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Irrawaddy River

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Irrawaddy River Cruises

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Overview

Myanmar rewards travelers with fascinating ancient treasures and iconic views of life along the peaceful Irrawaddy River. Coursing more than 1,300 miles through central Myanmar, the Irrawaddy and its surrounding valley form the historical, cultural, and economic heart of Myanmar. From its glacial origins in the soaring Himalayas, it meanders peacefully through jungle-shrouded highlands and sun-seared plains to its mangrove-dotted delta at the Andaman Sea. The country’s largest river, this “Road to Mandalay” offers you a fascinating glimpse of “The Golden Land” that is Myanmar.

Fast Facts

  • Countries: Myanmar (Burma)
  • Source: Himalayas
  • Mouth: Andaman Sea
  • Length: 1,350 miles


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Watch & Learn About the Irrawaddy River



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    Geography

    The majestic Irrawaddy (or Ayeyarwady), the country’s largest river, courses more than 1,300 miles through the center of the country and forms the historical, cultural, and economic heart of Myanmar. Its name is said to mean “elephant river.” From its glacial origins in the soaring Himalayas, it meanders peacefully through jungle-shrouded highlands and sun-seared plains to its mangrove-dotted delta at the Andaman Sea.

    Known as the “Road to Mandalay,” the river not only serves as the most important commercial waterway but also as a gateway to untouched villages, ancient cities, remarkable culture, and captivating panoramas.

    For many, cruising north of Mandalay offers views on the most scenic part of the river—past traditional riverside villages, teak forests, lavish shrines, and a host of bird and animal life.

    Myanmar is endowed with a rich ecological diversity. Here, you will find about 100 bird species, 300 reptiles, 7,000 species of plant life and 300 recorded mammal species. The rich ecological diversity is also an important national asset. If you are lucky, you may even catch a glimpse of the rare Irrawaddy dolphin.

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    History

    Irrawaddy River CruisesTo travel to Myanmar, formerly Burma, is to step back in time…to a place that has changed little since the British colonial era. Ruled by the British starting in 1885, Myanmar regained its independence in 1948. In the 1960s, the country essentially shut its borders to the Western world after the sitting government was overthrown and socialist policies were instituted by the new regime.

    Seeds of change were planted in the late 1980s as Aung San Suu Kyi, a national hero and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, helped to form the National League for Democracy. In 1990, the first multi-party elections since 1960 were held, but the sitting government refused to accept the results. During these elections Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest, where she remained for 15 of the next 20 years. Mounting international pressure and democratic reforms finally led to her release in 2010, followed by a dramatic shift by the government to a more democratic style of rule.

    While there is still work to be done, Myanmar is carving a peaceful and more prosperous path to the future. Along with these changes the borders were reopened to Western visitors for the first time in more than 50 years.

    While Yangon, formerly Rangoon, is growing rapidly, much of the rest of the country is virtually unchanged and traditions are still a way of life. Young women wear fragrant thanaka to protect their faces from the sun, horse and ox carts transport goods to the market, and the monastery is still the center of the village.

    The culture is as diverse as it is colorful, with more than 130 ethnic groups calling Myanmar home. Over 90% of the population practices Buddhism and intricate pagodas and temples, many of them glimmering in gold, dot the landscape.

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    Highlights

    Irrawaddy River CruisesVisiting the “Golden Land” of Myanmar now affords an incomparable opportunity to experience the country before Western influence alters its culture, land, and people.

    With more than 90% of the Burmese population practicing Buddhism, it’s not surprising that the graceful form of the pagoda is a natural part of the landscape.

    Exploration of the country usually begins in Yangon with a visit to the stunning Swhwedagon Pagoda–considered by many to be the oldest pagoda in the world. It is decorated with 1,485 gold and silver bells, 5,448 diamonds, and 2,317 rubies, sapphires and other precious stones. In the center sits an enormous emerald that catches the first and last rays of light, and at the very top is a golden orb that holds up a single, incredible 76-carat diamond.

    A cruise on the river is a peaceful journey that introduces you to a tapestry of exotic flavors, captivating panoramas, and bustling river activity.

    Stop in Bagan to see some of the most important pagodas in the country, including the golden Shwezigon. It is estimated that between the 9th and 13th centuries, more than 13,000 temples, monasteries, and pagodas were built in the plains surrounding the city. While many of these structures were lost over time, 2,300 still stand today, making this one of the world’s greatest archaeological sites. A visit to Dhammayangyi delights as the best preserved monument throughout the Bagan Archaeological Zone. The Ananda, known for its beauty, is said to have been built as a replica of a legendary Himalayan cave temple that had been described by monks to the king. Visitors can soak in the expansiveness of the area with a truly spectacular sunrise or sunset from atop one of the temples. Other highlights include the local handicraft market and lacquer workshop where artisans use age-old techniques to make stunning works of art and function.

    Irrawaddy River CruisesIn Mandalay, take in the revered Mahamuni Pagoda, whose Buddha statue is estimated to be covered in more than 6 inches of gold leaf. Another highlight is the Shwenandaw Monastery, the only surviving building from the original royal palace complex. In nearby Amarapura, visits to U Bein Bridge afford a memorable sampan ride at sunset.

    While the top sights are awe-inspiring, it’s the people who will capture your heart. The cruise also offers you a glimpse into the lives of locals. Visit with a farmer in his home to learn more about his work and life, interact with children at a village school, and offer alms to the monks to get an insider’s perspective of this fascinating country. See how many make their living from creating the famous 50-gallon Martaban pots, making candy out of toddy palm tree sap, or selling fresh produce at a local market.

    For those with more time available, a visit to Inle Lake should not be missed. Surrounded by mist-shrouded mountains, it is the lifeblood for thousands of Burmese who make their living off the lake. Stilted houses dot the shoreline and the local Intha use the famous one-legged rowing technique to fish and tend their floating gardens of tomatoes, cucumbers, aubergine, and more. This picturesque setting is ideal for a little rest and relaxation.

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    Cruiser Profile

    With Myanmar only recently welcoming foreigners into the country, a cruise on the Irrawaddy invites you into a whole new world. For many, the journey is a trip full of firsts—one that rewards travelers with fascinating ancient treasures and iconic views of life. The trip is a must for anyone who wants to step back in time and experience a part of Asia that has changed little since colonial times.

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    Did You Know?

    • Burma was officially renamed Myanmar in 1989 by the regime in power at the time.
    • Myanmar is the largest country in mainland Southeast Asia, and the 40th-largest in the world. It is somewhat smaller than Texas and slightly larger than Afghanistan
    • It is often referred to as “The Golden Land” due to the number of pagodas covered in gold
    • The red stains you might find on the streets, sidewalk cracks, and in a local’s smile are from the juice of the betel nut, a daily part of the Burmese diet
    • The Irrawaddy River in Myanmar is believed to be a symbol of continuity
    • Myanmar is one of the few countries in the world to operate in an offset time zone, making it 30 minutes behind the majority of Southeast Asia

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