Myanmar, as Burma is now known, is the latest up-and-coming destination that I'm excited to talk to clients about. Only recently opened up to tourism, the country is an enigmatic land of golden pagodas, natural wonders and towns and villages barely touched by tourism. As the infrastructure is still limited, one of the best ways to discover this Asian jewel is by luxury cruise ship, sailing along the Irrawaddy River. Here are some of the highlights you can expect to see on a typical river cruise.
Most river cruises start with a day or two in the former capital of Burma, Yangon. The impressive Shwedagon Pagoda dominates the skyline here, with the sun reflecting off its golden dome. The stream of devotees that come to circle its perimeter is testament to the importance of Buddhism in Myanmar. Other highlights include following the aromas of freshly-ground spices through Little India, the giant reclining Buddha of Chaukhtatgyi Temple, and the popular Bogyoke Aung San Market.
Mandalay was the last royal capital of Burma, founded in 1857. Here you can visit the Kuthodaw Pagoda, a 188-foot-high Buddhist stupa that contains the world's largest book, made up of marble slabs each containing religious scripts. Nearby is the Mandalay Palace, most of which was destroyed during the Second World War; fortunately the fine palace walls and city gates are still there to be admired. A short drive away is Amarapura and its U Bein Bridge. It is the world's longest wooden bridge, built in 1782 using giant teak beams that still hold firm today.
Bagan is one of the most awe-inspiring sites in all of Asia, if not the world. There are more than 3,000 temples here, spread across an area of more than 40 square kilometres. Built between the 11th and 13th centuries, they rise like ghosts from the Irrawaddy Plain. Guides leading excursions will take you to the most interesting temples and will help you find a quiet spot to watch the sun set over the temple roofs.
Although not on the Irrawaddy itself, a trip to Inle Lake is a worthwhile extension to any Burmese river cruise. Accessible via a flight from Yangon, Inle is the second largest lake in the country and is fringed by more than 200 villages home to a number of ethnic minority tribes. See the floating gardens of the Intha people and their houses raised on stilts above the lake. Watch the unusual rowing style of the fishermen, who use their legs, not their arms, to row their boats. Watch silk being weaved and cigars being rolled by hand, visit a local school or attend the morning markets that draw tribes from all around the lake.
Located on the Irrawaddy River, this is where you'll most likely head for a luxury river cruise. Established by the British Irrawaddy Flotilla Company in the late 19th century, Prome originally served as a port for cargo being moved between Upper and Lower Burma. Enjoy the many gilded pagodas that are in and around the town, including the revered Shwesandaw Pagoda.
Myanmar has three distinct seasons: hot, wet and dry. It's best to travel during the dry season: November to late February. At this time, it's neither too hot (it can reach 40ºC or higher in May), nor is there much chance of a downpour. December and January see average temperatures of around 25ºC, and just a 2% chance of rain, so we recommend these as the two standout months in which to travel for comfortable conditions. However, as with most places the best weather brings with it larger number of tourists, so if you are able to withstand warmer temperatures, and slightly more chance of rain, then November is a particularly good month to travel.