If you have made it to Myanmar, take the time to go to Hsipaw. This lovely little village is starting to receive more and more visitors, but only a minority of travellers in Myanmar seem to make the journey. And the journey from Mandalay to Hsipaw, is all part of the fun. Well, getting up at 3am to take the twelve hour (minimum) train at 4am doesn’t sound like fun, but it is. It was the slowest, wobbliest (is that a word) and bumpiest train we have been on, but you can’t help but giggle with everyone else as all our heads and upper bodies swayed in unison.
After many hours, we slowly wobbled towards the main highlight of the train journey, and the reason why some people only catch the train to return the same day – the Gokteik Viaduct. It was built in 1901 and had the highest span of any bridge in the British Empire. We read, we may not be able to take pictures, but as the entire carriage shifted to the left and side and hung out the window to take photos, we realised this rule was not really enforced.
When we finally reached Hsipaw, a little late, we were picked up at the station and dropped off at our accommodation at Hotel Lily. The owner and namesake, Lily, has to be the smiliest lady in Myanmar and her hotel is top notch. We dropped our bags, had a quick shower and headed out for dinner at the most obvious choice of restaurant, Mr Food. Actually, Hsipaw is a pretty easy town to find what you want:
For food – Go to Mr Food
For Books – Go to Mr Book
For Popcorn – Go to Mrs Popcorn
Then it gets slightly tricky:
For Beer – Go to Mr Food
For the tastiest fresh juice in the most relaxed setting – Go to Mrs Popcorn
Now thats sorted, we can move on. We stupidly only had one whole day in Hsipaw – in hindsight we heard a 3 day 2 night trek from the village is amazing, and wished we had more time – so we grabbed some ultra-cool bikes from Lily and headed out of town. Within ten minutes, we were on the edge of town, passing some treacherous looking bamboo scaffolding, with some very brave workers before hitting the dirt road amongst the lush green rice fields.
We passed tiny villages on the edge of the river, more rice fields and a bunch of Buffalo wallowing in the mud. We stopped to take some photos of our cool bikes, when a group of mopeds road past. Wanting to give them enough room, I stepped back a tiny bit too far, landing in a the muddy rice field, losing my thong (flip flop) to the suction-like mud. We can still hear the laughter or the farmers and lads who saws this stupid faring fall over. We decided to keep going.
We road along the railway line until we reached the Standing Buddha Monastery before heading to the north of town to see “Little Bagan”. We had yet to make it “Big Bagan” but the little one is definitely riding on the glory of its big brother. Half-a-dozen stupas compared to a few thousand is slightly different. It was still worth visiting, as just a few metres before is the delightful garden of Mrs. Popcorn. With a fresh plate of juicy pineapple, we waited in the shade while the tastiest juice we have ever had, was blended up and served.
We had to fill in time, as we wanted to visit Hsipaw Palace, but it was only opened between in the morning, then 3pm-6pm in the afternoon. We had spotted a small restaurant on the Northern side of the town, on the main road, who earlier had a mass of giant bamboo steamers steaming away, what seemed an excessive amount, of steamed buns. When we stopped by an hour later, he had one basket left. We quickly ordered a steamed bun as well as a Shan Noodle Soup. The steamed bun was so good, we ordered another and the Shan Noodle Soup was absolutely incredible, with the addition of the table condiments. We still do not know the name of the restaurant, but it has banners all across the from with the word LOVE all over it. We just call it Mr Steamed Bun.
With still more time to kill, we road out on the dirt tracks to another village along the river. Other than one luck farmer who had a machine powered plough, the rest of the village looked like it would have for hundreds of years. Villager tended to their small patch of land, cultivating their food for the season while kids played in the dirt. We passed a very unstable looking bar, hung out over the river, and decided to stop for a drink. There were 4 other guys there, well on their way, and although there was quite the language barrier, they in sited I have a shot of what they were drinking. It was a whiskey I am sure, but could also be used as fuel for a moped.
The gates of the Palace were opened a little after 3pm by Fern, a lovely lady, and now the sole occupier of the palace, and the wife of the direct descendant of the last Shan Prince. We were left alone to wander the now, overgrown garden, before sitting down in the drawing room, where Fern told us the story of the house, the family, and what happened to them, when everything went pear-shaped. The palace is actually more of a English Country Residence, as the Prince studied in England and wanted to live separately with his wife, rather than with his father in the former palace (since torn down by the Military Regime) The story was truly sad, and sadder still that Fern has to try and take care of the property by herself, as her husband is having to maintain another property in the Shan capital. You can read the story of the last Shan Prince, written by his wife, an Austrian Native who was forced to flee Burma, when her husband was arrested and never seen again. The book is called Twilight over Burma and worth the read. However, if you are able to visit Hsipaw, go to the Palace and talk to Fern first. She will then suggest buying the book from Mr Book, who has to be the smiliest man in Myanmar. He was gifted the book to sell, and all proceeds go to purchasing stationery for the local primary school, of which his daughter is a teacher.
We sat with Fern for a while discussing books that she has read. Myanmar was closed off to print so she has only been able to read what travellers have given her. We were disappointed, as we had just sent some books home, as we were unaware, so if you get to go, please take a book. She has a very well-worn Atlas where she said she has managed to travel the world while being forced to stay in Burma, by having everyone who visits show her on the map where they are from. It made us remember how lucky we are to be travelling the world for a year.
We woke the following morning at 3:30am to visit the local market. Only 3 minutes away from the quiet streets of our hotel, was a bustling scene of motorbikes, fish, meat, vegetable, charcoal grills cooking a local dish that translates to Cow-Patty. It was a great market, but very early, so we lasted only 45 minutes, before we raced back for a few more hour sleep before catching, what we would soon find out, to be the scariest van ride so far…