Southeast Asia is a traveler's nirvana, offering natural wonders like the mystical limestone islands of Halong Bay, timeless treasures like the storybook temples of Thailand and Cambodia and booming cities like Hong Kong and Singapore. The people are courteous and welcoming, proud of their rich culture, distinctive crafts, magical architecture and captivating cuisine. All combine to offer cruisers an unforgettable experience.
Today, Southeast Asian countries and culture reflect thousands of years of interaction with empires in the Middle East, Tibet and especially China. Though the ports of call remain distinct, wars, conquests, colonization, migration and trade have impacted the area for centuries, changing boundaries and political systems, and spreading religions and customs. More recently, the Europeans and Americans have made their marks in the major cities of the region, influencing architecture, fashion and social trends.
In some countries like Vietnam, Cambodia and Burma, cruise tourism is a relatively new phenomenon and it shows in the rustic port facilities and transportation. But tourism is vital to these growing economies, and new hotels, roads and other infrastructure are being developed at a rapid pace.
Cities like Singapore, Hong Kong and Bangkok have been tourist destinations for a much longer time, reflected in the new port facilities, sophisticated public transportation systems, upscale accommodations and fine dining.
It's this blend of old and new that makes Southeast Asia such a dynamic place to explore.
Who Goes There?
Southeast Asia is a growing market for cruise companies and they offer their customers a wide range of itineraries to fit different budgets and travel interests. Almost every cruise line has two or more ships active in this exotic part of the world with most cruises originating in Australia, Singapore or Hong Kong.
Luxury lines include Crystal, Seabourn, Regent Seven Seas, Silversea and Oceania. Royal Caribbean, Costa and Princess have several ships that sail in the region almost year-round. Azamara's ships, Journey and Quest, have Asian cruises in November through April annually, while Celebrity and Holland America sail there from the fall through March.
Many Asian cruises are parts of world and grand cruises by Princess, P&O Australia, Cunard and Holland America ships. Several river cruise lines including Viking, Uniworld, Avalon, Aqua Expeditions, Pandaw, Vantage, CroisiEurope and AmaWaterways offer river cruises to the Mekong River, while Viking, Pandaw, Grand Circle, Vantage, APT, Sanctuary, AmaWaterways, Belmond and Aqua sail the Irrawaddy River in Burma. Smaller expedition ships like National Geographic/Lindblad's Orion and Oceanic Explorer visit ports and destinations large cruise ships can't reach.
Several cruise lines (large and small) visit Indonesian ports during the year, including Azamara, Crystal, Silversea, Seabourn, Princess and Compagnie du Ponant,
Choosing an Itinerary
Given the number of cruise ships plying Southeast Asian waters, cruisers can choose from a wide variety of itineraries with ports-of-call in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Burma (Myanmar), Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Hong Kong.
Seven-night cruises: Seven-night cruises visit the same countries as the longer Southeast Asia cruises, leaving out two or three ports. Typical itineraries start in Singapore, stopping at Ko Samui, Thailand and Bangkok (Laem Chabang), Thailand before heading to Ho Chi Minh City (Phu My), Vietnam and disembarking back in Singapore. Another six-day version leaves from Hong Kong and cruises to Da Nang/Hue (Chan May), Nha Trang and Ho Chi Minh City (Phu My), and ends in Singapore.
10- to 14-night cruises: The most common Southeast Asia cruises run north or south between Hong Kong and Singapore. They normally visit Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Chan May for Hue and Da Nang, Halong Bay for Hanoi in Vietnam, and Laem Chabang for Bangkok. There are usually some ports with multi-day visits in Laem Chabang or Phuket, Thailand, and Halong Bay and Chan May in Vietnam. Itineraries for each line vary in port line-up.
Indonesia/Malaysia cruises: Besides the typical Singapore-Hong Kong run, there are cruises that concentrate on Indonesia and Malaysia. These typically begin in Singapore, and sail to Benoa in Bali, Indonesia; Komodo, Indonesia; Phuket, Thailand; Langkawi, Malaysia; Port Kelang, Malaysia; and back to Singapore. Some, like Silversea, offer an extensive 11-day cruise originating in Singapore and ending in Bali with four different port calls each in both Malaysia and Indonesia.
Expedition cruises: National Geographic Orion cruises for 13 days from Singapore to explore the South China Sea, featuring the Camp Leakey research center in Borneo to study orangutans and other wild and rare critters. The cruise ends in Bali, Indonesia. Geographic's Orion and its deluxe Oceanic Discoverer visit less-traveled areas including the Mekong River in Vietnam, the rarely seen sights of Borneo in Malaysia, and remote islands in Indonesia.
River cruises: Avalon, Lindblad-National Geographic, Uniworld, Aqua Expeditions and Viking offer a number of Mekong River cruises. There are three- to 14-night (and longer) cruise/land combinations that travel from Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap, Cambodia. A typical trip begins in Ho Chi Minh City and cruises the Mekong River with port visits along the way including Phnom Penh. The cruise ends at Kampong Chan, Cambodia, where the land tour begins with a coach ride to Cambodian destinations including the famous Angkor Wat ruins, before continuing on to the final destination of Siem Reap. River cruises, of course, also go in the opposite direction, reversing ports and destinations.
Burma/Myanmar has also become a popular river itinerary. A typical cruise begins and ends in Bangkok, Thailand and encompasses about 12 days in Burma. Overnight stops are usually made in Yangon (Rangoon), Bagan and Mandalay. Smaller expedition ships such as Pandaw, offer even more diverse itineraries. (For more, read our Postcards from an Exotic Cruise to Burma)
Angkor Wat: While the extensive ruins at Angkor Wat, in Cambodia, are far inland, several lines including P&O, Royal Caribbean, Princess, Oceania, Crystal, Lindblad, Seabourn, Silversea, Azamara and Holland America offer shore excursions from Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Other cruise lines, including Celebrity, offer multi-day trips to Angkor Wat and the temples in Siem Reap that take passengers off the ship at one port and welcome them back onboard at another.
Best Time to Go
Picking the best time to cruise in Southeast Asia is complicated because of the diversity of weather conditions. Vietnam, for example, has more than 2,000 miles of coastline, with varying weather patterns north to south. In coastal areas, a sweater and long pants may be needed to ward off the chill on cool nights, while a few kilometers inland, temperatures are considerably warmer. Ports close to the equator, on the other hand, are always steamy, with occasional afternoon showers.
Cruise lines, for the most part, avoid the hottest, most humid and rainy months by scheduling most Southeast Asia cruises November through March. Not surprisingly, these months also attract the most tourists from inside and outside the region, resulting in large crowds at popular attractions. Holidays, like Tet in late January or early February, can make days long and noisy; prices spike, public transport is jammed and shops may be closed.
Southeast Asia Cruise Port Highlights
Each port destination offers distinctly unique experiences and adventures for almost every taste and interest. Here are some of the most frequently visited Southeast Asia cruise ports.
Bali (Benoa), Indonesia. Just the mention of Bali triggers images of a tropical paradise with fiery volcanoes, sacred monkeys, exotic dancers, ancient royal temples, sandy beaches and rushing white-water rivers. The large island, located in the westernmost end of the Lesser Sunda Islands, between Java and Lombok, has long been a getaway for surfers and Australians. Now it is a favorite stop for cruise lines, too. The lush hilly terrain is dotted with terraced rice paddies and banana, coffee and cocoa plantations. The forests are alive with colorful wildlife that shares its domain with traditional villages where the people produce intricate jewelry, stylized batiks and wood carvings. For those seeking a resort-style atmosphere, there are also modern hotel complexes with broad beaches, fine cuisine, spas and high-end boutiques.
Bangkok, Thailand. Eclectic Bangkok offers travelers a mix of modern skyscrapers, luxe royal palaces, ancient temples and giant gilt Buddhas. Highlights include Chinatown, Bangkok's two-century-old commercial center where you can wander through the giant flower and wholesale marketplace. Travel via a tuk-tuk, a three-wheeled motorized taxi, to Wat Po, or the Temple of the Reclining Buddha -- the oldest temple in Bangkok -- to find Thailand's largest reclining Buddha measuring 150 feet long, 49 feet tall and aglow in gold plate. Another Buddha well worth visiting is the solid gold, 10-foot-tall statue at the lavishly decorated Wat Traimit Temple. Great restaurants abound, where you can sample refreshing Thai classics including fresh seafood, tangy soups and savory and sweet curries. Shopping is delightful at the new riverfront Asiatique, with its mix of small vendors, antique shops, restaurants and street entertainers.
Halong Bay, Vietnam. The highlight of many cruisers to Southeast Asia is sailing through magical Halong Bay. Located on Vietnam's northeast coast, Halong Bay is home to nearly 2,000 limestone islands that rise hundreds of feet high above emerald-green water. Their exotic shapes -- often shrouded in mist -- are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Half-day and full-day junk cruises are fine, but if your ship is in port for two days, an overnight luxury junk cruise is an unforgettably immersive experience.
Hanoi, Vietnam. Hanoi is a hectic collage of sights, sounds and smells. Masses of motorbikes roar down roadways, and bike and car horns are constantly honking. Women wearing traditional, conical straw hats carry poles with baskets on each end, small shops overflow with colorful embroidery, and signs literally cover buildings. The most visited attractions are Vietnam War-related including the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the Ho Chi Minh Museum. Hanoi's crazy, hectic Old Quarter is a must-stop for souvenir shopping and to view the market scene.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, is a vibrant, chaotic and culturally diverse city and the gateway to the Mekong Delta region. Visitors usually begin tours here at the historic Rex Hotel where most of the city's sights are within walking distance. Tourist stops generally focus on the country's tumultuous history including the Vietnam War. Among the most popular are the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City, the Presidential Palace, and the War Remnants Museum. The huge Ben Thanh Market is packed with tourists and inspired hawkers with row after row of stalls that sell familiar and exotic foods, and tourist items like lacquer ware, paintings, porcelain, jewelry and wood carvings, as well as clothing and knock-off designer bags and watches.
Hoi An, Vietnam (From the port of Chan May serving Hue and Da Nang). Just outside of the city of Hue is Hoi An, a charming village with a picturesque patchwork of cobblestone streets and alleys lined with historic buildings. The streets are filled with quality souvenirs and lovely restaurants offering authentic Vietnamese cuisine and its chocolaty coffee. Many of the restaurants offer cooking classes. Basically untouched during the Vietnam War, the village is a 45-minute drive from Da Nang and two hours from the port at Chan May. While Hue and Da Nang are interesting, Hoi An is the shore excursion to take at this port.
Hong Kong, China. Hong Kong is the world's most vertical city; where Chinese traditions meet modern international capitalism. It is famous for banking, custom-made suits and luxury-brand shopping. On a quick tour of the city, it seems there are Gucci, Prada and Chanel boutiques around every corner. There are also countless stores selling aquatic,land animal and plant parts for the table and medicine chest. More commerce thrives in the huge industrial port where rows of containers stretch as far as the eye can see. Highlights are shopping, a meal of dim sum in a cafe packed with hungry locals, touring on HOHO buses, crossing the bay to Kowloon on the historic Star Ferry, riding the world's longest escalator through bustling neighborhoods, and taking the tram to the top of Victoria Peak for spectacular city views.
Kuala Lumpur (Port Klang), Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur, or KL as insiders call it, is visually stunning, vibrant and multicultural with influences from European colonization and Chinese and Indian immigrants. Carved out of the jungle, it is the capital and most populous city in Malaysia, where ancient temples and mosques sit next to the soaring Petronas Towers, the world's second-tallest buildings. Cruisers can experience a range of attractions, from the Kuala Lumpur Philharmonic and National Theater to the world's largest indoor amusement park, Cosmo's World, and the relaxing 230-acre Lake Gardens. The city's location at the confluence of the Gombak and Klang rivers also provides sports enthusiasts with canoeing, kayaking and whitewater rafting adventures. One highlight for souvenir hunters is the landmark Central Market, built in 1888, where everything from designer labels and home furnishings to authentic Malaysian arts and crafts are for sale.
Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Cambodia is mostly recovered from the devastating political turmoil of the 1970s. Under more progressive leadership, the country is attracting more and more cruise lines to add Sihanoukville to their itineraries. The deep-water port offers close access to beautiful beaches and Ream National Park, famous for bird watching and boat rides through the mangrove swamps. It is also a gateway for excursions to the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda in the capital of Phnom Penh. But, its most popular destination is Siem Reap, with the world-famous temples of Angkor Wat.
Singapore. Singapore is a model modern city. The island is clean with modern roads and public transport; and drivers, unlike in some Asian cities, obey traffic laws. Like Hong Kong, it is a metropolis of high-rises and skyscrapers, only with green parks everywhere (including on top of buildings). This city also cares about its history, evidenced by the many one- and two-story districts and buildings scattered throughout the urban center. A great variety of restaurants, food courts and shops suit almost every taste and pocketbook, many housed in or adjacent to air-conditioned shopping malls. The almost-nightly laser show, viewable around the city for free, is not to be missed, along with Chinatown and the nearby Arab neighborhood.
Yangon (Rangoon), Burma/Myanmar. Isolated from the world for many decades, Yangon doesn't suffer from the glut of modern high-rises and shopping malls that choke other Asian capitals , which is why so many travelers want to go now before things change. The city features an intriguing conglomeration of crumbling British colonial architecture, a few refurbished buildings hinting at the city's glory days, and a smattering of new construction. Impressive Buddhist pagodas and other religious sights are a draw, as are interesting food and handicrafts, particularly in the city's sprawling covered market.
Southeast Asia Cruise Tips
Political and civil strife afflict countries throughout this region on an ongoing basis. Check with the U.S. State Department for warnings before traveling (www.travel.state.gov/). Cruise lines are well aware of these situations and for the safety of passengers, and may bypass or change ports-of-call as needed.
One unavoidable issue on large-ship cruises to Southeast Asia is the long distance between the port and city attractions. For example, it can take over three hours to travel from the cruise port to Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City. Some cruises mitigate this inconvenience by docking for two or more days in a port, allowing passengers to remain overnight in the destination cities. When this isn't possible, make the best of the extra travel by savoring the journey, especially if it's in the company of an informative guide. Remember to look out the window! Countrysides reveal much about a nation, its people and their culture. Your observations in transit can be just as exciting and revealing as walking city streets.
Bathroom facilities vary greatly, even in large cities, at tourist stops and along major roadways. Sometimes only "squat" toilets are available. Be prepared for this possibility by timing bathroom breaks when you're near major hotels or tourist-friendly restaurants. Sometimes, handicap facilities will have Western-style toilets. Travel with sanitary wipes in case toilet tissue isn't provided. Above all, keep hands clean to prevent the spread of bacteria and viruses.
Pickpockets roam the markets and more crowded streets in many Asian cities, but violent crime against tourists is unusual. Traffic, though, can be daunting to pedestrians. Crossing streets filled with speeding motorbikes and tuk-tuks is not for the faint of heart. Drivers are aware of pedestrian traffic and adjust their driving accordingly. Stay close together, and step out when the traffic is minimal. Walk at a slow, steady pace while watching the oncoming traffic that hopefully will flow around you. Follow locals as they cross to get the hang of it.
The vast majority of Asians are very courteous and friendly and they expect similar behavior from visitors. Being publicly angry, arrogant and loud is much frowned upon and will not help solve problems or get a better price. Be cautious, respectful and friendly, and you will have a great time in this wonderful part of the world.
--By Ron & Mary James, Cruise Critic contributors