The success of Hsipaw as a back-packer tourist destination has been surprisingly rapid, especially as it has always been talked of as a well-kept secret. Vang Veing it is not however, and is still managing to retain it’s charm as a riverside market town despite the throngs of independent travellers. There was a period of time where the town was in danger of becoming the setting of a children’s book with invented antonyms such as Ma BoatBoat, Mr Book, Mrs Popcorn, Mr Shake and Mr Bike. Thankfully recently opened establishments have steered clear of this naming trend, and we can only hope that a Mrs Twentyfourhourdisco isn’t currently putting together her business plan.
Hsipaw is a small town on the road to Lashio, 200km north of Mandalay. Once a quiet dreamy place in the foothills of tea plantations it has reinvented itself somewhat as a trekking destination and fast became a mecca for independent travellers looking to get off the normal tourist trail and escape the bus loads of day trekkers hitting the Kalaw trails. Though not a regular stopping off point on the more traditional tourist routes, some travel companies are now including it in their itinerary, and in high season your accommodation options may be limited. That said if you plan ahead you could still pick up a bedroom with shared toilet for as little as $7 – a rarity in Myanmar.
If you want the best fruit-shake in the country then you’d be hard pressed to find a better one than produced the fabulous Mr Shake. He started his operation in a humble shop with just a basket of fruit and a blender and has now expanded his offering into a decent sized restaurant, which is currently ranked on Tripadvisor as the number one place in the town to eat. No trip to Hsipaw is complete with stopping by for a chat with Mr Shake and his wife (Mrs Shake I assume) and a taste of their potent and pleasurably cheap mojito’s.
Mr Charles has always been the man to see about anything tourist related, and his ever-expanding backpacker orientated empire provides a level of accommodation to suit all sizes of purse. Even if you are not staying there it is a useful focal point to get information or meet people. He has recently opened a more upmarket river lodge just outside of town.
Local buses head from Mandalay to Hsipaw twice a day (6am and 2.30pm) expect to pay about 6,000Kyat for the six hours journey. Shared minibuses cost more than double that, and take about an hour less.
The best way to travel to Hsipaw, if you have the time, is by train. The Lashio train leaves Mandalay at 4am and takes a steady 11 hours to get to Hsipaw at a cost of 4,000Kyat. It’s all uphill, so it’s not a particularly fast journey, but this gives you plenty time to relax and watch the stunning scenery of the Shan hills pass by. The train crosses the incredible viaduct over Gokteik Gorge at walking pace, and is worth the long journey, it really something special.
Things to do
Trekking is the thing to do in Hsipaw, and the reason most people head this way; some of the trails are more challenging and perhaps less populated than ones from Kalaw. It is possible to do some simple trails around Hsipaw without a guide, but it is a lot more pleasurable to take someone along who can translate and introduce you to villagers and arrange food. There are areas around Hsipaw that are out of bounds for tourists, so ask about them before heading off. Longer overnight treks of two or three nights can be arranged but a guide is required for these.
You can’t walk down the road without bumping into someone who’ll be able to arrange a day or overnight trek at a moments notice. Be aware that not all ‘guides’ are as experienced as others, and few are officially registered with the local Ministry of Hotels and Tourism. If you take the time to look around and speak to people you’ll be able to find an excellent guide who is knowledgeable about the area and speaks good English. Try to get to know your guide before committing yourself to spending the next 24-48 hours together, and discuss your expectations and the difficulty of walk you’d like to take.
Expect to pay about $20 per person per day for overnight trekking, if you have a large party you may be able to negotiate down a little, but be mindful that this price not only includes the guide, but also the food and accommodation you will receive when staying in the local villages. An extra dollar or two goes go a long way there. If you book through a guesthouse or hotel expect to pay a small commission on the price.
Hsipaw is the location of the palace of the last Shan Prince Sao Kya Hseng, it’s not really an official place to visit, nor an actual palace, more of a fancy run down house. But if the gates are unlocked you’ll be welcomed in by relatives of the former Prince and allowed to look around and listen to stories about his life. You can pick up a copy of ‘Twilight over Burma’ (which is soon to be released as a film) written by Inge Sargent the Austrian wife of the former Prince at Mr Books in town.
Nam Hu Nwe Waterfall is a few hours walk away with a small deep clean refreshing pool at the bottom for cooling off in. The Hot Springs are closer to town but they are used locally as a bathing and washing place so not always the cleanest.
There’s a rough and ready 9-hole golf course, a few kilometres out of town on the Namtu road to whack a few balls about, or if you prefer something more relaxing, then a boat trip up the Dokhtawaddy river makes for a restful couple of hours (See Ma BoatBoat!).
The early morning market is a nice place to wander around, but you have to be up early, it’s all over and done with by 9am. At the other end of the day you can hire a bike and cycle a couple of kilometres out of town to either Five Buddha Hill or Nine Buddha Hill to watch the sunset.
Where to stay
Options from Budget to Luxury are available and range in price from less than $10 to over $60.
Mr. Kid Guest House is on the noisy Bogyoke Road and has budget accommodation for less than $10.
Nam Khae Mao Guest House is near the clock tower also overlooking Bogyoke Road and has rooms starting at less than $10.
Yee Shin Guest House, (My personal favourite) on Namtu road has a good central location and a variety of rooms available from less than $10 for a single with shared bathroom, up to over $30 for an air-conditioned room with a proper bath!
Mr Charles Guest House is on Auba Street near the football field, and expect to pay from $20 up to $60, though some cheaper rooms are sometimes available.
Lily Guest House (now known as Lily the Home) is on Hin street towards the river to rooms are available from $10 to $40
Hsipaw Resort is a little out of town overlooking the river, and they provide a free boat service to bring to the town. Expect to pay over $60 per night.
Where to eat
Mr Food on Namtu Road serves draft beer and has a fairly cheap menu filled with the usual selection of Chinese and Shan meals
The Pontoon on Pontoon road serves great bacon and egg sandwiches and delightful freshly brewed Shan coffee in a nice garden setting
Black House Coffee shop, overlooking the Dokhtawaddy River is a relaxing place to drink Shan coffee or take a beer or two.
Club Terrace (next door to Black House Coffee shop) serves a mixture of European, Chinese, Thai and Shan traditional meals.
Mrs Popcorn has a pleasant and peaceful garden restaurant towards the northern end of Namtu road near to the place they call ‘Little Bagan’ she prepares meals from fruits and vegetables grown from her own garden, and is a very interesting person to spend a few hours chatting to.
Ah Kong Kaik is a great local restaurant serving up traditional curries on the corner of Bogyoke and Namtu roads. It’s a great place to watch the goings on and spot new arrivals in town.
And of course the world-renowned Mr Shake (Yuan Yuan Shakes) near the football field, serving up fresh juices, cocktails and tasty simple local food. He takes a photograph of every customer who visits and proudly displays them in the restaurant and on his Facebook page.
A version of this article was published in MY Yangon Magazine – July 2015