Waking up at 4.30am we wondered through the dark streets of Mandalay to catch our early morning bus to Hsipaw. Little did we know the a day or two later this same are of town would be full of police, a curfew in place due to anti-muslim violence and marches. But for us we shared the road with people off to morning prayer, tea sellers setting up for the day and monks making their alms round for food.
The main reason for heading to Hsipaw (pronounced see-paw) is to trek into the surrounding hills, and as the bus wound through some beautiful mountains and scenery we already knew we would be in for a treat. We arrived and checked into Yee-Shin guesthouse (a clean, cheap and sociable place with an amazing breakfast), and set of to discover the area. What we found was a lovely little relaxed town, with a great atmosphere and the right mix of a few travellers and real Myanmar culture, however it might not be this way for much longer, the balance set to tip as new hotels are popping up at an alarming rate – catch it while you can!
As we explored we wandered across old teak monasteries with golden bamboo Buddha’s and extremely friendly monks, and roads lined with semi ruined stupas, which we later found out was dubbed “little Bagan”.. it was considerably smaller, but still very charming. We made our way to the old Shan palace, which is a must do for any visitors to Hsipaw. It was here that we got a reminder about how delicate the political situation was in this area as we bumped into military intelligence, who where heavily armed (lots of machine guns) and driving around in a blacked out white estate car… very odd. We watched as some security patrolled the perimeter and the military intelligence VIP’s visited the palace carrying huge wads of cash to “make a donation”, it was all very interesting. After the VIP’s where finished it was our turn. Fern is the current caretaker of the Shan palace, and a relation of the last prince of Shan state. She opens the palace doors everyday and explains the history of the family and the turmoil they were put through by the ruling government, many members were thrown in jail.. some disappeared. She is also amazingly knowledgeable about Myanmars political circumstances and history. If you ever had a question to ask about Myanmar heres the lady to answer!
We arranged an overnight trek through our guesthouse, and the next morning set off bright and early with our guide “dan-thai” for a 15km trek up a mountain to a remote traditional village. We walked through undulating fields of rice and corn, and visited many small communities along the way. As we climbed the scenery became even more spectacular, and we tried to imagine how the people were able to work the fields with their hand tools and ox carts in the crippling heat that was making us struggle to walk. Throughout the trek our brilliant guide Dan kept us amused with stories and information about the local fauna, crops, people and everything in-between. He was able to communicate with all the people we passed, even though the language kept changing every three kms, and he was able to answer even the most obscure questions the group could throw his way – exactly what you want from a guide!
We reached our destination in the early afternoon. An attractive village set in a valley high up in the mountains. We reached our accommodation for the night which turned out to be a traditional wooden house on stilts, with an open fire in the middle for warmth and cooking. Our host was the retired village leader who, when we met him seemed a little more interested in finishing the last of a bottle of rice wine he had started that morning than hanging around, but a nice man none the less. We ate home cooked traditional food of the northern Shan state, full of savoury, sour and spicy flavours before retiring to Bamboo chairs to have a satisfying afternoon nap.
The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring the local village and the steep sided tea plantations that are dotted through the area. Dan gave us an insight into the hidden opium trade and ongoing Shan conflict with the national army which is being fought guerilla style in these hills, causing much of the area to be closed off for foreign travel but shhh, don’t tell anyone. We also met some of the local children and got them to take pictures of each other on Ryans camera. Ella was especially honoured by being given a rose by a dirty faced smiling little girl, who seemed to like that she put it in her hair. We topped of the afternoon with yet more food, before retiring to the bamboo chairs again to sip beer and watch the stars in the cloudless sky.
We had a great time in Hsipaw only wishing we could have stayed longer. The trek was great and was one of the highlights of Myanmar, if not the trip so far, and it is defiantly a place we would like to come back to and explore more off in the future (maybe when its cooler), but with a limited time left on our visa and still more to see we had to move on…