There 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.
The 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.
We 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.
The 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!
After 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.
Dinner was a smorgasbord of Lahpet pickled tea salad, Shan chickpea tofu, stir-fried vegetables, and copious amounts of rice. Delish!
We 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.
The 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.
We 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.
Half 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.
The 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.
Our 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)