sunset at Irrawaddy

Irrawaddy in Focus

The broad, meandering Irrawaddy was immortalised in Kipling’s poem of 1890 as ‘The Road to Mandalay’. The writer travelled through Burma in 1889 and was enchanted by the shimmering golden pagodas, misty rice paddies, and the gentle, charming people. It is these same qualities that make Myanmar so special today; a country that imprints itself on the memory with its vivid colours, sights, sounds and scents.

bagan myanmar

Flowing for more than 1,240 miles from the very northern tip of Myanmar to its vast delta in the Andaman Sea, the Irrawaddy – whose name is derived from the Sanskrit for ‘Elephant River’ – is fed by meltwater from the Himalayas. Puttering cargo boats convey their wares from one hamlet to another against a wistful backdrop of hills interspersed with serene stupas. Children swim as their mothers go about their ablutions before pounding their laundered clothes on the rocks. Young men in longyis and conical hats search for fish in canoes that resemble ancient coracles. It’s a time-worn scene that would be instantly recognisable to Kipling and Maugham.

u bein bridge at sunset

It’s impossible not to be seduced by the slow, meandering passage along this mighty waterway which has shaped Myanmar’s history and is the country’s economic lifeblood. Ten years ago there were just a handful of ships operating on the Irrawaddy, now the number of cruise companies is burgeoning. These luxurious river cruise ships ply various reaches but the most popular are 3- and 4-night cruises between Mandalay and Bagan. Visitors are flocking to this ‘hot-ticket’ destination where tourism is in its infancy and democracy is being restored.

buddhist pagoda

During excursions to ancient towns and bucolic settlements, it becomes evident that the winds of change are rejuvenating the Burmese people. Fresh energy and excitement beams from the very demeanour of these gracious people who now have freedom of expression after being secluded for generations in a cage of frustration. There’s no tour more anticipated than the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Bagan, a serene ghost city of towering temples. There are also excursions at Mandalay to see the Paya Hsinbyume pagoda that rises in seven curved whitewashed terraces; and Sagaing, famous for its white, silver and gold pagodas of 600 monasteries.

Hsinbyume pagoda Mingun Mandalay Myanmar

Cruises offer the chance to spend a day or two in Yangon (formerly Rangoon). While new buildings are springing up at an alarming rate, a vision of this historic city is still evident at dilapidated colonial mansions whose faded stucco belies their former grandeur. No visit is complete without seeing the Shwedagon Temple, one of the holiest shrines in the world for Theravada Buddhists. The 326-foot-tall floodlit golden stupa, highlighted by 1,383 gemstones, – is truly humbling. For further information about our selection of cruises along the Irrawaddy call our cruise specialists on 0800 484 0314 or click on

Gary Buchanan

Gary Buchanan has been a specialist cruise writer for 22 years contributing to national newspapers and consumer publications. He is the author of five books about cruising and spends over seven months every year at sea sailing the world’s oceans. He’s a former chairman of the British Guild of Travel Writers, Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society and in 2014 he won the Cruise Lines International Association Award for Best River Cruise Feature.