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Our Ultimate Guide to Cruising

Feeling landlocked? Let the following floating five-stars drift into your dreams. Plus: What to pack when you sail away.

Published on May 16, 2017




I SURVEYED THE DECK. I didn't know it then, but I was about to make a lifedefining decision: which lounger to recline upon. A few prime spots were taken by fellow passengers, two of whom were nose-deep in George Orwell's Burmese Days—this struck me as vaguely uncool, like wearing a U2 T-shirt to a U2 concert, but I had Pascal Khoo Thwe's From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey tucked into a pocket of my duffel, where I probably should have also stowed my attitude. This was no time for petty judgments, but rather the perfect moment to reflect on fast-changing Burma, its enduring mystique still the stuff of reverie. I'd need some quiet time to bask in its complexities, and mid-morning light, so I returned to the task at hand. A classic sun chair, partly submerged in the pool? A rattan circular daybed, in marigold? A bench on the edge of the boat, overlooking the Irrawaddy? This choice would lead to the best nap of my life.

The Strand Cruise
The hotel-like lobby of The Strand Cruise. Courtesy of The Strand Cruise.

When I arrived in Rangoon four days prior, I spent the night at The Strand Hotel, so I could compare what was written up in the 1911 A Handbook for Travellers in India, Burma, and Ceylon as "the finest hostelry east of Suez" to its sister cruise ship, which officially launched the Irrawaddy sail from Bagan to Mandalay in January 2016. The brick-and-mortar property has lost a little of its luster in the past 100 years and was undergoing renovations, but its former glory shone through in giant suites with high ceilings, big soaking tubs, teakwood floors, rattan furniture and unfailingly attentive butler service. How, I wondered, would this hotel brand, which has hosted the likes of Rudyard Kipling and Mick Jagger (both very rock '' roll in their own ways) and depends so heavily on history, personalized service and colonial-era charm, translate to a cruise ship, which I'd always thought of as a paint-by-number mode of sightseeing?

I'll confess my whole concept of cruising was based on what I'd seen on TV: a whale of a ship, swarming with equally orca-sized people waddling in and out of hundreds of cramped rooms and all congregating to chortle at the nightly lounge act. But I suspected the The Strand could switch the script with their custom-built boat, a 61-meter-long 27-cabin cutie, and their signature cruising-à la carte concept. The Strand Cruise captain Molly McBride tells me there are about 30 other boats plying a similar route, and staying lithe and flexible is the brand's key to standing out. "With a smaller cruise you get more options," says McBride, who leaves hand-written notes in every cabin each day. "You don't want that 'group-tour feeling' that the itinerary is set and there's no deviation, which is why we try to do personalized experience."

The Strand Cruise
The ship at sunset. Courtesy of Strand Cruise.

Embracing the choose-your-own adventure appeal, we cherry-pick the most spectacular out of the thousands of spiritual sites to visit on the ride from Bagan to Mandalay, stopping at historical towns like Mingun, Ava and Saging, that you'd miss if you planned your trip by plane. "If you really want to see the sites between Bagan and Mandalay, the river is an unbelievable way to go," McBride says. "You don't have to deal with different kinds of transportation and you get four nights where you don't have to unpack. You just stay in one place and let the scenery come to you."

On day one of the cruise, Bagan was delivered right to my cabin door. We visited the gold-leaf-gilded Shwezigon Pagoda and Ananda, Sulamani and Gubyaukgyi temples. There used to be nearly 4,500 pagodas in Bagan but earthquakes, crumbling riverbanks, and the tightening grip of time have whittled the number down to around 3,000. In August 2016, another earthquake damaged some 200 pagodas, a reminder not to dally with travel planning, particularly when it comes to Burma, a country in the middle of a fundamental shift. Political turmoil kept it off the tourism trail for years. With the end of military rule in 2011 and the victory of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy in 2015, travelers are pouring in and the country is rapidly globalizing. "Nowadays we are all staring at our mobile phones and we're losing our close-knittedness. I don't know if it is progress or decadence," Tin Tin Aye of Bagan Heritage Trust tells me. "In the world there is always good and bad together."

The temples of Bagan in the early morning sunlight. ©Steve Allen/

The recent tourism boom is an everrocking teeter-totter of pros and cons. The appetite for Burma has grown so quickly and voraciously, there hasn’t been time for the infrastructure to catch up. Many hotels are overpriced and underwhelming, and overland travel, while much improved, is still a gamble. The Irrawaddy is a far more picturesque thoroughfare than the National Highway 1, and makes an ideal gully for the new tourism runoff, saving travelers from having to book hotels or organize car rentals. "What's better?" McBride posits. "Sitting on a deck by a pool drinking a cocktail, or sitting in a hot car with questionable air-conditioning?"

I'm not sure what Tin Tin Aye's answer would be, but as I sip the signature Strand Sunset cocktail poolside, heady with Mandalay rum, I feel confident I've made the right choice. The metal elbows of the awning buckle as they are shuttered for nightfall and the sun sizzles red like kindling in a campfire, toasting puffs of white clouds into a delicious burnt gold. Wait, am I hungry? I wonder. It is almost impossible to work up an appetite on board as food seems to flow endlessly from the surprisingly well-stocked kitchen, from the flaky pastries and eggs Benedict served up hot at breakfast to the alfresco buffet lunches to the classic Strand high tea with treats like madeleines and scones with cream. Yet somehow I always make room for dinner. That night is a fabulous French affair with terrine de foie gras du Gers, filet mignon and the best baked Alaska I've ever tasted. I wonder if somewhere in Alaska there is a cruise serving up crab Rangoon.

The Strand Cruise
The Strand Cruise's onboard pool. Courtesy of The Strand Cruise.

On day two of the cruise, we set sail for Mandalay. It isn't a go-go-go itinerary chockablock with shore excursions, but rather a slow meandering upstream affording plenty of downtime to explore the boat. As one of the notes left on my pillow reads: "'It is better to travel well than to arrive'–Buddha. Molly." And we are, without question, traveling well. The rooms start at the 16.5-square-meter Deluxe cabin and balloon to the 40-squaremeter Strand suite, which is fitted with its own balcony and comes with private butler service. The floors are a rich teakwood and most of the furniture was handcrafted in Burma, in keeping with The Strand's iconic aesthetic. When I manage to tear myself away from my queen-sized bed—a tropical sanctum with a palm-frond runner and hardwood headboard—I book in a massage at the onboard spa, read by the pool, nurse cocktails at the bar, and watch the river run. "The Irrawaddy River is like the Mississippi in the United States," Tin Tin Aye had told me. "It is the life blood of our country." And gently does it pump, at a pace that insists I simply soak in the ephemeral dream of Burma slowly drifting past.

The beauty of the itinerary is its artful balance—I never feel bored and I never feel rushed. Yes, we hit the broadstrokes of Burma's best-of list. We climb Tant Kyi Taung Glass and I spend a good 20 minutes just staring wistfully out at Bagan's panorama of pagodas. We walk the U-Bein Bridge, which spans Taungthaman Lake and is believed to be the oldest and longest teakwood bridge in the world. We tour Sagaing and its hundreds of white, silver and gold monasteries. We trot through the ancient capital of Ava by horse cart. We dock in Mingun, famous for having the largest uncracked hanging bell in the world—I give it a hearty reverberating whack, but its title holds. We hop a tuktuk to the alabaster Paya Hsinbyume pagoda and I shuffle up the steep stairs just in time to watch the sun plunk into the horizon like a coin in a slot. But there are also lots of small experiences woven into the itinerary. We have breakfast at Bagan Lacquerware, where a young craftsman makes me a rattan bracelet and an artist sketches a kinnari woman on my notebook; we drink champagne on a sandbank under the starlight; we share a Shan feast, splitting a dozen dishes family-style, and it is these little lagniappes that memories are made of.

U-Bein Bridge
Buddhist monks visit Amarapura's U Bein bridge. ©Martin Puddy/GettyImages.

The flipside to the freedom of the flexible itinerary was that I opted out of a few excursions that in hindsight I wish I had gone on. Next time, I would gladlyfork over the extra US$400 to ride a hot air balloon over Bagan and I'd take the horse and buggy ride through Bagan's pagodas instead of through Ava, which was lovely but nowhere near as impressive. In the growing pains of being a new operation, a few experiences that were supposed to take place simply didn't, like a farewell breakfast alms ceremony with monks, and there were a few occasions when passengers accidently missed out on entertainment options because the times were changed without notice. Tin Tin Aye had it right: "There is always good and bad together."

A glass of lemonade seemed to be stalking me as I weighed my loungechair options, so attentively was the waiter clipping at my heels. I decided on the padded bench nestled against the rails, dropped my bag and spread out. At first the sun and breeze battled for supremacy, then settled into a perfect accord. The slice-of-life tableaus along the riverbank were a Burmese berceuse of lapping waters, fishermen gathering their nets, kids playing tag on the shore, the rhythmic beat of the boat’s churning motor, and the clicking of camera shutters as my fellow passengers tried to capture the gradually shifting scenery. But this time, I didn't reach for my camera and I didn't rustle through my purse to find my phone. I let the landscape roll on by and as my lids grew heavy the reverie of Burma seeped into my dreams.; fournight journey from Bagan to Mandalay from US$1,976.

Burmese girl
A young Burmese girl wearing traditonal thanaka powder. ©Cultura RM Exclusive/Yellowdog/GettyImages.





Alila Purnama
The main outdoor deck of the Alila Purnama.


Alila Purnama
One of the Alila Purnama's two speedboats.
  Alila Purnama
One of cruise director Mario Gonzalez's elaborately drawn dive briefings.
Alila Purnama
Cruise guests take a beach walk while the ship anchors for the night.
  Alila Purnama
Rain in the distance.
Alila Purnama
Diving in Raja Ampat.
  Alila Purnama
One of the phinisi's four lower deck cabins.
Alila Purnama
An onboard lunch includes mango feta salad.
  Alila Purnama
Shoal of fusiliers near Raja Ampat.

Alila Purnama
The happy-go-lucky crew of Alila Purnama with all sails open. See for sailings and rates.



 F1 Toiletery
This toiletry bag is not only perfect for packing, but also has room for full-sized bottles, meaning it's ideal for traveling by boat where you are not resticted to only 100 milliliters of your favorite products.; US$42.


These adventure-ready earbuds are waterproof, provide high-quality audio and monitor your heart rate.; US$159.



Fill up onboard with this insulated, stainless steel bottle that will keep your water cool for up to 24 hours.; US$35.

Trudging through the rain forest? Swimming with sea turtles? This case allows you to do it all phone-in-hand.; US$89.






From camera gear to beach essentials, this backpack stylishly holds it all.; US$99.


Helen Kaminski Losefa

With this rollable, handcrafted raffia visor you won't be forced to sacrifice your style for a lid that screams "tourist."; US$165.


  EL 50
These top-notch binoculars are compact, waterproof and cruise-ready with 10x magnification.; US$3,110.

This urban shoe is comfortable enough for a day of sightseeing, yet durable enough to allow you to tramp through sandy beaches or plod in post-downpour puddles.; US$75.

Native Shoes



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Photographed by Lauryn Ishak.
  • Photographed by Lauryn Ishak.
  • Photographed by Lauryn Ishak.
  • Photographed by Lauryn Ishak.
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