15th-18th September, 2014
We visited Hsipaw with the intension of venturing out on a trek from there but upon our arrival we found out that all excursions which ventured too far from the town had been strictly forbidden, due to current conflicts between the Myanmar army and Shan rebels. I happened to notice that the guesthouse we were staying in had recently gone to the trouble of having a brand new sign professionally made, politely apologising for the fact that they were no longer allowed to rent out motorcycles to foreigners – which said to me that they weren’t expecting any kind of resolution to the situation soon.
Fortunately, there were more than enough attractions close to the town itself to keep us occupied for a few days. Well – we probably could have seen them in two, in truth, but we liked Hsipaw so much that we lingered there for a while. Hsipaw is very much how you imagined a Burmese mountain town to be like when you were daydreaming about your trip to Burma, and in a good way. Thriving markets outnumber shops, buffalos wander the streets, and groups of young nuns walk to and fro, holding up umbrellas to shield their faces from the sun. The roadsides were dominated by massive trees – it seemed that the town had been built around them rather than over them. Some of them are dedicated to the nats and been converted into shrines.
In fact, there were many nat shrines in Hsipaw. There was even a Nat Garden.
Which was a blessing, as Roy and I were beginning to feel a bit bored of Buddhas, four weeks into our trip. If there is one thing there is plenty of in Burma, it is certainly Buddhas.
The Nat Gardens were also near “Little Bagan” which, while not anywhere near as impressive as the real Bagan, was a pleasant place to sit and eat lunch.
On our second day in Hsipaw we went on a little trek to a local waterfall. The trail began along a dirt-track road, and then we got lost for an hour or so in some very pretty rice paddies.
People had told us that Hsipaw had a cooler climate, but they were lying: it was around 35 degrees Celsius, and very humid. When we finally navigated our way through the jigsaw-like paths which criss-crossed between the rice fields we found ourselves in a small village. It was one of those typical, but nice, Asian farming villages. If you’ve travelled off the beaten track in Asia before, you’ll know the kind; the ones where everyone lives in humble homes and live fairly simplistic lives, but they all seem contented and friendly. A mother was on the riverbank, in the process of trying to bathe four very fidgety children by lathering them up with soap and then dunking them into the water while they thrashed around, giggling.
Roy and I sat in a monastery for a while to shelter from the sun and hydrate ourselves, until we had cooled down enough to brave the footpath again. We then went up a hill, and then down again, eventually passing through a small hamlet which had homes built around the curves of the river.
The waterfall itself wasn’t mind-blowing, but it did have a nice pool to swim in one of the tiers halfway up.
I ended up sitting at the edge of the tier for an hour or so, enjoying the cool water and the view as I waited for the midday sun to ease.
We also went on a short cycling trip the following day, through some of the villages towards the south which were, yet again, very picturesque.
But our most interesting experience in Hsipaw had to be our visit to “The Shan Palace”.
Okay, so it is not exactly a palace. The real one was destroyed in the Second World War during air raids. I have seen a few “grand palaces” in Asia, though, and none of them were as interesting as this place.
Fern, a middle-aged woman who spoke perfectly accented English, invited us into her house to learn about the Shan Sawbwas (Princes).
She sat us down and, with the aid of family portraits behind her, told us the story of her husband’s ancestors. About Sao Kya Seng; the last Sawbwa of Hsipaw, who was educated in Oxford University, where fell in love with an Austrian woman and brought her back with him to be his wife, rejecting Shan polygamous traditions. In the past the Sawbwas of Hsipaw were a powerful hand in the administration of the Hsipaw region, even during the days of British colonisation but, shortly after the military coup in 1962, Sao Kya Seng was taken away by the junta and the family fell into decline.
Even today, Sao Kya Seng is officially classed as “missing” by the Myanmar military.
Fern’s husband, “Mr Donald”, (Sao Kya Seng’s nephew and would-be-heir) was imprisoned in 2005 for “tourism charges”, but he was released four years later on the condition that he does not communicate with foreign visitors and since then he has been living an inconspicuous life in Taunggyi. His wife has recently reopened their house in Hsipaw so she can continue telling people the tragic story of the Shan princes. She speaks very optimistically about the changes which have happened in Burma since the freeing of Aung San Suu Kyi, and I hope very much that her families’ situation continues to improve.
More pictures can be found on my Flickr account.