Time to Visit Hsipaw

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A woman trudges up a cobbled lane in a Hsipaw village. (Boris le Montagner)

Modern Myanmar

“Lost in time” is a phrase habitually used in attempts to express the essence of Myanmar. Compared to its neighbors, Myanmar appears a purer, simpler, more rural and traditional corner of Asia; Buddhist monks continue to shuffle in slow procession down roads each morning, almost all food is bought from markets and street vendors and longyis (the Burmese sarong) are worn by most of the population most of the time.

A farmer works his buffalo in Hsipaw. (Harry Carr Ellison)

And yet, development is occurring apace, meaning that today’s Myanmar is in flux between the stagnation perpetuated by the former military junta and the stuttering teething pains of its tenuous curve towards democracy. In downtown Yangon one will pass the crumbling colonial grandeur of the British empire interspersed with a multitude of mobile phone shops and fried chicken outlets. Cheap motorbikes from China splutter past oxen and carts and Camel Cigarettes are sold next to sticky quids of betel nut.

Hsipaw in Time

Back in the junta days, tourists traveling in Myanmar were limited to a whirlwind seven day tour of the ‘Grand Four’ of Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay, and Inle Lake. In addition to the beauty and cultural interests of these sites, the Grand Four remain the dominant destinations to visit in the country because of the sites’ prevalence of hotels and transport channels in and out, and a lack of innovation in the tourism sector.

Even as recently as 2015, it was arduous or expensive (often both) to reach the most exciting parts of Myanmar. However the rapid construction of roads and tourism infrastructure has made many more areas easily accessible.

One such place is Hsipaw in northern Shan State. Once the home of Shan royalty, Hsipaw is the namesake of Burma’s last king, Thibaw. The Shan states were formerly tributary states to the Imperial Court of the Burmese Konbaung Dynasty (1752-1885). The young nobility of Shan – named the “Lords of the Sunset” – were traditionally brought up with the Burmese princes in the courts of Amarapura, Ava and Mandalay, while many of their sisters were married into Burmese royalty.

The close relationship between the Bamar and Shan rulers was torn apart in the 1880s. After the annexation of Burma by the British, the young sunset lords found themselves growing into their long trousers not as guests at the Konbaung palaces but as students at places such as Eton and Harrow. As part of the British policy of divide and rule, while the Burmese were largely stripped of all rank and authority, the Shan princes were granted much autonomy during colonial times, keeping their titles and palaces.  

In 1947, a year before the British left what was then Burma, Sao Kya Seng became the last prince of Hsipaw. In 1949 he enrolled at a college in Colorado where he was to meet his future wife, the Austrian Inge Sargent. In her memoir Twilight Over Burma, Sargent recounts her time living in the valley of Hsipaw as a Shan Princess, bearing two daughters, becoming fluent in both Shan and Burmese language, and endearing herself to the people of the region. However this paradisiacal time was short lived. Sao Kya Seng disappeared in the military coup of 1962, reportedly abducted and killed by the Burmese military, the Tatmadaw.

Hsibaw East Haw (Bertie Alexander)

The Hsipaw Palace and the region at large fell into decrepitude during the junta years. In the 1970s the travel writer Paul Theroux traveled to Burma to take the train across the Gokteik Viaduct in the hope of reaching Hsipaw. Attempting to board the train in Pyin Oo Lwin, he was regarded with suspicion by the authorities – the young sergeant doubted that Theroux could be a real tourist because he had no camera. The writer was eventually allowed to board the train, sat squarely among a troop of watchful soldiers in “dented helmets and hand-me-down uniforms” conjuring a “grizzled, courageous look you see in embattled legionnaires.”

Hsipaw Today

Almost half a century later this journey from Pyin Oo Lwin over the viaduct to Hsipaw is one of the most popular routes for intrepid travel in Myanmar. One boards the lolloping train at about 8.30am in the morning (an ‘Upper Class’ ticket costing roughly US$2), passing paddy fields and villagers washing with, as Theroux wrote, a “spirited soapy violence.” As one approaches Hsipaw the landscape turns European save for the farmers in their conical hats surrounded by playing children “purpling in the sunset.”

The town is quickly becoming a popular alternative to the much trawled Kalaw-Inle Lake trekking route. At Hsipaw, hiking up into the hills of the Paluang tea farmers does not offer the lake vistas of southern Shan State, but instead presents an altogether more jungle-esque experience. The tracks are smaller, the incline steeper, and the villagers one comes across that much less accustomed to traipsing backpackers. Whereas around Inle local children have become adept at asking for handouts in a variety of different languages, those in the Hsipaw hills expose their inexperience in such matters by waving ‘bye-bye’ when they see foreigners, mistaking the phrase for a welcoming salutation.

Additional pleasures to be found in hiking around Hsipaw are the chance to spot Myanmar’s elusive black giant squirrel, and pauses for breath on cliff-side shacks, fortifying flagging spirits with the local rice whiskey.  

The town of Hsipaw itself also has much to offer the discerning traveller, especially those with a penchant for history. The palace or ‘haw’ where Sao Kya Seng and Inge Sargent lived is now occupied by the late prince’s elderly nephew Donald and his wife Fearn. At 3 p.m. on most days an excitable crowd of people from Myanmar and a smattering of tourists clutching Sargent’s book gather outside the gates and are admitted into the grounds of the East Haw. The garden is surprisingly unkempt but this adds to the “lost in time” atmosphere, as does the empty swimming pool set forlornly among tangles of shrubbery, creeper, and clumps of red earth.

Into the front living room first Burmese and then foreigners are admitted. They sit about on poufs and small chairs listening as either Donald or Fern tell the story of the town’s last king (Inge and her two daughters fled to Austria after the disappearance of her husband, and now live in the United States.) Those who have read Inge’s book would be aware that Sao Kya Seng and his brother, Donald’s father, had a fraught relationship (his brother being the elder and therefore supposedly the rightful heir to the palace), and when the story related at the East Haw differs from that in Inge’s book, the intrigue is further ramped up.

With the sun beginning to set, after leaving the East Haw one can traipse further up Hsipaw’s main road to Little Bagan, a peppering of ancient pagodas in a similar style to their more famous mid-country brethren. Though there is nothing to rival Bagan, the sight of a flowering tree sprouting out of one of these pagodas is worth seeking out. Nearby is Mrs Popcorn’s Garden, where an elderly Shan lady cooks up local dishes and also those of Mexico and Israel, taught to her by travelers passing through Hsipaw.

Village boys in Hsipaw (Boris le Montagner)

A Time to Visit Hsipaw

And yet, as with all the best places, there are more layers to peel back; always more to discover.

An interesting time to visit Hsipaw is over the Thadingyut festival in October, for at this time one can witness a great contradiction of Myanmar: it’s ingrained, almost prudish, conservatism in contrast with its love of revelry and festivity.

Thadingyut Festival of Lights is celebrated countrywide. The Mahamuni Pagoda in Hsipaw becomes an array of candles in the evening while ladies dressed in brown robes sit on the floor of the pagoda and chant sonorously. Three days later comes the pagoda festival where the men and boys take to the streets to escort bamboo towers of “special things” to Mahamuni. All are dressed up, many having applied face paint and thick eye-liner; EDM and K-Pop boom out from ghetto-blasters as the procession writhes and twirls with abandon, novice monks weaving in and out firing toy pistols into the sky.

With the odd ladyboy sauntering down the parade, and Vengaboys and other Western hits from the ‘90s slipping into the largely Asian playlist, one may come to the conclusion, as one young buck put it when passing through in 1889, that this country is not so much stuck in time, but timeless.  

This article was written by Sampan Travel, a boutique-green tour operator based in Yangon, creating tailor-made journeys through Myanmar.

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