Hsipaw Trekking: In a Forbidden State

Hsipaw TrekkingThere are certain areas in Myanmar that tourists still can’t visit and Hsipaw is practically an island surrounded by the “no-go zone.” The alluring mountains and diverse hill tribes in this section of the Shan State are perfectly safe to visit–but you need a guide and some guts. We arrived from the temples of Bagan late at night to Lily’s guest house (thanks to our trusty Lonely Planet Myanmar, a must have!) with lofty hopes that we could organize a two-day trek by the following morning. Lucky enough, a few other backpackers were game to join us, and Lily knew just the guy to call.

 

Hsipaw Trekking

 

Hsipaw Trekking GuideMost trekkers go to Namshan (which ironically became restricted to tourists in spring 2014) but our guide Aike Thein grew up in the mountains near Kyauk Me so he offered to take us where he had strong connections to the people and the land – which is important in the tenuous Shan State. The area is divided into smaller zones with each protected by independent armies, resisting inclusion in the mainstream Myanmar government and protecting their rich resources of rubies, silver, gold, and coal from nationalization. Aike Thein fearlessly guided our small group of French, Spanish, and Russians into the unknown.

 

Rice Terraces of HsipawThe landscape was a mix of arid hills to lush terraced rice paddies. The air was thick with the haze of the “burning season” and the 100-degree heat.

 

Playing Frisbee in MyanmarWe stopped for lunch at the home of a Palaung family, the same ethnicity as Aike Thein. While the lady of the house was putting the finishing touches on our sweet and spicy noodle soup, we played with the village kids. We packed a frisbee just for this occasion and had the boys and girls giggling with every whirling throw.

 

Hsipaw MonksThe people we passed—from monks to farmers—seemed so peaceful that it was hard to believe the area’s military underpinnings. I started to ask Aike Thein about the dynamics here and he agreed the people are very friendly, but you never know when the armies will appear. One time he was guiding a group and armed men detained them for a four hours!

 

Hsipaw Chiefs house and tea factoryAfter trekking for a little over eight miles we arrived at our homestay, the house of a Palaung chief. As the man in power, his plot was large with tea fields and a workshop of people prepping the caffeine-rich leaves.

 

Meals on Hsipaw TrekDinner was a smorgasbord of Lahpet pickled tea salad, Shan chickpea tofu, stir-fried vegetables, and copious amounts of rice. Delish!

 

Yoga in MyanmarWe slept in the loft above the barn, slumber-party style: shoulder to shoulder on the floor with colorful blankets. When we awoke, creaky from the hike, we decided to do a makeshift yoga class and convinced the lady of the house to try a few sun salutations and triangle poses.

 

Banana Farmer HsipawThe return hike was much easier and gave us a better chance to soak up the scenery of banana, rice, and tea plantations and greet the locals we passed.

 

Bar in HsipawWe made it down the mountain and hopped in a shared pickup truck back to Lily’s guest house. A celebration with our fellow trekkers was in order so we went out for noodles and then a beer at a veeerrrryyyy local bar. The barkeeper opened up about being raised in such political instability. As a boy he would sneak out of the house to get English lessons from a British-schooled elder to help his odds of leaving the country.
Train to HsipawHalf of the adventure of Hsipaw is departing on the train. At its inception in 1905, the 117-mile train line through the Shan Hills was a feat of British engineering but it has only had minor updates since then. We boarded at 9AM for Pyin-Oo-Lwin with no idea how wild this seven-hour ride was going to be.

 

The overgrown trees and shrubs that lined the rails whipped into the windows (I think they thought the train’s velocity would suffice as the tree trimmer) and it rocked side-to-side like a roller coaster, but somehow it was one of the most vibrant social scenes. Locals turned the seats into beds with a sheet of plywood and pillows, they brought elaborate picnics, games, and their best chitchat to pass the time. While exploring the cars, I was invited over for tea by a young family. Even though we only had about five words in common, we hand-gestured and laughed the time away. Watch the train video above and transport yourself into another world.

 

Train over the Gokteik ViaductThe highlight of this $4 ride is the Gokteik Viaduct, a 2,260-foot long and 320-foot high bridge across a craggy gorge. When it was built (by the Pennsylvania Steel Company, funny enough), it was the longest viaduct in the world and a complete marvel. It’s still vertigo-inducing and marvelous at that.

 

I love MyanmarOur whole time in Hsipaw from our hike through the rugged hills, to playing with cute local kids, to talking politics with our barman, to the Coney-Island style train, was an experience to say the least. We went in the hottest and driest season, so they say the area wasn’t at its prettiest, but no matter when you go, it will be a journey you won’t forget.

 

Want to see what was in our backpack for our Hsipaw Trek, and our entire 9 months through Asia? See our full RTW Packing List (with links and descriptions of why we brought each item)

 

Hsipaw Slideshow
SEE MORE PHOTOS IN OUR
HSIPAW MYANMAR SLIDESHOW
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11 thoughts on “Hsipaw Trekking: In a Forbidden State

  1. This is incredible! How lucky that you got to do something so incredibly cultural and beautiful and fun! And something that not many folks get to do!

    1. It was incredible and we totally feel fortunate to have experienced it! Though that said…it’s all totally do-able! We organized this tour the night before the trek and did it for about $20. If you have any questions about how to get out there and affordably travel to the world’s finest far-flung places–drop us an email at TripCoach@HoneyTrek.com. We’d love chat more about it!

  2. looks like a brilliant journey. going to look into it for my trip to Burma next year! Keep posting!

  3. Just like everywhere you go “the people make the place” The Burmese have going on in a big and kind way. I have seen it first hand in my 10 visits to Myanmar. Thanx for staying at La Casa Tortuga and keep and eye out for the rugged untamed beauty, light, geography here in Mexico. PEACE Roberto

    1. We couldn’t agree more about the people if Myanmar! That is fantastic go so often and know this kindness! It was nice meeting you Roberto and great experiencing la Casa Tortuga!

    2. Mike

      ———————–
      Interested in travelling the world for less than $40/day?…Then come watch our video: http://HoneyTrek.com/TripCoach​ ​———————–

  4. Love this article and the video! My husband and I visited Myanmar in July 2014 and Hsipaw was one of my favorite places!! Burmese people are just incredible, and that train journey over the Gokteik Viaduct was definitely unforgettable. Thanks for transporting me back!

    1. We are so glad you liked the article and that it brought you back, Jen! That’s awesome you went to Hsipaw, took the train, and got to experience the incredible kindness of the Myanmar people! Do we overlap on any other destinations in Myanmar?

  5. […] of the adventure of Hsipaw, Myanmar is departing on the train. At its inception in 1905, the 117-mile train line through the Shan Hills […]

  6. Great site! Just curious because we are about to travel in Myanmar ourselfs, how did you travel from Bagan to Hsipaw.

  7. I did same thing in 2013 and also stayed at Lily’s! She is so unbelievably sweet and so is her dog Fufu! I loved Hsipaw and surroundings and my time there including the train ride via Goktheik was by far my favorite in Myanmar. Thanks for bringing back all those wonderful memories!

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