Rich in culture and history, the former Burma makes for an enthralling holiday experience and at 1,348 miles long, the Irrawaddy River passes north to south through much of it, offering an unforgettable river cruise and the chance to explore many of this ancient country’s most celebrated sites. From its ancient Imperial days and its Buddhist heritage through to the time of British occupation, Myanmar has a long and varied history and a river cruise along the Irrawaddy is the perfect way to explore it. As well as some of the country’s largest and most historic cities such as Yangon and Mandalay, you’ll experience tradition and culture as you call at a host of smaller ports during your journey.
The city of Yangon lies close to the Irrawaddy and as such, is the place where most river cruise holidays in Myanmar begin. You’ll often spend more than one night in the city before you set sail, so there are plenty of opportunities to take in its key sites. The star attraction is undoubtedly the Shwedagon Pagoda, a huge and ornate Buddhist shrine which is around 2,500 years old. Other key sights include the reclining Buddha statue at Chaukhtautgyi Temple, Botatoung Pagoda and St Mary’s Cathedral, which dates back to the time of British influence.
Pyay is the city from where Myanmar river cruises tend to depart and was the country’s former capital in the days of the Pyu people. Before you set sail, you’ll have time to explore, with guided tours offered by many river cruise providers. The city’s star attraction is the stunning Schwesandaw Pagoda – a key place of Buddhist pilgrimage and home of the Golden Hair Relic, said to hold two of Buddha’s hairs.
Once called Pagan and the capital of the ancient kingdom of the same name, Bagan is home to thousands of stunning pagodas and temples and though it’s obviously not possible to see them all, some of the most popular include Ananda, Sulamani Guphaya and Bulethi. It is possible, however, to take a trip up Mount Popa during your visit. As well as being a key pilgrimage site, this awesome peak offers incredible views of Bagan’s beautiful plains and many temples.
Another former capital, Inwa has endured a turbulent history, being both sacked during conflicts and destroyed by earthquakes. Despite maintaining little of its past glory, it’s still a popular tourist destination, as a number of rewarding sights have endured, such as the Mahaaungmyebonzan monastery and the Bargaya monastery.
Take the river, not the road to Mandalay and see some of Myanmar’s most celebrated sites. The Kuthodaw Pagoda is home to none other than the world’s largest book, which consists of marble slabs of Buddhist scriptures, while the Mahamuni Pagoda is where you’ll find a 12-foot bronze Buddha presiding over the city’s holiest site. Indeed, there are many ornate and spectacular places of worship to explore in Mandalay, so it’s convenient that some itineraries offer overnight stays in port.
See local life
As well as many of Myanmar’s most enthralling cities, your Irrawaddy river cruise offers a fascinating look at traditional Burmese life as you’ll typically call at a number of smaller ports which serve smaller towns and communities offering glimpses at everything from traditional trades to colonial heritage. Other stops offer the chance to see some of the country’s more remote architectural and historic attractions, such as unfinished temples and tranquil monasteries.
Myanmar travel tips
You’ll need a visa to visit Burma and the country has introduced an e-visa program to make this easier. Bear in mind you’ll be visiting a lot of temples during your visit, so remember to pack appropriate clothes to keep your shoulders, upper arms and upper legs covered.