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The Best Southeast Asia Cruises: 4 Great Small Ship Itineraries | Frommer's Nguyen Quang Ngoc Tonkin / Shutterstock

The Best Southeast Asia Cruises: 4 Great Small Ship Itineraries

Experience the waterways of Southeast Asia on river cruises and other small ships on these itineraries in Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Laos.

I’ve sailed on more than 125 cruises and have always gravitated toward the smaller ships (under 300 passengers) for the uncrowded, up-close-and-personal experience they provide. That’s why I cofounded to share reviews and news about small-ship cruises around the world, from Europe to North America and Asia. 

Based in Singapore for the past 17 years, I’ve done a lot of small ship cruising in the region. Here are four of my favorite small ship cruise itineraries in Southeast Asia.

(Mekong River in Luang Prabang, Laos | Credit: filmlandscape / Shutterstock)

Upper Mekong River in Laos

The Mekong River winds its way down from China through several countries before emptying into the South China Sea. I recently cruised for 10 days on the section that flows through sparsely populated Laos, between capital city Vientiane and the Thai border near Chiang Rai, enjoying the mountainous terrain and zigzagging route. 

In some spots the riverbanks are sandy like a beach. Elsewhere, river levels may be low due to normal seasonal fluctuations as well as dam-building farther upriver, and the exposed rocks create a beautiful lunar tableau—and a challenging obstacle course for ship captains. 

Excursions along the way include treks to caves, waterfalls, and mountainside shrines, as well as walks through remote villages. A day or two is spent in the atmospheric city of Luang Prabang at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers to tour the many Buddhist temples and monasteries. 

Small ship cruise lines that go here: Mekong River Cruises, Pandaw, Heritage Line

Lower Mekong River in Cambodia and Vietnam

The classic weeklong Mekong itinerary cruises between river points near Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and Siem Reap, Cambodia, where you should definitely stay for a few days to see the spectacular centuries-old temple ruins at Angkor Wat

On the Lower Mekong, the riverscape varies from remote and pastoral on the Cambodian side—where you can spot people bathing and slapping laundry against stones at the river’s edge—to the more industrial and bustling Vietnam part of the river. Emerald-green terraced rice fields, shipbuilders, and other businesses cling to the river at many points. 

(Phnom Penh, Cambodia | Credit: Khoroshunova Olga / Shutterstock)

On excursions, you can walk through villages and past picture-perfect rice fields and venture into pungent wet markets and floating fish farms. There are also temples, monasteries, and Cambodia’s capital city of Phnom Penh, a mix of shiny new buildings and French colonial architecture. 

Small ship cruise lines that go here: Pandaw, Scenic, AmaWaterways, Uniworld, Avalon Waterways, Emerald Cruises, Aqua Expeditions, Heritage Line

(Indonesian pinisi ship | Credit: MARIO ANDI SUPRIA / Shutterstock)

Indonesian Archipelago

Small ship cruise itineraries focus on two areas of the Indonesian archipelago in the heart of the Coral Triangle, site of the world’s richest marine biodiversity and therefore some of the world’s best diving and snorkeling, too.  

On vessels ranging from motor yachts to modern sailing ships as well as traditional pinisi-style schooners, cruises on the western route typically travel between the islands of Bali and Flores, focusing on the volcanic Komodo island, famous for its huge monitor lizards, aka Komodo dragons. 

(Komodo dragons in Komodo, Indonesia | Credit: Sony Herdiana / Shutterstock)

In the east, meanwhile, voyages in the Raja Ampat archipelago and West Papua province are all about beaches, bays, lagoons, and legendary avian species such as the elusive and beautiful bird of paradise.

Small ship cruise lines that go here: SeaTrek Sailing Adventures, Ponant, Aqua Expeditions, Dewi Nusantara

Red River and Halong Bay in Vietnam

On a 10-day itinerary, a small ship can cover several hundred miles between Halong Bay (pictured at the top of this page) and Hoa Binh in northern Vietnam, spending a few days in the picturesque and otherworldly limestone karst–studded Halong Bay, the dramatic backdrop to films like Indochine (1992) and The Quiet American (2002). 

(Halong Bay in Vietnam | Credit: Denis Rozan / Shutterstock)

Except for a day in frenetic and fascinating Hanoi (notable for its colonial architecture, war heritage, and foodie culture), the rest of this route is spent on the Red River and its tributaries, which reach into the rural landscapes and small towns of Vietnam’s heartland. 

Among the rewarding ways to spend time off the ship: village walks, kayaking in Halong Bay, watching a traditional water puppet show, taking tours of heritage sites, and getting a close-up look at traditional methods for making ceramics, furniture, rice wine, knives, and noodles.

Small ship cruise lines that go here: Pandaw

Heidi Sarna is a veteran travel journalist and the cofounder of QuirkyCruise, a top source for news, reviews, and information about small ship cruises and unconventional vessels.