When most of us think of river cruising, we probably picture the River Danube – or, at the very least, Europe. After all, river cruising is becoming synonymous with European travel, thanks to its overall convenience and the sheer number of countries, cities and sites of interest that can be visited on its vast network of inland waterways.
But Europe is far from being the only game in town when it comes to taking a river cruise. In fact, the number of “exotic” river cruises continues to grow with each passing season as travellers realize that, as beautiful as Europe is, there’s a whole world out there to explore.
So what is an “exotic river cruise?” Unfortunately, the term “exotic” is a blanket one that is basically used to describe any river cruise that doesn’t take place within the standard river routes in Europe or North America. To the average person, that doesn’t say much. But the truth of the matter is that, while the term is rather broad, it is also fairly accurate.
Exotic river cruises can include the Amazon River, or the Mekong River that runs between Vietnam and Cambodia. This also applies to the Irrawaddy River running through Myanmar (Burma), and China’s Yangtze River. There are voyages along the Chobe River in Africa; the Ganges in India; and we’d even go so far as to lump Russia’s waterways in here, too, as they technically lay outside of the European Union.
Why should you take one of these voyages? Nearly all of them involve extensive air travel, complicated visa applications, along with language and cultural barriers – all of which need to be taken into consideration. But for those who do take the plunge, these can be some of the most immeasurably rewarding voyages out there.
They’re More Active
By their very nature, exotic river cruises tend to be the expedition cruises of the river cruising world. Quite frequently, they’ll involve tendering ashore in local boats, hikes, walking tours over uneven ground, and little-to-no Western-style amenities. You can expect shore excursions to be adventurous and extensive. The shore excursions are not difficult, but due to the remote nature of some sights and attractions, they can be significantly longer than their European counterparts.
On overland itineraries in China and Myanmar in particular, you can also expect a lot of domestic air travel in your destination of choice. Many of these itineraries pair a land tour with a few days or a week aboard a river cruise ship. If you like to see a lot of a particular place, these are the tours for you. If airports aren’t your thing, choose your itineraries wisely.
They Tend To Be More Intimate
Most – but not all – exotic itineraries are operated aboard smaller ships than you’ll find in Europe. Typically, exotic river cruise vessels hold less than 100 passengers, with the “sweet spot” on many itineraries coming in at 50 to 60 guests. Both onboard and ashore, you can expect a more intimate atmosphere than on many European river crises.
Even in places like China, where ships can hold a few hundred guests, your touring group will likely be much smaller, and will join up with other tour groups for the river cruise portion of the journey. If you like your travel experiences to be small and intimate, exotic river cruises provide that in spades.
They Showcase The World’s Hidden Places
Exotic river cruise showcase parts of the world that would be otherwise inaccessible (like the Amazon River), or countries that would be difficult to travel to independently or overland. Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is an example of the latter. Sure, you can do Myanmar on your own, but one look at the domestic flight scene in Yangon International Airport, with its chaotic ticketing hall and absolutely no English signage, will have you glad you chose a guided river cruise tour.
More Authentic Cultural Experiences
This isn’t to imply that the cultural experiences in Europe aren’t authentic; far from it. But the cultural experiences you’ll be entitled to on an exotic river cruise will likely be worlds apart from what you may be used to.
In Cambodia, for example, we received a Buddhist blessing as part of our Mekong river cruise with AmaWaterways. This past November, in Myanmar, Viking River Cruises enthralled guests on our cruise-tour through that amazing country with a visit to a local school that Viking sponsors. Children sang for us, and we were invited to walk through their village along with them to see how daily life is conducted in a small, rural town in Myanmar that isn’t even listed in any guide book works.
Add to that the local food, drinks, and customs that you’ll experience both ashore and onboard, and you’re set for a full cultural immersion.
They Won’t Remain ‘Exotic’ For Long
One of the best reasons to take an exotic river cruise is that these voyages simply may not be exotic for long. As more and more people discover the joys of European-based river cruises, the number of travellers looking for something more increases as well.
Other regions, like Egypt’s Nile River, have seen their river cruises decimated in recent years due to continued political unrest. For various reasons, these are all destinations that should be seen sooner rather than later if you appreciate authenticity.
The next time you’re researching river cruises, pull up a destination you’ve never heard of before. Look beyond the borders of Europe, if it so interests you, and see what’s out there. Chances are good you’ll be surprised at just how much of the world can be explored from the comfort of a river cruise ship.