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Myanmar

 

Hsipaw

Well, yes, there are banana pancakes here, but don't let that keep you away.

After five days of cities and pagodas, Hsipaw brought a welcome change. A lively, friendlytown with minority villages accessible in a day's hike, I could have stayed there a week.

Hsipaw is about 200 kilometers northeast of Mandalay along the railway line to Lashio. Once an independent Shan State, the principalityís final decade under the leadership of its last prince, Sao Kya Seng, is documented in the memoir of his Austrian-born wife, Inge Sargent, in "Twilight over Burma: My Life as a Shan Princess". Sao Kya Seng disappeared in 1962.

Hsipaw is accessible by train, bus, or car. Train is agonizingly slow. Leaving Mandalay in the pre-dawn hours it is supposed to reach Hsipaw sometime in the afternoon, but when it does arrive the locals all place bets as to what day's train it really is. Bus is cheap. Car is convenient. I opted to hire a private car making possible numerous stops along the way.

The road from Mandalay cuts across the wide plain before rising into the scenic hills of Shan State. In the mountains andmaking our way along the winding roads I had my first opportunity to see true Burmese-style labor. Shackled men in off-white uniforms were working on the side of the road. "Prisoners," my driver tells me. Not much further I saw the first of many groups of teenagers, mostly girls, also working along the roads. "Volunteers," my driver tells me.
"Volunteers? And just how often do they, err, volunteer?" I ask.
"Once a week," he replies.
"And if they don't want to, err, volunteer?"
No answer. Just a smile and a shrug of his shoulders.
They didn't look very happy to be volunteering, either.

A popular stopping point along the way is Pyin U Lwin (colonial name: Maymyo), an old British hill-station. For many travelers, this is a destination in itself. Numerous colonial-era mansions line the roads around town. A colonial-era botanical gardens is a popular attraction where dozens and dozens of white benches bearing the Sweety Home Mattress logo make for an authentic old English garden atmosphere.

In the Pyin U Lwin area are a couple of waterfalls and a sacred cave. One of the waterfalls (Anisakan Falls) is supposed to be quite impressive. I had saved it for the day of my return to Mandalay but a drenching rainstorm canceled the plan. Much smaller is the Pwe Kauk Falls, a popular picnic area for the locals. While the waterfall might not inspire any 'oohs' or 'ahs' it's certainly not ugly and you get the privilege of paying a camera tax to photograph it all.

Peik Chin Myaing is a sacred cave filled with hundreds of Buddha statues of all shapes and sizes and replicas of famous Myanmar stupas. Just for fun, count all the Buddhas in there. On second thought, don't. There is a nice waterfall about five hundred meters from the cave, though you might need somebody to show you where it is.

The next attraction up the road is the Gokteik Viaduct, the hundred-year old railway bridge that was once the world's second highest. From the road there's a good vantage point to photograph it, especially with a 135mm or longer lens, though I'm not sure it's actually permitted to do so.

I reached Hsipaw in the late afternoon and immediately liked what I saw. Near my guesthouse is a wooden sign that reads in English and Burmese, "Please provide necessary assistance to the international travellers".

Hsipaw is a compact, picturesque town, the center of which hosts a lively morning market, while in the evenings the downtown movie theater packs out with locals taking in the latest production from Yangon. Scattered around are restaurants serving up local Shan dishes, Chinese dishes, and more recently a number of teahouses have added banana pancakes to their list of offerings - as popular with the locals as with the foreign travellers.

Photos:
Below left: Morning market, Hsipaw
Below center: The Hsipaw Car Wash
Below right: Mmm, Grubs


The residents of Hsipaw are a friendly, lively bunch, and unusual for Myanmar, at times quite outspoken as well. But I found that throughout Shan State, residents are much quicker to say what is on their mind where their government and country is concerned, whether it be political, ethnic, whatever.

At the end of the day head across the Dothtawady River to either one of a pair of pagodas sitting atop hills offering panoramic views of the village and the surrounding mountains.

TREKKING AROUND HSIPAW

The best way to get a feel for the area is take a trek into the surrounding villages. Both day and overnight treks are available - check in at Mr. Charles' Guesthouse. I opted for a single day which kept me on level ground and out of the surrounding hills, but still allowed visits to some friendly Palaung and Pedung villages.

We began by walking across a large field to the edge of the mountains reaching what was purported to be a hot spring but upon discovery I would more accurately describe it as a lukewarm deep puddle. The bulk of the day was spent walking from village to village with a stop in the middle for a rest along the river. Our last visit before returning to Hsipaw was to a cheroot factory where a half dozen women hand-roll about a thousand of the Burmese cigars each day - free samples provided.

Photos:
Around Hsipaw

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We returned to Hsipaw for a late lunch. Afterwards I headed north of town to the old palace - long ago the home of the prince, Sao Kya Seng. Itís looking rather ragged these days, but Mr. Donald, the princeís nephew, lives there and takes care of the place as he can, warmly welcoming unannounced visitors. He speaks perfect English and will tell you everything you ever wanted to know - and then some. Plan to stay a couple of hours.

An added bonus - on the way to the palace we walked through a small monastery where a group of novices were working in the yard. They quickly abandoned their work and were full of antics until the senior monk showed up and restored order.

     

My visit to Hsipaw was entirely too short. I stayed two nights only. Hsipaw was the Myanmar I was looking for, but fortunately I still had Inle Lake and Kalaw to visit.

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Yangon / Mandalay / Hsipaw / Inle Lake / Kalaw / Bagan

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All text and photographs © 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.