Hsipaw and the surrounding landscape is a beautiful destination, excellent for trekking, meeting local hill tribes and venturing off the beaten track. Though the area bears scars of a fractured and violent history, many locals are hoping its natural beauty will inspire tourists to visit.
“It’s a short cut!” exclaims our guide Nay Paing, as the narrow track wanders off down a sharp bank toward dense woodland, leaving behind sweeping tracts of farmed fields. The dappled leafy shade is a cooling respite from a burning afternoon sun, but every down has its corresponding up – which takes us scrambling up a vertical muddy hill and sweating madly by the top.
This “short cut” is a further four-hour hike across the varied and beautiful landscape of northern Shan State, a full nine hours walking – a long day, but immensely enjoyable.
We, a group of three Brits and a Dane ranging in age from 28 to 62, are on a two-day trek from the town of Hsipaw, taking us on a loop through the Shan hills and surrounding ethnic Shan and Palaung villages.
Tall forested hills dominate the skyline and are punctuated by sweeping valleys where rice and other crops are cultivated, terraces curving elegantly upwards. Patches of land lie barren from logging or slash-and-burn farming and the occasional water buffalo snorts his disinterest as we pass.
Of our two young guides, Nay Paing – an 18-year-old Palaung villager – strikes an incongruous figure amongst the rural scenery, sporting spray-on metallic jeans, a rocker t-shirt and exuding an unflappable cool. But cheerful and clearly knowledgeable, he regales us with explanations of the surrounding flora and various local customs.
There are many Palaung villages in the area, an ethnic group known for their cultivation of tea, he explains, as we walk through countless tea plantations, stubby little dark trees crowding the gentle slopes.
“No tea, no Palaung!” says Nay Paing enthusiastically. And the tea itself is as delicious as it is ubiquitous, a dark smoky flavour reminiscent of Lapsang Souchong.
Off the beaten track?
The starting point, Hsipaw, is a small mountain town 200km north of Mandalay. The place is fast becoming the go-to destination for tourists seeking an authentic off-the-beaten track experience of Burma’s northern regions, but without the time to travel the distance further to Kachin State.
A six-hour bus ride from Mandalay, Hsipaw is relatively easy to reach and, though remote, already has a fair tourist infrastructure. Native resident Kaung Thar, manager of local guesthouse Lily The Home, says that tourist numbers have increased dramatically since 2010.
Yet, despite warnings that Hsipaw’s old-world charm is fading under an onslaught of shoeless backpacker types, the place does not feel overwhelmed by foreigners, and offers a wealth of things to see – from visiting the palace of Hsipaw’s last Saopha (Prince), rubbing shoulders with local hill tribe women who come to sell their wares at the candlelit night market, or a pleasant boat trip up the river.
The trekking options here are numerous, ranging from one to three-day and longer trips. It is also possible to head into the hills without a guide – though without a decent map, compass and sound hillwalking experience it probably isn’t advisable.
The best time to visit, explains our second guide Khamlu, an ethnic Shan from Hsipaw, is just after rainy season when the temperature is still cool and the landscape lush and green. We have come very late into the season, and the leaves are almost autumnal, turning brown and falling from the trees. Dark red dust coats everything, and by the end of the day our skin, clothes and possessions are all dyed a variant of dust red.
We are hosted overnight in the village of Man Lwe, in a large, beautiful teak house – and are welcomed by the family with genuine warmth, and a huge spread of home-cooked food.
Our arrival in the village is timed spectacularly. Tired and grubby after many hours walking, we start the ascent towards Man Lwe as the sun begins to set. Twenty or so wooden houses cascade down the steep hillside, plumes of smoke from evening fires hang in the still air and the setting sun paints everything in warm, ruddy hues. An elderly woman in vibrant purple-black traditional dress leads a herd of horses along the snaking path into the village, their hooves throwing up a veil of dust that catches and shimmers in the low dusky light. It is a dreamlike scene. Forested hills rise all around, and for the first time since leaving Hsipaw, this feels completely remote.
Given the beauty and easy charm of Hsipaw and its surrounds, it is simple to be lulled into a sense of rural idyll. Yet scratch the surface and a very different picture emerges.
Shan State is an ethnic minority area, populated by an astonishingly rich diversity of peoples – the Shan, Palaung, Wa, Lihsu, Danu and others. Yet this richness has provoked terrible violence, as the junta pursued its policies of “Burmanisation” against minority groups.
Shan State, as with other ethnic states, has been subject to brutal campaigns by the Burmese military over the past 50 years, with civilians taking the brunt of the violence. Appalling human rights abuses have been committed in living memory: villages burned to the ground; torture, forced labour and rape; thousands forced out of their homes; and men, women and children executed arbitrarily.
Understandably, our two guides are reluctant to speak about this – and explain quietly that though the immediate area is peaceful, there has been fighting further north, a fact that is underscored when a column of Shan State Army soldiers march through Man Lwe at daybreak.
The degree of poverty here is equally apparent. Passing through one hilltop village, an empty building stands isolated from the rest. This, Nay Paing tells us, is the local health clinic. Only the government has been unable to provide staff, salary or medicines. So just the shell of a building remains, a cruel reminder of what should be there.
Given these hardships, the degree of warmth, interest and genuine hospitality extended to us by the many people we meet on the trek is remarkable. We are invited to tea in a mountain monastery; and stumble into the midst of a traditional Shan festival – and everywhere greeted openly with smiles.
Looking to the future
Hsipaw’s attractions are apparent. Yet, though buoyed by an increased numbers of visitors, its viability as a major trekking destination is not guaranteed and Hsipaw’s future clearly depends on how well tourism and development is managed. At the moment, routes are constrained within a relatively small area authorised by the government.
“If we can organise more trekking then I think more people will travel to Hsipaw, but if it is the still the same for two, three years then I think the popularity will disappear,” says Kaung Thar of Lily The Home guesthouse, recommending that new routes should be opened up.
Unless the government allows trekking outfits to expand and manage the growth in a sustainable way, there is a serious risk that trails could become quickly saturated, with lasting ecological damage, and villages reduced to little more than pretty tourist attractions.
Serious mountain climbers may prefer the higher ranges of Kachin and Chin states, but Hsipaw and its surrounds remain an exciting, authentic and relatively easy way of venturing off well-worn tourist routes and out into the northern hills. Let’s hope it stays that way.
How to get to Hsipaw and what to do when you get there
How do I get there?
Regular local buses run from Mandalay (6am and 2.30pm) and take around six hours. Bus costs 6,000 kyat (US$6) per person. A shared minibus goes from Mandalay twice a day and takes around five hours and costs 15,000 kyat.
Considered one of the world’s most spectacular train rides, the train route Mandalay – Hsipaw is highly recommended. The train leaves Mandalay at 4am and arrives in Hsipaw at around 3.30pm. However, if you dread such an early start, you can take an 80-minute taxi ride to Pyin Oo Lwin for around 25,000 kyat and catch the 8.22am departure from there. Get an ordinary class ticket for a better view (first class seats have smaller windows that don’t open), and be sure to stay on all the way across the stunning and vertiginous Gokteik Gorge. Comprehensive information on the journey can be found at www.seat61.com.
Where to stay?
Luxury: Hsipaw Resort +951665126+951665126
Mid range: Lily The Home +958280077+958280077 / +958280088+958280088 / +958280408+958280408
Mr Charles +958280105+958280105 / +9596710278+9596710278
Budget: Mr Kids +958280066+958280066
Other things to do?
Watch the sunset over the Dokhtawady River at The Club Terrace with a pint of beer or glass of wine.