• Mar 09, 2013

The best cruises to Asia: the ultimate guide

The best cruises to south-east Asia and the Far East, with details on China, Vietnam, Singapore, Myanmar and Hong Kong itineraries from Norwegian, Voyages of Discovery, Seabourn and Princess

For travellers who like a combination of cosmopolitan cities, exotic landscapes and colonial history, Asia makes a compelling alternative to the more laid-back sun and sea cruise destinations. There may not be the volume of ships operating in south-east Asia compared to the more-established Caribbean, but capacity is increasing fast to meet demand. According to the Cruise Lines International Association, in 2015 there were 52 cruise ships operating in Asia, with the number of cruises in the region up 11 per cent.

Norwegian Cruise Line (ncl.co.uk) is returning to the region in winter 2016-17 for the first time in 15 years. Voyages of Discovery (voyagesofdiscovery.co.uk) will also be back in 2016-17 after a short break away, with cruises that visit Vietnam, Singapore, Myanmar and Hong Kong. Seabourn has chosen Singapore for the christening ceremony of new ship Seabourn Encore in January 2017.

Floating houses crossing the Mekong at sunset

The rapidly expanding Chinese cruise market is about to see a parade of international ships moving to China. Princess Cruises’ new Majestic Princess will begin sailing to Japan and South Korea from its homeport of Shanghai in summer 2017. MSC Cruises announced in October that it will deploy its 1,976-passenger MSC Lirica to Shanghai starting May 2016. Royal Caribbean’s Quantum of the Seas already sails from that city, and following its launch in China in April, Ovation of the Seas will sail from Tianjin.

Cruise passengers who head east will not be disappointed. Who can fail to be enthralled by cities such as Singapore and Hong Kong, the night markets across the region, the temples and cherry blossom in Japan, or the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia? If something more adventurous appeals there are excursions to rainforests, close encounters with orang-utans in Borneo and trips to see the Komodo dragons in Indonesia. You can climb the Great Wall of China, visit the demilitarised zone dividing North and South Korea and kayak around James Bond Island in Phang Nga Bay, Thailand.

Pandaw runs heritage and expedition ships in AsiaPandaw runs heritage and expedition ships in Asia

With the seeds of democracy finally starting to take root in Burma, cruise lines are flocking to Yangon. Most ships stay two or three days, long enough to see Yangon and take a day trip to Bagan, Mandalay or Bago. For those keen to explore further several river cruise operators now offer sailings on the Irrawaddy, joining stalwarts Belmond and Pandaw. Belmond’s second ship, Orcaella, joined the fleet in 2014 and two ships launched this month -- The Strand Cruise (thestrandcruise.com) which offers four-night Bagan to Mandalay cruises, and the 23-cabin Anawrahta, a four-deck paddle-cruiser.

Asia river cruise guide

Cruising is an attractive option for those who want to see several countries over the course of a holiday. Over 14 nights cruisers can tick off Sri Lanka, Burma, Malaysia and Thailand; or in three weeks, Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, South Korea and Japan. A taste of each is enough to whet the appetite for a return visit.

Tonle sap lake, a stop on a Mekong river cruise

A cruise is also a reassuring form of travel for those who feel nervous about visiting unfamiliar long-haul destinations on their own, a friendly option for solo travellers and also a comfortable way to travel to more remote destinations such as Komodo Island, the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal and Indonesian Borneo. Many south-east Asia cruises start or end in Singapore or Hong Kong. Air access aside, both cities have new cruise terminals capable of taking ships of all sizes and handling thousands of passengers as they prepare for a forecast boom in cruise tourism.

A popular voyage is from Singapore to Hong Kong and vice-versa, visiting Bangkok and three or four ports along the Vietnamese coast. Singapore, the largest cruise port in Asia, is also the main departure point for round-trip cruises to Yangon, the islands off Malaysia and Thailand (favourite ports of call for the small yacht-like ships) and to Indonesia and Borneo. Hong Kong is better placed for cruises to China, Japan and South Korea. Bangkok is used by some lines as an embarkation and disembarkation port, likewise Shanghai and Beijing for cruises around China and Japan, as all also have good flight connections.


When to travel

This will be dictated largely by the cruise lines, which have ships in south-east Asia and the Far East between December and the end of March. These months overlap with the rainy season in some countries (in Malaysia it is October to December, in Indonesia December to February), so depending on your itinerary you might get some wet weather. However, in the tropics you can expect mostly heavy downpours rather than continuous precipitation.


How to book

The fact that you need long-haul flights to reach south-east Asia or the Far East, coupled with a finite amount of cruise capacity (there might be a growing number of ships, but we are still talking relatively small numbers), means a cruise holiday in the region is never going to be cheap.

A lot of ships sailing these regions are small, holding 250-700 passengers, so if you see a cruise that appeals, at a price that suits, it’s a good idea to book early to be sure of securing the date and cabin you want. That said, there will always be late offers, so if you can be flexible on itineraries and dates it is worth waiting. Bear in mind that what you save on the cruise might end up being spent on air fares, as these increase nearer to departure date.

Specialist cruise agents such as Reader Offers (readeroffers.travel) and Mundy Cruising (mundycruising.co.uk) can often secure discounts because of the number of bookings they handle for the cruise lines. They can also package hotels and land tours with the cruise to help you make the most of your trip.

Cruise lines including Voyages of Discovery and Voyages to Antiquity offer one-off point-to-point itineraries, say Sri Lanka to Singapore, Hong Kong to Tokyo or Singapore to Dubai, as their ships sail from Europe to Asia and back. Demand is therefore driven largely by itineraries, but January and February are popular with those looking for sun during the UK winter.


Which ship?

Cruise lines with big ships in Asia include Royal Caribbean International (royalcaribbean.co.uk), Celebrity Cruises (celebritycruises.co.uk), Princess Cruises (princess.com), Holland America Line (hollandamerica.com), Star Cruises (starcruises.com, which caters mainly for the local market) and Costa Cruises (costacruises.co.uk), while Cunard (cunard.co.uk) and other operators featuring world cruises usually have ships passing through the region.

This autumn Norwegian Cruise Line will cruise to the Far East for the first time since 2001, with the recently renovated Norwegian Star sailing to the region on itineraries that also feature first-ever visits to The Gulf and India. Throughout December 2016 and January 2017, Norwegian Star will operate a season of 11- and 14-night sailings departing from Singapore and Hong Kong respectively.

Norwegian Star is sailing in Asia this yearNorwegian Star is sailing in Asia this year

This is also prime cruising territory for companies with small vessels. Avalon Waterways’ (avaloncruises.co.uk) newest suite ships Avalon Myanmar and Avalon Siem Reap, which launched in south-east Asia last year, are designed to sail in shallower waters. Avalon Myanmar sails further north on the Upper Northern Irrawaddy and Avalon Siem Reap sails into Ho Chi Minh City harbour. Pre- or post-cruise hotel stays are available in Yangon, Bangkok or the scenic lake area of Inle.

Currently operating 14 ships, Pandaw launched its newest vessel this month on the Irrawaddy - the nine-cabin Kha Byoo. November saw the addition of a new route on the Upper Mekong in Laos to the operator’s portfolio and in February and March this year four new coastal voyages in southern Burma will be offered on board the recently refitted five-cabin expedition ship MY Drenec. By October 2016 the line will also offer cruises on the Irrawaddy Delta, and on the Salween, Burma’s longest river.

Voyages of Discovery, Voyages to Antiquity, Oceania Cruises (oceaniacruises.com), Azamara Club Cruises (azamaraclubcruises.co.uk) Hapag-Lloyd, Regent Seven Seas Cruises (rssc.com), Crystal, Seabourn (seabourn.com) and Silversea (silversea.com) tend to offer more adventurous itineraries that visit smaller, less well-known ports.

Azamara, for instance, has a 14-night Temples and Dragons voyage around Indonesia departing December 23, 2016, that visits Lombok, Komodo and Semarang, and spends Christmas Day cruising around Krakatoa. Star Clippers visits the islands of Similan in Thailand and Penang and Langkawi in Malaysia on seven-night cruises round-trip from Phuket.

The Avalon Myanmar shipThe Avalon Myanmar ship

Voyages to Antiquity (voyagestoantiquity.com) packages land stays with its cruises. The five-day Golden Triangle land tour included in four of the small cruise line’s Asia itineraries takes passengers to Delhi, Jaipur, and Agra and includes a stop at the must-see Taj Mahal in Agra. Guests will stay at five-star hotels in each city during the five-night tour. A 22-day Passage to Sri Lanka and India cruise tour departs February 20, 2016, from Singapore and visits Malaysia, Sri Lanka and several places in India. Prices from £4,295 per person including flights and 13 shore excursions.

Celebrity Cruises has a 12-night China and Philippines cruise from Hong Kong to Shanghai departing January 14, 2017, that visits Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan and South Korea. From £979pp excluding flights.

River cruising offers a big choice of even smaller vessels. Scenic (scenic.co.uk) makes its debut on the Mekong in January 2016 and the Irrawaddy in Burma in September. AmaWaterways (amawaterways.co.uk) and APT (aptouring.co.uk) also have new craft on both rivers.


Shore excursions

One of the downsides of cruising in Asia is that many ports are a long way from the cities. It can take up to three hours from Halong Bay to Hanoi and three hours from Tianjin to Beijing. In theory you can organise your own excursions, but with distances like these it may be safer to stick with the cruise lines’ tours to avoid missing the boat.

There are no alternatives if you want to visit Hanoi, but small ships can sail up the Saigon River to Ho Chi Minh City and the Chao Phraya to Bangkok, and also moor in the centre of Yangon in Burma and at Hong Kong’s Ocean Terminal. Not all do so though, so be sure to check where your chosen vessel will dock.

Excursions can make a dent in your budget. Holland America Line charges from US$151 (£99) for a 10-hour tour of Bangkok from Laem Chebang - so consider booking with one of the lines that includes these in the cost of the cruise, namely Regent Seven Seas and Voyages to Antiquity.


Safety and health advice

In big cities, avoid carrying too much money or wearing expensive jewellery. Cruise passengers don’t need to have vaccinations or take malaria tablets, but be sure to drink only bottled water, and avoid vegetables washed in, or ice made with, local water. If you plan to take an excursion to Kinabalu Park in Borneo, or any other rainforest, pack a good insect repellent.


Getting there

Many cruise lines include flights and transfers as part of the cruise package. If this is not the case, there are plenty of options. It pays to book flights as early as possible, especially if you want to upgrade and avoid spending 11-13 hours in an economy seat.

Most Asia cruises depart from Singapore and Hong Kong, because these are served by most flights from the UK. British Airways (ba.com) has direct flights to both, and also to Bangkok, Beijing and Shanghai, which are also used as departure ports.

Other options include Cathay Pacific (cathaypacific.com) to Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai, Virgin Atlantic (virgin-atlantic.com) to Hong Kong and Shanghai, Qatar Airways (qatarairways.com) to Bangkok and Singapore, Thai Airways International (thaiairways.com) to Bangkok and Singapore Airlines (singaporeair.com) to Singapore.


Top tips

  1. Tasty and cheap, Asian street food is a real treat. But stick to restaurants or stalls in markets that are frequented by westerners.
  2. If your cruise starts or ends in Bangkok, add a couple of days in Siem Reap, Cambodia, to visit Angkor Wat. It’s only around an hour’s flight from the Thai capital with Bangkok Airways.
  3. Give yourself two days in Ho Chi Minh City to allow time to tour Vietnam’s largest metropolis and visit the Cu Chi tunnels.

Further reading

George Orwell’s Burmese Days (Penguin Modern Classics) will get you in the mood for a cruise to Yangon. W Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil (Vintage Classics) does the same for Hong Kong and China. Amazon has a large selection of books about the history of Vietnam, the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu and the events that led to the war with the US.


Expert Q & A

Jane Turner writes
Having cruised in Europe and the Caribbean, I would like to try Asia, especially as there now seems to be a greater choice of voyages than in the past. Which cruise companies feature this area and what sailings would give me a good flavour of the region?

Sara Macefield, cruise expert, replies
It’s no wonder that the Far East, with its combination of colourful cultures and exotic experiences, is becoming increasingly popular cruising territory.

This region’s diverse range of destinations can easily be explored by ship, enabling passengers to tick off several destinations in one visit. And the scale of this tropical corner of the globe, where sailings venture from Burma in the west to Kamchatka in the Russian Far East and Indonesia in the south, offers scope for ever-imaginative itineraries.

Originally, Asia tended to be confined to world cruises with the likes of P &  O Cruises (0843 374 0111; pocruises.com) and Cunard (0843 374 2224; cunard.co.uk) featuring Far Eastern ports on their annual world circumnavigations.

While this still holds true, more recent years have witnessed the emergence of Asian fly-cruise holidays with passengers joining their ship at one of the region’s key cities. Singapore and Hong Kong, which have invested in new, modern port facilities and are served by an excellent network of flights from Europe and throughout the Far East, are key embarkation points. The most popular, and mainstream, Asian sailings tend to be between these two cities, on a route that hugs the coastlines of Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand.

These sailings, generally lasting for nine to 14 nights, offer a good flavour of Asia as they visit some of its most notable cities and up-and-coming areas such as Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam and the beautiful Halong Bay , renowned for its limestone formations.

Luxury lines Seabourn (0843 373 2000; seabourn.co.uk) and Silversea (0844 251 0837; silversea.com) both have options, especially in the winter months.