Six of the best cruises in Asia

It's extraordinary that Asia is so relatively un-cruised. The merest glance at a sea chart is enough to raise the pulse at the cruise possibilities offered by this most varied continent. You could meander down peninsulas from sultry Malaysia to chilly Kamchatka, call into exciting cities from Hong Kong to Mumbai, or float along giant, muddy rivers through gorges or hillsides shimmering with rice terraces and golden-topped temples.

You could dream of circumnavigating great islands such as Sri Lanka or Java. Even small islands such as South Korea's Jeju or Penang in Malaysia are dense in culture, seafaring history and landscapes. Then there are entire archipelagos flung like confetti across shimmering seas. The Spice Islands in Indonesia alone comprise more than 1000 islands rich in local cultures, colonial history, World War II sites and national parks. Japan's Ryuku Archipelago comprises 7000 islands that run nearly 1000 kilometres, almost to Taiwan.

With such rich pickings, it's great to see the Asian cruise scene expanding rapidly as eager cruise passengers seek newer and more adventurous horizons. Many Asian countries are investing heavily in cruise-port infrastructure, while cruise companies are rolling out new itineraries and homeporting ships in Asia. This is great news for Australians, for whom Asian cruising involves relatively short flights and little jetlag. In fact, you could even sail out of Darwin or Cairns on interesting expedition cruises to Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Here are some of the many ways to enjoy an Asian holiday by river or sea.

SMALL-SHIP CRUISES

If you've never considered Asian cruising because you think it's all about gargantuan ships disgorging thousands into shopping cities, then please reconsider. Dozens of culture-oriented small ships ply interesting corners of the continent, and many more offer expedition cruises to destinations almost inaccessible to regular travellers, such as the remote Myanmar coast (Pandaw River Expeditions) or Russian Far East (Silversea, Ponant, Lindblad Expeditions and others). True North specialises in Papua New Guinea. Coral Expeditions sails in PNG and Indonesia, with new cruises that focus on Sulawesi in 2020. Aqua Expeditions and Heritage Expeditions both visit Indonesia for the first time this year.

OUR PICK

Coral Expeditions' pioneering new 35-night Circumnavigation of New Guinea cruise on Coral Adventurer visits Raja Ampat and the Spice Islands, Fergusson Island for its hot springs, the Fly Islands and Tufi Fiords, plus Cenderawasih Bay so that guests can experience swimming with whale sharks. The ship also sails inland along the Sepik River. From $25,150 a person, departs October 2, 2020. See coralexpeditions.com

CRUISES UNDER SAIL

If you'd prefer your small ship with sails attached, then an increasing number of cruises in Asia cater to those who enjoy the crack of wind on canvas. Though shipboard space and amenities are limited, sailing ships often visit smaller destinations and tranquil bays far over the horizon from big-name cruise ports. Peregrine Adventures launched cruises in the Malaysian and Thai islands last year, and itineraries in the Indonesian islands this year. Tall-ship sailing specialist Star Clippers and Windstar Cruises also offer interesting routes in south-east Asia, with Star Clippers venturing to Borneo on itineraries between Singapore and Kota Kinabalu.

OUR PICK

Star Clippers is adding Cambodia to its Asian destinations in 2020 with visits to the cosmopolitan seaside town Sihanoukville and wildlife and tropical beach destination Koh Rang on an 11-night round-trip sail from Koh Samui in Thailand. The cruise also visits a number of Thai islands, including Koh Pha Ngan and Koh Tao for its abundant reefs and turtles. From €2645 (about $4556) a person, with departures in April, May and October 2020. See starclippers.com

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RIVER CRUISES

The Yangtze in China, Irrawaddy in Myanmar and Mekong in Vietnam and Cambodia are Asia's top cruise rivers, with the Yangtze the landscape standout for its 250-kilometre stretch of spectacular gorges. You'll find abundant cruise choices, especially in Myanmar, where mainstream companies are joined by niche operators such as Belmond, National Geographic Expeditions, Pandaw and Sanctuary Retreats. On the Mekong, Uniworld launches new all-suite ship Mekong Jewel in 2020 on 13-day itineraries between Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap. India's Ganges River (and its tributary, Hooghly), once considered adventurous, is now also plied by ships from mainstream cruise companies such as APT, Avalon Waterways, Travelmarvel and Uniworld.

OUR PICK

Scenic's 13-day Treasures of the Mekong itinerary runs from Ho Chi Minh City to Siam Reap and features a candlelit Gala Dinner and Apsara dance performance at Angkor Wat temple. There are stops in Phnom Penh (for visits to the royal palace and Killing Fields, and for a Khmer cooking demonstration), Vietnamese trading towns and the notorious Chu Chi Tunnels used during the Vietnam War. From $7395 a person, with regular departures in 2020. See scenic.com.au

RIVER EXPEDITION CRUISES

The big four rivers have led the boom in Asian river cruising, but if you have a more adventurous streak you'll find smaller, more nimble ships venturing down interesting alternative waterways. The Assam Bengal Navigation Company sails the mighty Brahmaputra under the shadow of the Himalayas in north-east India. Pandaw tackles the Salween and Chindwin in Myanmar, a short stretch of the Kwai Noi in Thailand and the Red River Delta in Vietnam. This September, Pandaw's new 12-cabin ship The Sabei sets forth on the Upper Mekong. In October, Adventure Resorts launches regular seven-night sailings between Kochi and Alappuzha on the Kerala waterways in southern India's spice country.

OUR PICK

The Upper Mekong remains relatively unexplored and yet allows a float through the landscapes of Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and sometimes into China. Pandaw's 10-night Laos Mekong cruise runs between Vientiane and Chiang Saen, visiting Luang Prabang, tribal villages, former French colonial town Pak Lai and Buddha-crammed Pak Ou Caves. From $US3924 a person (about $5,606), with regular departures between August and April. See pandaw.com

LUXURY CRUISES

You could take an annual cruise in Asia on a luxury big ship, small ship or expedition vessel and never run out of alternatives. Every significant high-end cruise company from Azamara to Oceania, Ponant and Silversea operates along Asia's coastlines, some on long multi-country journeys, others focusing on particular regions (such as south-east Asia or Japan) or archipelagos (such as Indonesia's Spice Islands). Regent Seven Seas Cruises has a very unusual 120-night Elements of the Pacific cruise in January 2022 that circumnavigates the Pacific Ocean, including its entire Asian coastline and Australia.

OUR PICK

Abercrombie & Kent's Wonders of Japan small-ship cruise in 2020 aboard Le Soleal visits destinations including Osaka, Kyoto and Hiroshima. The journey also takes in the medieval trading post of Karatsu, the arts centre of Kanazawa and the rice paddies of Sado Island, and visits Gyeongju in South Korea. On-board lectures cover Japanese history, art, gardens, nature and culinary traditions. From $24,615 a person, departing June 13, 2020. See abercrombiekent.com.au

THEMED CRUISES

Though there aren't a huge number of themed cruises in Asia, if you keep an eye out you may well find one that allows you to pursue a personal interest, be it wine or wellness, music or cuisine. Heritage Expeditions features birdwatching, Lindblad Expeditions (in collaboration with National Geographic) focuses on photography, and Star Clippers has occasional yoga-themed cruises in south-east Asia, with a yoga practitioner on board offering early-morning and sunset sessions on deck. Crystal Cruises operates occasional food-and-wine and golf cruises in Asia.

OUR PICK

Aqua Expeditions offers some departures on Aqua Mekong with Australian chef David Thompson, a Thai cuisine expert. Guests accompany Thompson to markets to learn about local ingredients, attend a cooking class and interactive Q&A session, and dine on the dishes he creates during the cruise. The four-night cruises sail between Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh. From $US5400 a person (about $7714), departing October 11 and 15, 2019. See aquaexpeditions.com

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