “The smaller ship design means our cruise on the Irrawaddy enables our customers to experience the culture of Myanmar further upstream with visits to a monastery to observe the daily rituals, local school and local market and even an elephant camp in the teak forest.”
Pandaw, too, has two small vessels that go even deeper into the country, sailing up the Chindwin into the remote,
jungly region of Nagaland where the company really can promise that guests will visit villages that have never before encountered tourists.
“We find that we do have to be flexible with the water levels,” says Pieter van der Schee, global sales director for Sanctuary Retreats. “Sometimes we’re not allowed to navigate because of low water so we’ve created a number of alternatives to ensure guests still have a wonderful experience.” Sanctuary Ananda’s maiden season, van der Schee says, was an ‘overwhelming success’. “Myanmar is still seen as one of those exciting destinations that’s relatively untouched,” he continues. “People love the village we take them to, where we sponsor the library, and the experience of the U Bein Bridge.”
Despite the intensity of the sightseeing on a river cruise, van der Schee claims its biggest plus, from the client’s point of view, is that the journey is seamless. “Travelling in Myanmar can be quite hard work but people see the cruise element as an opportunity to relax,” he says. “It’s a break; everything is easy.”
Why promote Myanmar? Here are eight good reasons:
Myanmar is on the brink of a massive tourist boom but is still unspoiled
Prices are still reasonable outside Yangon
The people are friendly and charming – as strict Buddhists, they’re very religious and gentle, and genuinely interested in tourists
Myanmar hasn’t succumbed to sex tourism or any kind of sleaze like some of its neighbours
Although real democracy isn’t there yet, there’s no feeling of oppression or any military presence
Very beautiful countryside – plains and hills, floating villages, lakes
Absolutely amazing temples – Bagan is at least as impressive as Angkor Wat
Myanmar is a natural step on for clients who have already cruised the Mekong or the Yangtze
There are many opportunities for agents to boost commission on Myanmar cruises, simply because everybody adds on. Cruise lines offer extensions in Yangon and Mandalay using the smart business hotels in each city but also very up-and-coming is Lake Inle, or the hill stations around Mandalay, or the beaches and the remote Mergui archipelago. Some of these (the beaches and the Mergui islands in particular) are pretty cutting edge, with little infrastructure, so agents need to work with a good ground agent and warn clients that accommodation may be basic. Luxury yacht charter is the best way to visit the Mergui islands; try burmaboating.com or islandsafarimergui.com. There are several resorts around Inle Lake, some sold as add-ons via cruise lines like Amawaterways and Avalon, which uses the Villa Inle Resort & Spa.
Internal flights in Myanmar run like buses, so a flight Yangon-Mandalay might drop off at Inle (Heho airport) or Bagan. Exact schedules and ticketing are not usually confirmed until the client arrives in Myanmar. Domestic airports are basic; you arrive at the airport and are given a sticker with the name of the airline and a rudimentary boarding pass – sometimes just a plastic card. Flight manifests are on paper charts and announcements are usually a person wandering around with a tatty sign. But good ground agents only work with the better domestic airlines and flights tend to run on time and offer a good service.
Need to know
Shopping: Coloured parasols, longyis (like a sarong), fabric, lacquerware, cheap jewellery or expensive silver in the craft shops, silk, paintings and prints are all good value. Markets are really colourful, with some great bargains, and not too intimidating, although haggling is essential. There are masses of souvenir stalls around Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon for cheap gifts. Scott’s Market in Yangon is very good, while at Inle Lake, there’s an enormous travelling market which is included on all the tours.
Nuisances: On the river, there are a lot of flies after sunset, swarming around the lights, so romantic evenings on deck are not really a likelihood, although strangely, the sandbank barbecues organised by some operators tend to be insect-free as there are no lights to attract the bugs. Some people take anti-malarials in wet season; in the dry season, a good repellant may be enough but see fitfortravel.nhs.uk for official advice. Other nasties include snakes, although these are rare in the places river cruise passengers will be walking, and monkeys, which are messy, fearless and steal hats, glasses and food.
Internet: Most riverboats have a satellite for wifi. UK phones don’t work in Myanmar – there is no compatible network. You can buy a local SIM card but it won’t work if your phone is locked. Lots of the cafes have free wifi, which is the best way to keep in touch.
Money: Clients should take US dollars in small denominations, crisp and clean. Tatty notes are rejected. You can change money for Burmese Kyat (pronounced ‘chat’) at the international airports. Clients should not expect to use credit cards except in smart hotels and the fancier craft workshops. There are few ATMs.
Ballooning: River cruise operators don’t always sell it but clients may enquire about hot air ballooning at Bagan. Balloons take off every day and drift over the temples at sunrise, creating a magical experience. The balloons are operated by Balloons Over Bagan (balloonsoverbagan.com), which uses British and Australian pilots and has an impeccable safety record. Flights cost from US$320 and include the ballooning, pick-up and drop-off from the riverboat and a champagne breakfast. The trips are commissionable and can be pre-booked.
Accessibility: Pretty well all moorings on the Irrawaddy are sandbanks. There are no proper jetties, making access difficult for wheelchair users.
Etiquette: Shoes have to be taken off at every stupa, temple and pagoda. This includes climbing up the pagodas in Bagan or the 800 steps on Mount Popa. Clothing should be modest to go inside temples and other religious sites. Guides, drivers and ship’s crew appreciate tips but there isn’t any hassle.
Visa: British passport holders can get an e-visa now at http://evisa.moip.gov.mm. It takes a few days for a letter containing the visa to come back.