You can be as active or relaxed as you like. But rest assured, you'll log lots of steps on your Fitbit. The shore excursions usually require quite a bit of walking. Scenic Aura does not have a passenger elevator because the Irrawaddy River is very shallow and has a lot of shifting sandbars. The ship's four decks are connected by a beautiful spiral staircase.
Scenic Aura's excursions immerse passengers in the complex history, religious-permeated culture and everyday village life. Visit 11th-century temples enshrining massive, gold leaf-encrusted Buddhas; see British Colonial-era buildings that look like a period film's set; give alms to monks and nuns; interact with school children at vibrant monasteries; and learn about traditional Myanmar handicrafts while watching multigenerational artisan families make them in their village's thatch-roofed workshops.
On the first day, passengers are divided into two groups and assigned their dedicated guide. Listening devices are distributed and should always be worn onshore. While attendance on all the excursions is optional, they are already included in the trip cost and you won't want to miss any. All excursions are in English.
Most days there are two excursions offered, one midmorning around 9:30 a.m. and the other later afternoons starting between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. Excursions last between two and three hours. Each evening, passengers receive at turn-down a program schedule for the next day and, on the back, information about the excursions and cultural insights are shared.
There are two "free choice" tours on the cruise. The first requires passengers to choose between visiting Bagan's most famous temple and town market or traveling by coach to remote pilgrimage site Mount Popa, home of nats (spirits). The 4:30 a.m. giving of alms to the monks, which provides much insight into the Buddhist beliefs of Myanmar, is also a "free choice" excursion. One of the best optional excursions, and the only one not included in the tour price, is the pretty amazing Balloons Over Bagan experience of floating above the ancient temple archeological zone at dawn. Because the balloon ride has limited available space, passengers must book it and pay for it before the cruise's start date. It costs approximately $325.
The ship stops along multilevel, sandy shorelines, thus requiring crew to construct walkways for passengers to reach shore. The Aura's sturdy walkways are custom-built, carbon fiber gang planks from Italy and connect to a custom-built stainless steel disembarkation platform specifically designed for the Aura. Staff are stationed along the way to ensure passengers arrive without stumbling. Upon returning to the ship, staff greet passengers with cool towels and refreshing fruit drinks. They take your shoes, clean them and deliver them to your cabin.
Daytime and Evening Entertainment
Enriching daytime entertainment is scheduled when Aura is sailing between shore excursion stops. A chef-led cooking demonstration instructed passengers on how to make traditional Burmese tea leaf salad. Afterward, passengers were invited to taste the favorite snack foods and beverages of the people of Myanmar.
Each day at the registration desk, passengers can pick up Sudoku and crossword puzzle sheets and a printed synopsis of news collated from leading global news organizations.
The evening entertainment after dinner were cultural performances by regional professionals. The shows were held on the Sun Deck, as is the outdoor cinema (insect repellant provided). For centuries the people of Myanmar have told Jakarta tales and memorialized historical events through marionette performances. One evening, a renowned, family-owned marionette company performed these tales for passengers. Another evening a talented dance troupe, wearing traditional, ornate costumers, came aboard to perform classic Burmese dances. Both shows were 45 minutes, just long enough to give passengers an enriching cultural experience.
During our beach barbecue, a trio from Mandalay played classic pop and folk songs spanning decades of American and British music. Passengers convinced the band to stay on after dinner wrapped up and move the party into Mandalay Lounge packing the dance floor till wee hours.
Enrichment programs onboard are scheduled when sailing. During the bridge tour, passengers learn from the captain how he and his crew sail the ship in the shallow, sandbar-riddled Irrawaddy River. The staff fashion show featuring crew members donning traditional attire from their native states educate passengers about the many ethnic groups in Myanmar. A candid, guide-led talk covered ethnic groups, history, wars, politics, present-day life and hopes for the future.
Thoughtful turn-down gifts and printed, cultural explanations of them are left on passengers' beds each night. On our cruise, these included a mini-clay pot, astrology book, tea strainer and thanaka (a face cream the people of Myanmar make from thanaka tree bark, wear for sunscreen and use as moisturizer). We were also given beautiful longyi to wear for the cruise's concluding, elegant Gala Dinner; everyone wore them.
The main places to socialize and drink cocktail are the Mandalay Lounge and swimming pool bar. The Sun Deck was a favorite quiet spot in the early morning hours.
Mandalay Lounge (Deck 2): This is the ship's main social space frequented by passengers at all hours. During the day, they use the lounge to read, play cards, catch up on work and get coffee, tea and cookies. Besides the bar, the lounge's big attraction is the fancy, high-tech WMF professional coffee machine made in Germany. With the push of a button, the machine makes frothy lattes, cappuccinos, espressos, hot chocolate and a number of other coffee concoctions 24/7. A hot tea station is across the room.
Come evening, the lounge space turns into the ship's evening social center. The bar separates the space in two so there are no clear sightlines from one side of the lounge to the other. So, if you are looking for someone in the room, a short loop walk-through is required. In the back of the lounge, the floor is wood planks doubling as a dance floor. Glass doors open to an intimate outdoor lounge.
Outdoor Lounge (Deck 2): Just beyond the glass doors of the Mandalay Lounge, this quiet, intimate outdoor space has lounge chairs and seating to relax and enjoy the views.
Pool Bar (Deck 3): The pool bar is staffed when passengers are using the pool. The pool bar was busy in the late afternoons when passengers took dips to cool off post-excursion and relax before dinner. There's a grill kitchen, buffet setup and counter. Comfy couch seating under shade awnings surrounds the pool. In the morning, the pool deck is a quiet spot pleasant for reading and contemplating the scenery.
Sun Deck (Deck 4): Spanning the entire length of the ship, the Sun Deck was the place to be to watch the sun rise and set on the Irrawaddy, bathing the rippling water and shoreline in golden light. During serene morning hours, a gentle cool breeze blows across the bow and it's quiet. Sunsets attract a lot more passengers sipping sundowners. Staff constantly patrol the area serving beverages and snacks to passengers lounging on comfy Devon sofas under a shade awning.
The swimming pool and sun deck are the ship's outside recreation spaces. The pool area is on the second deck in the rear of the ship. About a third of the passengers regularly took afternoon dips. The pool has jets pumping out soothing, pulsating streams. You can't swim laps, but it's a great place to hang while sipping an icy Myanmar Beer and conversing with new friends.
The Sun Deck is carpeted in soft, green artificial turf. There's an oval shaped, gray strip of turf marking a track looping the deck. It is narrow with tight turns so best to walk or jog, no all-out sprints. Every morning at 7 a.m., the spa director leads a 30-minute, gentle stretching or yoga class up here.
Helpful reception staff who speak excellent English handle a myriad passenger requests, including booking spa appointments, taking breakfast room service orders, conveying butler service requests (such as pressing clothes), handling purchases from the ship's shop, managing lost and found items, and changing money into kyat, the currency of Myanmar. The reception desk is staffed 24/7.
Wi-Fi is free throughout your stay. It's more than adequate for checking email and uploading social media posts. But in between excursions and after meals, Wi-Fi is especially slow because many passengers are using their devices during these hours. Given the remote location, expect stretches of complete disconnection. If you plan on making a lot of cellphone calls during the cruise, purchase a SIM card when you arrive in Myanmar to save on roaming charges.
The library on the first deck offers solitude and quiet amid a good selection of books about Myanmar, travel periodicals, biographies, mysteries and fiction. Often, passengers contribute to the library by leaving their finished reads behind for others to enjoy.
Throughout the elegant ship, there are paintings by Myanmar renowned artists. Pieces range from mystical Myanmar landscapes and portraits of native people to still life and abstracts. Like visiting a fine art gallery, it's a relaxing pleasure to wander the ship studying its artwork, which offers a new lens through which to view the country you're cruising through.
The ship has two free, self-service washing machines and dryers and an ironing board on the lowest deck. Detergent is provided. The DIY laundry gets busy midday between excursions. Talk to your butler about having your laundry done. Depending upon the cabin you are in, there is a per piece fee for washing and pressing services (laundry bags and price sheets are in the suite's closet).
Two glass curio cabinets tucked in the corners of the reception area near the spiral staircase comprise the ship's shop. Passengers choose from an array of beautiful handicrafts including purses, scarves, jewelry, photography, notecards and more made by artisans in nongovernmental (NGO), nonprofit organizations.
Starting in the 2019–2020 cruise season, Scenic Aura passengers will use refillable, shore excursion water bottles. In the suites, there are glass refillable bottles of water provided. No plastic straws onboard; only straws made of paper or bamboo.
The spa and gym are on the ship's bottom deck. A couch and stylized portraits of young women from Myanmar wearing geometric patterned thanaka paste on their high cheekbones hang on the dark wood paneled lobby-like space. A public, unisex bathroom is on this deck and also on the second and third decks.
The spa treatment room's subdued lighting, comfy massage table, fresh flower arrangements and melodic, Zen-inducing music set the tone for relaxation. The spa menu describes Burmese massage as a lot like Thai massages but with less pressure. Massage sessions are 60 or 90 minutes long and priced in U.S. dollars, starting around $40. Passengers pick their treatment in advance and book it through the reception desk.
Passengers choose from eight spa treatments. During the Traditional Myanmar Treatment, the therapist applies finger and elbow pressure at chakra points to stimulate nerve function and balance the body's energy flow. A similar treatment applies thanaka cream. The Signature Aura Treatment combines Eastern and Western massage techniques, acupressure and aromatherapy to soothe muscle tension. Additional treatments include reflexology, a back and shoulder massage and a 45-minute facial. It would be a lovely addition to the spa menu if passengers could get manicures and pedicures. The glassed-in space housing a hair salon seemed underutilized on my cruise.
The amply-sized, well-lit fitness center has state-of-the-art Technogym equipment, including a treadmill, elliptical and bicycle. There's also a Kinesis wall and stability ball. Passengers can check their exercise form in the floor-to-ceiling mirrored wall the equipment faces. Refrigerated water and towels are provided. Free weights would round out the ship's already well-appointed gym.
While Scenic staff would go out of their way to accommodate travelers with kiddos, this cruise is really not for young families. It's best suited for families with children age 16 and older because of the sophisticated programming, physical excursions, fine dining and room configurations. There are no connecting suites, sleeper sofas or cots. So, children must have their own rooms.