Hsipaw, one of the best Myanmar places to visit
Hsipaw is one of our favourite Myanmar places to visit for one particular reason – incredible trekking. Most tourists head to Kalaw for this activity and while Kalaw is undoubtedly stunning, there is something particularly appealing about how isolated Hsipaw in northern Shan state really is. Read on for our guide to visiting there.
Hsipaw can be reached by bus, taxi, train, or a combination of the above, but the train is definitely the most interesting experience. Built by the British as a means of exerting control over Shan state, it is considered one of the ‘must do’ railway journeys in Asia. Expect inquisitive locals, sweeping panoramas, tiny villages and the remarkable Goteik viaduct, the highest railway bridge in Myanmar. The journey takes 11 hours, however, and starts extremely early in the morning so is not for the faint of heart. Buses are quicker and leave at a more convenient time, but are a much more forgettable journey. A good compromise is to get a bus to Pyin Oo Lin, then the train to Hsipaw. This cuts the journey time down while still giving you the best scenery of the route, and is a popular choice. Almost all roads to Hsipaw lead from Mandalay, and you should first spend some days there exploring U Bein Bridge, Mahamuni Pagoda and Mandalay Hill at the very least (please get in touch if you would like us to arrange this).
Hsipaw is built around a main highway that ferries trucks and buses through town en-route to Lashio and other towns in Shan state. Small, relatively undeveloped and with only a few restaurants catering to tourists, it contrasts remarkably with the more polished Mandalay. There are an increasing number of places to stay, with most tourists opting for Mr Charles’ guest house. A recently opened and cheaper option with extremely friendly staff is the Red Dragon Hotel, which also boasts the only rooftop view of Hsipaw (the view really is very, very good).
Available food is a mix of mostly local and Chinese restaurants. Mrs Popcorn’s Garden serves an excellent variety of local and western foods in a lovely location close to the tourist attraction of Little Bagan. A good, slightly cheaper option is Mr Food, which serves up filling and delicious Chinese food. Street food is also abundant in Hsipaw – be sure to try some sticky black rice balls dipped in sugar and spices.
Trekking is what you came here to do. While not strictly necessary to have a guide while trekking around Hsipaw, as it is in Kalaw, it is definitely still advisable and there are several options worth exploring. The most obvious option, again, is Mr Charles’ guesthouse who offer a reasonable service. They do however take a significant cut of a guides profit and run something of a monopoly in the area. An independent guide we can personally recommend is Mr Sai, who led us on a wonderful 2 day hike, speaks very good English and is extremely knowledgeable about the flora, fauna and history of the area. There are several other independent guides available in the area.
The trekking itself is a very special experience. The landscapes change dramatically from hour to hour – from pine forests to bamboo groves, rolling hills to sweeping plains, steep, muddy ascents to gentle, panoramic descents. At night the skies come as alive as we have ever seen them as there is very little light pollution, and you will likely encounter a curious and exciting mix of local wildlife. Staying with a local family in an isolated village, if you take a longer trip, is a particularly fascinating experience.
Trekking in Hsipaw is a wonderful experience, without quite so many of the crowds drawn to Kalaw but with a more authentic charm. The town may be a little rough-and-ready but don’t let that fool you, there is genuinely wonderful scenery just around the corner waiting to be explored. Do get in touch if this has piqued your interest; we would be happy to arrange any type and length of trekking you would like to undertake in the area.
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