Hsipaw, and a journey to nowhere in particular

We arrived in Hsipaw late in the afternoon, our very bones aching from our jarring eleven hour train ride from Mandalay. Hsipaw is in the mysterious Shan state in northeast Myanmar, a home to many of Myanmar’s ethnic tribes including the Shan, Karen and Lisu people to name but a few. Hsipaw sits on the banks of a wide, meandering river, and was barren and brown when we arrived in the middle of dry season but still offered a little respite from the heat and dust we’d experienced in Mandalay and Bagan, which was very welcome.

Hsipaw itself is not a particularly large or attractive town, and isn’t (yet) on the traditional travel loop of Bagan – Mandalay – Inle Lake. This was part of its appeal to us; we wanted to go somewhere a little more off the beaten track. That isn’t to say Hsipaw doesn’t receive visitors – it is famed for excellent trekking to the villages and countryside that surround the town.

Alas, we decided to give the trekking a miss – we were only in town for a couple of nights and felt that we wouldn’t appreciate a trek fully in the dry season dust and hot temperatures (this is one of the annoying bits of travel – you can’t physically be in two places at once and therefore see everything at the “best” time of year). Craig coming down with a bad cold just sealed our decision.

We still wanted to explore the Hsipaw area, and hired a bike from the local pharmacy in town (where else?). At least we’d be in the right place to get patched up at the end of the journey if anything went wrong…

Unlike the automatic scooters we’d hired before in Lembongan and Pai, here they only had manual motorbikes. Although we both drive manual cars in the UK, this was a first for us and thankfully, Craig took the handlebars. A splendid job he did too. I was put on encouragement and waving to passers by duties.

Hsipaw motorbike rental
Trying out a Grown Up set of wheels…
We headed south out of the town to the surrounding Shan villages, marvelling at the cabbages and watermelons growing in the fields. It’s hard to describe the hard, relentless dryness of a place that hasn’t seen rain for months reaches, but seeing actual greenery in the fields felt very fresh and exciting to us. Simple things.

After fifteen minutes or so we came to a roadside shack, where an old man sat slurping at a bowl of noodles. Shyly, we took a seat and pointed extravagantly to his dish, not sure how big the language barrier would be. “Aaah, noodles?!” exclaimed the owner. “YES” we nodded firmly “noodles”. We were presented with a simple dish each of delicious, tomatoey noodles and fresh herbs. Despite only having breakfast a couple of hours earlier, we wolfed it down. The price? Three hundred kyat – approximately 20p. We sat contentedly slurping our bargain noodles, watching as motorbikes came and went – delivering fresh fruit and veg – and locals sat reading the paper. This is one of the many joys of a bike – you find yourself getting lost in the most wonderful ways.

Noodles Hsipaw
Cheapest noodles EVER
Next, on something of a whim, we decided to head to Nawng Kaw Gyi Lake – some 40km out of town. We drove along the main road, wobbling slightly as we were passed by thundering trucks bound for the Chinese border. After a short while, we turned right onto a quieter road – no scary trucks this time. The barren roadside was replaced by squat little houses and roadside shops. We pulled up at a couple, and asked for some drinks from the giggling girls managing the stand. Thankfully “Sprite” and a big smile mean the same thing in any language. We sat, supping our cool drinks and people watching as the girls looked up English phrases in their exercise books. As we turned back to head to the side of the lake, we passed a lady giving her ox a mud bath.

Hsipaw
Local life in the Shan state
Before heading back, we pulled up at the side of the lake to see a serene little temple set on a wooden walkway. Although the gates were locked we stood for a moment, savouring the serenity and flavours of the Shan state that our little adventure had given us.

Nawng Kaw Gyi Lake Hsipaw
A serene moment at the Nawng Kaw Gyi Lake
Once we had whizzed back along the busy roads – more confident this time – we were in desperate need of some refreshment. Our final port of call for the day was Mrs Popcorn’s Garden – which is just around the corner from the very aptly-named Little Bagan.

Hsipaw Little Bagan
A collection of little stupors make up Hsipaw’s Little Bagan
One of the quirks I very much liked about Hsipaw was the rather matter-of-fact way it named people. Mrs Popcorn did indeed, produce popcorn and did indeed have a lovely cool garden where we sat and enjoyed a much needed picnic. We were showered with shakes and salads and tasty snacks – the finest hospitality from a country with the kindest of people. Along with Mrs Popcorn there is Mr Shake and the rather more vague Mr Food.

Mrs Popcorn Hsipaw
The view from Mrs Popcorn’s garden
Although Hsipaw was only a brief visit on a busy tour of the country, I’m so glad we stopped here. There is nothing like a mini adventure out into the countryside to give you a taste of that elusive “local life” that people crave on their travels; here it was going on all around us. If we’d come in the cooler months we would definitely have hung around to sample the trekking available, but I’d highly recommend an independent jaunt out to see things for yourself. You don’t need to have a particular destination in mind; as we found – the journey can be just as rewarding in itself.

If you want to head to Hsipaw
  • We stayed at the Evergreen guest house which was about five minutes walk from the main road. We got a rather stark, but nonetheless clean, ensuite room for $15 which included a perfectly nice breakfast. There was decent wifi but the signal was poor.
  • We loved the wonderful Mrs Popcorn – she’s set slightly out of town but well worth the journey. We also liked the shakes from Mr, um, Shake and Pontoon Coffee sells delicious (if pricy) toasted sandwiches for a taste of home. We were less impressed with Mr Food – the meat in our soup was grey. Actually grey.
  • Our bike hire cost us K9500 (about £6) for the day and some fuel. Helmets were provided, although I strongly suspect mine belonged to either a child or a jockey.

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