There’s a market to explore, local villages, the usual temples and pagodas, but many travelers come here, as in Kalaw, to trek. This was my main motivation for taking the five hour minivan ride north from Mandalay (with a complete lunatic for a driver I might add). We were now in the northern Shan State region of the country, the differences in culture, language, food, overall way of life and history of conflict became more apparent the more I spent time there and learned about this unique area.
The first day, I wasn’t ready yet to head for the hills so I found two other women who were interested in chartering a boat and guide to take us on a trip down the river. It seemed just the right speed for the mood I was in at the time, mellow-activeness. It ended up being more of a trip than expected, in a good way, and we trekked to the boat launch about 45 minutes through the outskirts of Hsipaw, first visiting a traditional rice noodle making shop and a nunnery where young girls were in school.
We then took a pleasant cruise on a small longboat down the river to a remote Shan village. I was impressed by the cleanliness and charm of the village and a few times locals came out of their stilted teak houses to chat with us as we passed. The first stop was a traditional Shan home complete with its own chapel. Our guide also took us to the village monastery before heading back to the beach to get back on our boat.
The next couple of days were spent seeing some of the local sights and biking around before I got my butt in gear and signed on with three other Americans for a two day, one night trek into the surrounding hills of Hsipaw. One of the trek-ees found our guide Jimmy at his hotel and we set out at 8am the next morning. I can’t say enough, again, how blessed we were with the weather. Blue skies, green rice fields and big, yellow blooming flowers set the scene for our adventure. In comparison, the hiking was a bit more arduous than what I had experienced in Kalaw. I was with a fit bunch and I had to pace myself on the steep inclines while still stopping for snapping photos and soaking in the views.
Our first real stop was in a small village for a rest. Jimmy would brief us before entering each village to tell us which ethnic group the population belonged to and how to say “hello” and “thank you” in the local language. I really appreciated this and its funny how far learning these two words gets you. Our team separated for the hour to explore independently and I found myself at the top of a hill near the clamoring elementary school. It’s hard not to notice when you’ve come across a school in Myanmar. Picture a one story, ranch-style concrete building, with a flag out front and children in uniform of various ages yelling (or reading aloud, it’s hard to differentiate) while running around at free will. The one teacher present seems to have very little control over the situation and doesn’t seem to want it. It’s as if they are in a perpetual state of recess.
I saw a young girl on the path in front of the school with two buckets on her way to get water. She looked dirty and I wondered why she herself wasn’t at school. I took a picture of her and showed her my camera and I let her photograph me. At that moment we embarked on a twenty minute photo shoot which later included a couple of her friends. It was a magical moment and I will look back on those pictures and remember how in the end the girls sat sweetly and allowed me to take a few sincere and candid shots. What a gift.
We walked on until late afternoon until we arrived at our homestay where we dumped our bags and put in our order for cold beers. We chatted with five other hikers from another group that would also be dining and sleeping in the same house. While waiting for dinner we noticed a procession of people coming in from the fields with their baskets of pickings. They spent all day collecting tea leaves that would later that same night need to be processed on the family’s rudimentary, but cleverly designed, mill. We were fascinated by the machine and we each took a turn helping churn the mill that crushes and sheds the leaves. The ladies in charge of the operation giggled at our enthusiasm at wanting to help.
The next morning we woke up early to trek back to Kalaw. Jimmy took us on a scenic route through corn fields and bright tunnels of yellow flowers. We topped off the excursion with a stop at a waterfall where we were the only foreigners. We watched the locals playing and splashing in the pools, most of them fully dressed. Some even looked as if they wore their best sarong specifically to come to the waterfall. I spotted a few young people bathing in jeans.
It took me a few extra days to leave Hsipaw. I felt at home there. It is also didn’t help that I contracted a mild stomach flu which left me nauseous and uninspired to travel anywhere other than the toilet. I also think I was reluctant to leave Myanmar. I hadn’t felt that kind of affection for a country for in a long time. There were so many things both big and small that I had grown to love about it and I knew it would be a long time before I’d be back. I was having separation anxiety.
On November 25th, I took the train from Hsipaw to Mandalay. These trains are old and slow, but the windows roll down all the way for fresh air and you can walk wherever you want to go. It passes over the famed Goteik Viaduct before stopping in Pyin Oo Lwin where almost everybody gets off to get a bus to cab back to Mandalay, where I’d finish my trip there.
I had extended my visa three extra days to stay in Myanmar. Without initially realizing it, I had stayed from full moon to full moon. I had arrived in Yangon on a night at the Shwedegon Pagoda when families and monks flocked to the temple to light candles, bathe Buddhas and leave offerings in hopes that their prayers would be heard and answered.
Unplanned, I was also in the country during the elections when the NLD party, lead by Aung San Suu Kyi, was voted into office. The country reacted in cautious optimism, knowing that the true outcome is still yet to come. But after meeting the people of Myanmar, getting to know their gentle realness it’s hard for anyone, even a lowly backpacker, to stand by and not wish the best for this nation of people who deserve better. As the plane gained altitude I looked down on the green planes through blurry vision, hand on heart. I’ll be thinking about you Myanmar.
Accommodation: As Mr Charles gets a huge portion of the trekking and room business in this little town, I decided to spread my money around and stay at Red Dragon. Although less charming and “Burmese” than Mr Charles, it’s centrally located. Actually, it’s hard to miss as it’s the big blocky hotel that towers over downtown Hsipaw. It’s also cheaper and has a nice roof terrace for breakfast and drying clothes. Because it’s so tall the views are great. They also rent bikes.
Tours: For the boat trip I did go to Mr Charles because I was traveling solo and I wanted to go with an already existing trip. For our overnight trip, we found Jimmy through Yee Shin Guesthouse. He is one third of a trio of guides who have formed a freelance business. There are tons of options, but it is worth shopping around.
Food: I went several times to Mr. Shakes who specializes in fruit shakes. They also have great dumplings and other dishes on their short but tasty menu. The region’s signature dish are Shan Noodles which are delicious and can be found at any street vendor with a huge stack of bowls. If you are going to Little Bagan or visiting the Bamboo Buddha it’s worth stopping at Mrs. Popcorn’s. Her place is set in a beautiful garden. She does a lot of international dishes she learned from travels who stopped by. I had schnitzel and Israeli salad and a mango shake. Honestly, her shakes kick Mr Shakes shakes butt.