Orient-Express ship adds to S.E. Asia momentum

By Michelle Baran
Irrawaddy River, MyanmarThere appears to be no slowdown to the momentum in interest and investment in river cruising in Southeast Asia, with operators continuing to launch new vessels on the Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia and on the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar.

The latest example is Orient-Express Hotels Ltd., which earlier this month unveiled plans to launch a new 50-passenger river vessel on Myanmar's Irrawaddy River in July 2013.

The Orcaella is under construction in Yangon and will join the company's existing river cruise ship in Myanmar, the 82-passenger Road to Mandalay, which has been cruising the Irrawaddy for 17 years.

The new ship will have 25 cabins with floor-to-ceiling, sliding-glass doors and Juliette balconies with river views. There will be four decks with two balcony suites on the main deck as well as 15 state cabins and eight deluxe cabins on the main and upper decks. All will have air conditioning and ensuite facilities, and four of the cabins will be interconnecting.

On the observation deck, there will be a retractable awning and reclining chairs, a lounge and bar that will be open all day for refreshments and alfresco dining, and a swimming pool. There will also be a fitness center and spa treatment room. On the main deck there will be a restaurant and two boutiques. Like the Road to Mandalay, Orcaella will have a medical room and a resident doctor onboard.

The Orcaella will operate from January to April and July to December. There will be a seven-night, 506-mile cruise from Yangon to Bagan (and the reverse) and an 11-night, 682-mile cruise from Mandalay up to Bhamo, near the Chinese border, and ending in Bagan. There will also be an 11-night, 854-mile cruise along the Chindwin River.

All itineraries can be combined with stays in Yangon, Inle Lake or Ngapali on the Indian Ocean. Prices start from $5,040 per person for a seven-night cruise and include all meals onboard, excursions, transfers and domestic flights. The Road to Mandalay and the Orcaella are both available for private charter and can be chartered in tandem.

The Orcaella news comes on the heels of direct-to-consumer company Grand Circle Cruise Line adding a Myanmar cruise-tour for 2013 onboard the 34-passenger river cruise ship Paukan 2012.

The Paukan 2012, which launched this year, is owned by Yangon-based Ayravata Cruises, which owns two other ships in Myanmar: the 32-passenger Paukan 1947 (built in 1947) and the 55-passenger Paukan 2007 (built in 2007).

Phnom Penh"The release of [political prisoner] Aung San Suu Kyi from two decades of house arrest and her election to parliament has helped this once isolated country begin opening its doors to the West," Alan Lewis, chairman and CEO of Grand Circle Corp., said in a statement signaling why more travel companies are now beginning to enter Myanmar.

"From calling for a boycott of travel to Burma [the name many still use for the country], the Nobel Peace Prize winner is now encouraging responsible travelers to visit her country, and as result, Burma has become the hottest travel destination of the year," Lewis added.

Ayravata Cruises is being represented in the North American market by the recently formed Haimark Travel, a company that will focus on river cruises in Myanmar and India as well as handle land operations for Mekong River cruises.

Haimark, based in Breckenridge, Colo., plans to open an office in Yangon this fall and is looking to partner with shipbuilders to develop product in Myanmar, Southeast Asia and on India's Ganges River.

From Myanmar to the Mekong

While development in Myanmar is picking up, shipbuilding on the Mekong River continues on the fast pace it has been on for the last couple of years, with the latest entrant to the market being Aqua Expeditions, a luxury river cruise operator on the Peruvian Amazon.

Aqua Mekong renderingIn January 2014, Aqua Expeditions will introduce the 40-passenger Aqua Mekong with a spa, screening room, fitness center, library, outdoor pool and 20 guest suites with floor-to-ceiling windows. The vessel will sail three-, four- and seven-day itineraries between Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam and Siem Reap in Cambodia (as well as the reverse).

"The Mekong is similar to the Peruvian Amazon in that the location is unique, awe-inspiring and exotic, and it is abundant in nature and rich cultures," a company spokesperson said of the leap from the Amazon to the Mekong. "The Mekong has more of a developed and established cruise industry than the Peruvian Amazon."

The Mekong ship will be similar in design to the company's two existing vessels on the Amazon, but it will be slightly larger: 20 cabins compared with 12 on the Aqua and 16 on the Aria. Additionally, the Mekong vessel will be decorated in a contemporary Asian style, using local materials and fabrics. The interior areas will be air-conditioned, and the cabins will be 320 square feet each. There will a 1:1 passenger-to-staff ratio.

Daily excursions will be in small groups of eight passengers. The boat is being designed by Vietnamese architecture firm Noor.

Aqua Expeditions' plans to expand onto the Mekong come amid explosive growth on the Southeast Asian river. This year alone, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection's 60-passenger River Saigon sailed its maiden voyage in January, kicking off a three-year charter agreement with the ship's owner, Pandaw River Cruises; Viking River Cruises started offering Mekong River cruises on Pandaw's 60-passenger Indochina Pandaw and 66-passenger Tonle Pandaw; and this month Avalon Waterways' 32-passenger Avalon Angkor, a ship Avalon is leasing from Pandaw, is slated to set sail on the Mekong River.

Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly. 
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