I set off from Pyin Oo Lwin heading towards Hsipaw at around 10:30 (a little delayed because of the rain). This was my first train journey in Myanmar, and one that is highly recommended for the scenery, and in particular the scary looking Goitek Viaduct, built in the early 1900s by the US (the only US built bridge in the British Empire). The 7 hour journey to Hsipaw in Upper Class costs only $2.75, and gives you a slightly wider, padded and potentially reclining chair. When not rocking alarmingly from side to side, the carriages bounce alarmingly up and down. The only constant is the alarming loud thunks every few seconds. The train fortunately slows down through the more watery parts, as well as when going over the very narrow viaduct, so the probability of it tipping over is probably quite small. Every now and again you get a light sprinkling of shredded leaves from trees and bushes close to the track passing your window. Despite all of this the locals seems to have no problems sleeping throughout the journey – not so much for the tourists. At the regular stops you can buy some food and drinks – my vegetarian noodle lunch-in-a-packet only cost $0.30 (although I was disappointed that I was the only one to buy a beer on the trip). The little mousey crawling nervously around was complementary. The scenery is mainly of rice paddies and corn fields, until you get close to Hsipaw and need to cross the deep valley which the viaduct spans. Both tourists and locals excitedly started taking videos and pictures as we got caught our first glimpse of the viaduct, and didn’t really stop until we got over the viaduct about 45 minutes later (I feel sorry for whoever needs to watch those videos). All-in-all I really enjoyed the trip and would recommend it to anyone thinking of heading to Hsipaw.
Hsipaw itself is a nice little town sitting on a river, surrounded by agricultural fields, in the Shan state. In the past it was the centre of the district, and is where the local tribal leader (or Shan prince) was based – more on that later. The main crops are rice, corn and tea and it appears as if all the farming and processing is done by hand, except for a few mechanical ploughs from Thailand. The corn, which is all planted, picked and removed from the cob by hand, is mainly exported to China for chicken feed (there is also variety which is used for local human consumption). As can be seen in many aspects of Myanmar life, human blood, sweat and tears does not cost much. The tourist trade has brought in a fair bit of money for people with the right skills (mainly being able to speak English) – so much so that I met several people who had a university degree but were rather doing things like driving a boat for tourists on Inle Lake (something that only costs $15 for a whole five person boat for a day).
Back to Hsipaw, it is popular destination for trekking, either over several days into the surrounding hills or doing shorter day hikes from the town. I stayed as Lily’s The Home guesthouse, a really nice place near the river, close to the main road and some nice restaurants (my favourite being Club Terrace overlooking the river). Lily can organise treks and transport for you and has a variety of rooms to choose from, depending on your budget. Because of the hot summer weather I was very thankful that I had opted for the aircon room!
The first place I visited was the residence of the last Shan prince in Hsipaw The history of the last prince is very interesting and mirrored (to an extent) events in the rest of Myanmar at the beginning of the rule by the military junta. The story is told by the wife of the prince’s cousin, and as with lots of Myanmar history, I suspect it isn’t the entire story. I can’t remember all the details 100% here’s a quick summary:
The house was built by his UK educated uncle (the previous prince) as he didn’t want to live in the traditional wooden palace once he had gotten used to western-style living, although the palace continued to be used for ceremonial purposes until it was destroyed by bombing at the end of World War II. The young prince also studied overseas in the US where he met an Austrian lady who he married. They returned to Hsipaw as continue his role as prince for the next 10 years. Over this time Burma gained independence from Britain and a democratic government installed. The various hereditary princes continued in a much reduced role, but were still important political figures. In 1962 the different princes were worried about the negative impact of the current system on the minorities they represented and were about to petition the formation of a federal government. This proved to be the excuse the military had been looking for and they promptly arrested all the princes and members of parliament and formed a military government. As a foreigner the Austrian princess was confined to her house with her daughters and had no contact with the outside world. The soldiers guarding the house denied that her husband had been arrested, and eventually via various diplomatic channels she discovered that he had been murdered in prison, although this was denied by the military. To this day he is still listed as missing, with no acknowledgement of what happened. Two years later the prisoners were finally released when the military declared Burma (now Myanmar) a socialist state, confiscated all businesses and began expelling foreigners. With the help of the Austrian embassy the princess and her children managed to escape to the US where they currently live. They are all still blacklisted and so there has been no direct contact with them. The daughters also refuse to travel to Myanmar until the true story of their father is acknowledged. Myanmar is slowly recovering from military rule following the first democratic elections 4 years ago, but they still control much of the country. 25% of seats in parliament are reserved for the military, most of the ruling party are ex-military men with strong ties to the military, and economic power sits with a small group of connected ex-military men. There are also strange laws to try and prevent opposition parties from growing in strength, such as preventing someone from becoming the president if any of their relatives have foreign citizenship (something which is likely to be an issue for returning opposition politicians).
After visiting the Shan palace, I stopped off at Mrs Popcorn, a lovely little food and drink spot, to escape the midday heat and have some lunch, including a delicious tamarind iced tea and a lime & spring onion soup. That afternoon I wondered around town a bit, checking out the pretty monastery, the rice paddies and a few temples. That evening I head up to a temple on a hill with a great view for the sunset.
The following day I headed out the the nearby waterfall, about 5 or 6 km from Hsipaw. It’s a nice walk through the fields and the waterfall itself is very beautiful, with a small pool at the bottom to cool down in. Not many people seem to go there, so you are likely to have it to yourself. A quick tip – try to do it early in the morning or later in the afternoon when it is less hot.
The following day I headed out on a 2 day trek with a British guy, Steven, who had one of the biggest ginger beards I’ve seen. The trek was about 36km in total over the 2 days and you go up around 1000m in altitude. The weather had cleared up a bit, and so it was hot, fairly humid and sunny (around 33C). This made the walk a lot tougher than it would normally be, especially since I made a rooky mistake and didn’t bring any snacks. After a very sweaty 5 hours in the sun with the only refreshment being water, some green tea and a slightly weird cucumber that our guide picked on the side of the trail, I was running very low on energy. It was with great relief when we arrived at our lunch spot where I had the best warm Coke in the world ever. It was also where I had my first tea leaf salad, a strangely delicious Shan dish. It is made up of tea leaves fermented slightly in lime juice and oil, and then mixed together with tomato, cabbage, fried assorted nuts, crushed peanut, a little bit of chilli and some fish sauce. If you visit Myanmar you should definitely try it, especially if you are in the Shan province.
Things went much better after lunch, when it was cooler and a bit overcast, plus I had a lot more energy. The views were also stunning, with beautiful long deep green valleys around every corner. After an hour and a half we reached the village where we would spend the night. After a refreshing beer we explored the town a bit, and were fortunate to catch the villagers preparing their tea crop for transportation. In the dry season they normally sun-dry it, but this is not possible in the wet season, and so the leaves are first steamed for about 5 or 10 minutes, placed onto a woven reed mat and tossed into the air to cool down, and then massaged to force as much water out of the leaves as possible. This makes them much easier to transport to somewhere where it can be dried.
We spend the night in a traditional Shan house in a room next door to the families room. The houses are made out of wood and have two stories, and are generally open plan or occasionally split into two rooms. The family all live together until kids get married, when they moved to their own houses. The food was simple but delicious, with some really nice chilli to spice things up. As with many places in Myanmar, you need to be prepared for an early start, as people use the early morning and evenings for leisure and entertainment. In this village this meant having music played over a loudspeaker at 4am, followed by some bhuddist preaching from about 5:30.
The walk down was much easier and quicker, passing some beautiful rice paddies. This time I had managed to buy some snacks, including some weird salty dried fruit sticks, and and there was a bit of cloud cover. I had an even better tea leaf salad as part of our mid-morning tea stop, and the hike finished at lunchtime with a good bowl of Shan noodles. A much needed shower and some greatly appreciated aircon greeted me at the hotel when we got back. The trek was really nice (you can extend it to 2 nights) but I would recommend doing it in the cooler dry season. We were lucky to not have any rain, and it looked like it would be very muddy and slippery in the wet (it started pouring with rain about 2 hours after we got back)
The next day I caught a 5 hour day bus to Mandalay, on my way to Inle Lake. It is possible to go directly to Inle from Hsipaw, but I wasn’t up for a 13 – 15 hour bus ride. It also gave me a chance to see a bit of Mandalay before catching the overnight bus to Inle the next evening. I wasn’t hugely impressed with Manadaly – the sights are not that spectacular, and it doesn’t have the charm of Yangon, plus there are mosquitos everywhere (my room cam with a electric mosquito zapper in the shape of a tennis racquet, similar to the ones I’ve seen in South Africa for flies – a very satisfying experience), so I wouldn’t recommend spending much time there. You can organise the standard bike or taxi tour to take in all the sights in a day, but as the weather was not looking great I just went up to the top of Mandalay Hill to see the view, before catching my bus to Inle Lake.
Inle Lake is a fairly large shallow water lake in the Shan province lying in a wide valley. It is a major tourist destination, but still manages to retain its charm. There is a lot to do in the area (including some very nice sounding treks) and it is a bit cooler than some other part of the country. I had some great food there, and it is a really friendly town, with very little hassling of tourists. Together with Hsipaw, this was my favourite spot in Myanmar.
I arrived very early in the morning, and after a short walk through the deserted streets, avoiding the unfriendly street dogs, I got to my lovely hostel (Aquarius) and was fortunately to get an early check-in. The rest of the day was spent having a quick rest and exploring the town. The next day I joined two extremely tall German brothers, an English lady also on a year long break and an American lady taking a short break from a work trip in Yangon, for a boat trip on the lake. This is a must-do activity, but we decided to skip most of the standard workshops where you see how local wares are made (such as jewellery and cheroots) before being shown to the attached shop, to rather spend time going to some of the more remote parts of the lake. We saw quite a few interesting birds (including a few kingfishers and a small hawk), the famous Inle Lake fishermen, who row their boat with one hand and their leg to keep a free hand to work their nets, as well as the tomato gardens in the middle of the lake. Our guide took us to his family home for some tea and delicious crisped rice snacks and to see the looms his family use to make cloth. Like most of the houses around the lake it was a stilted house over the water – with the houses grouped together in little villages. This was were I discovered that Inle Lake cats are happy to swim between the house, something cats back home would never do. We also visited the famous Jumping Cat Temple, a wooden temple on the lake where the previous head monk taught the cats to jump through hoops – something they no longer do unfortunately, but the name stuck. The trip ended with a quick refreshing swim in the lake. After the trip we decided to meet up for some cocktails, which turned into quite a few beers, and finally, after the Germans discovered my extensive collection of Oktoberfest / German Apré Ski music, some drunken singing, with accompanying motions.
Feeling a little tender the next day I had a relaxing time, catching up on some research for my next destinations, and in the afternoon I hired a bicycle to head to some of the sights just outside of town. First I headed to some caves in the hills surrounding the town which are used by monks in the attached monastery for meditation purposes (about 30 – 45 mins by bike). An old monk with a torch took me around the smallish caves pointing out the various mediation areas including some small holes where the oxygen apparently runs out after 2 or 3 hours! After the caves I headed out to the local winery, Red Mountain Estate, situated on a hill with a stunning view of the valley below. The white and rose wines on the wine tasting were not too bad but I wasn’t convinced about the red. Fortunately the view as the sun slowly set more than made up for it.
The following day I was catching a night bus to Yangon, so decided to do a Shan cooking course through Bamboo Delight. The course started at the local market where we picked up some meat and local ingredients before heading back to the cooking school to heading back to Yangon. After helping prepare some of the ingredients, we were ready to start cooking over our small coal fuelled stoves. We made a Shan Noodle soup, a delicious tea leaf salad, fried chicken meatballs in an amazing spicy tomato curry sauce, a fish curry and a tasty butterfly bean dish. All in all a worthwhile end to my trip to Inle Lake.
After a brief stopover in Yangon, I’m now in Vietnam, my final country in this stage of my trip, but that will have to wait for the next post!
Lily’s the House, Hsipaw: http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Hotel_Review-g303656-d3780688-Reviews-Lily_Guest_House-Hsipaw_Shan_State.html
Aquarius, Nyaungg Shwe, Inle Lake: http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Hotel_Review-g303662-d1536830-Reviews-Aquarius_Inn-Nyaungshwe_Shan_State.html