Last month I had the pleasure of joining Assam Bengal Navigation’s newest river ship Charaidew II on a voyage along northern India’s Brahmaputra River. India is a destination I’ve wanted to experience for many years, so when the opportunity arose to join my good friend Gianna on this seven-night cruise I jumped at the chance.
The Assam region is located in the northernmost part of India, close to the foothills of the Himalaya. The Brahmaputra River is the region’s main waterway, flowing through Tibet, into India and down through Bangladesh to the Bay of Bengal. The river itself is ever-changing, meaning that the ship’s charts are constantly being updated from voyage to voyage. As the river conditions are so variable it is generally only safe to cruise during the daylight hours, with the ship safely anchored overnight.
Our itinerary was the 7-night ‘River Island’ program, cruising the Brahmaputra between Steemer Ghat and Jorhat. The cruise itinerary takes in the highest navigable reaches of the river and showcases the unique culture of the area, fusing Indian and S.E. Asian influences. Highlights include a visit to Sivasagar, the old capital of the Ahom kings, as well as to Majuli Island with its unique Hindu monastic communities famous for their dance drama.
The major drawcard for Gianna and I was the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Kaziranga National Park, as we were keen to see and photograph as much wildlife as possible. We had our hearts set on catching a glimpse of a Royal Bengal Tiger (the park has also earned the distinction of having the highest density of these beauties), but alas on this occasion we weren’t fortunate enough to spot one. Our cruise director told us they had seen a Bengal Tiger patrolling the riverbank on the previous trip, but as is the case with wild animals you do have to be a little lucky on occasion. Not to worry however, as the park is blessed with a variety of wildlife including the world’s largest population of the Indian One-Horned Rhinoceros and the Indian Wild Water Buffalo. The park also supports large populations of Indian elephants, Indian bison, Barasingha (swamp deer), and Capped Langur along with myriad birdlife including the Oriental Honey Buzzard, Black-shouldered Kite, White-tailed Eagle and Himalayan Griffon.
We visited Kaziranga on two occasions during the voyage, the first time we ventured ashore in the park included a wildlife-spotting tour on the back of an elephant, a new experience for me.
When we weren’t in Kaziranga we were stopping at the traditional villages that line the river bank. We particularly enjoyed these villages as they were so untouched by tourism; it was interesting watching the locals go about their everyday business as we strolled through the villages, whether they be praying in the town’s temple or sitting at a traditional handloom weaving colourful fabrics. Of course they don’t get many westerners up in this part of the world, so everyone we met was keen to have a selfie with us and the people were so warm and friendly. The village visits were a definite highlight for us, and typically we had a couple of hours to explore and interact with the locals each time we went ashore.
On each occasion when we returned from an excursion to the ship we were met by the crew bearing cold towels and refreshing beverages and we particularly enjoyed the crew’s attention to the small details such as these.
The itinerary is quite gentle in terms of physicality, anybody with a reasonable level of mobility will be able to enjoy it without too many problems. Most of the activities were scheduled for the morning, with the afternoon put aside to cruise to the next day’s location. While cruising aboard the ship there were activities to take part in, including the opportunity to dress in colourful saris (a lot of fun) and an interesting cooking class with the ship’s chef where he taught us about spices and preparing traditional Indian curries. We were also lucky enough to enjoy a performance by local Assam dancers on the first night of the cruise, and music from a renowned Buddhist flutist later in the trip.
A note about transfers to the ship…
To join the cruise we flew from Delhi into the city of Guwahati. We were met on arrival at the airport by the ship’s local representatives (driver and guide) for an included private car transfer to the Charaidew II. The car was modern and well-maintained and we enjoyed the four-hour ride through the countryside, which included an impromptu stop for lunch at a roadside restaurant offering some of the best Indian cuisine we enjoyed during our travels.
At the conclusion of the cruise we were flying out from the city of Dibrugarh and again a private transfer was provided. En route our attention was drawn to some amazing prayer calls emanating from a temple and the driver and guide were only too happy for us to drop in for a quick visit.
The transfers were very well organised and we felt very safe in the hands of our skilled driver (the roads in India can be quite an experience!).
The Ship: Charaidew II
Assam Bengal Navigation operate a small fleet of river ships in India on both the Brahmaputra and Ganges rivers. We were lucky enough to cruise aboard the brand-new Charaidew II which they had launched just eight weeks prior in mid-January 2019.
At 44 metres in length, the Charaidew II provides extremely comfortable accommodation for up to 36 travellers sharing 18 cabins and approximately 30 crew. We were travelling during the ‘off-peak’ time of year, so the ship wasn’t full, but we did note that there was plenty of public space so we don’t think the ship would ever feel too crowded, even with a full complement aboard.
The ship’s decor reflects traditional Assamese design, with touches of colonial elegance, brought to life by hand-woven cotton fabrics. The lower deck houses the comfortable dining room, with the bulk of the cabins located on the mid deck. On the top deck you find the lounge and sun deck, both pleasant locations to sit back with a good book or to take in views of the river. There’s plenty of comfy chairs to make yourself at home, and a bar to purchase a refreshing drink (tea/coffee and water/fruit juices are included at no additional cost). In the lounge you also have access to complimentary WiFi, which allowed us to stay in touch with friends and family at home and share some of our photographs each day.
There’s also a small gym on board, along with a spa offering massages and beauty treatments (additional cost).
Being brand-new, the ship is in excellent condition and the crew did a great job ensuring she was looking at her absolute best each day.
The Cabin: Double Cabin
The Charaidew II offers three grades of accommodation; there are two highly sought-after Deluxe Cabins (32 square metres) with private balconies, 12 Double / Twin Cabins (22 square metres) and four standard Cabins (16 square metres) that are also available to solo travellers.
Gianna and I shared a Twin-bedded cabin on the mid deck. We were very impressed by the generous size of the accommodations and enjoyed the fact that the French Balcony allowed plenty of fresh air in while an insect screen kept the bugs at bay. The cabin featured individually-controlled air conditioning, comfortable beds (you may choose either a double bed or two singles), a writing desk with chair, plenty of hanging space and an electronic safe. There were also in-cabin tea and coffee making facilities and a small bar fridge.
The cabin’s en suite was also very well designed, with a full-size shower (there was never a shortage of hot water), toilet, basin and hairdryer. Complimentary Biotique toiletries were provided and replenished during the daily servicing of the room.
We were particularly looking forward to sampling some local cuisine during the cruise, and we enjoyed the menu the chefs in the galley were able to produce. As the ship’s guests originate from all around the world the menu offers a combination of western and Indian dishes and we did find that the spice had perhaps been ‘toned down’ a little to suit most palates. We recommend a gentle word to the chef if you would prefer a more spicy offering, they are sure to oblige.
Breakfast and lunch were served as buffets in the dining room, with a typical array of bacon, sausages, and eggs (cooked to order) on offer. There was also a variety of fruits, yoghurts and cereals for those keen on a lighter start to the day. Tea and coffee and fruit juice are also on offer throughout the day. If you prefer an espresso-style coffee (rather than typical filter coffee) there is a barista in the lounge but do note that these premium coffees come at an additional cost on board.
Lunch was again a buffet, featuring a mix of both western and Indian dishes. At lunch each day you also make your dinner selection for that evening’s meal choosing from a small a la carte menu. Dinner typically consisted of four courses, a soup, entrée, main and dessert. On one occasion we enjoyed a bonfire BBQ ashore for the evening meal which was a highlight.
If you like to indulge in a glass of wine with your evening meal there is a small selection available on board for purchase. While the wine list is not expansive, we did find that the choices on offer were more than adequate and reasonably priced.
For the uninitiated, India can be an assault on the senses; the constant movement, noises, smells, colours and crowds in cities like Delhi and Varanasi can take a bit of getting used to. In comparison, the pace of life on the river can be very genteel and our time exploring the Brahmaputra River aboard the new Charaidew II allowed us the opportunity to experience a completely different – and unexpected - side to this amazing country.
Rarely visited by the tourist masses, the Assam region is full of friendly people and interesting discoveries and we suggest there is no better way to experience this part of the world than on a 7-night cruise aboard Assam Bengal Navigation’s new Charaidew II.
So if India’s on your bucket list, make sure you add the Brahmaputra River to your itinerary – you wont regret it!
For more information about cruising India’s rivers contact our expert team today on 1800 90 20 80 (+61 7 4041 2101) or visit www.expeditioncruisespecialists.com.
Photographs courtesy of Vicki Briggs, Gianna Galeotta and Assam Bengal Navigation. Not to be reproduced without written permission.