In a nation that has only recently relaxed laws on international tourism every destination is ‘off the beaten track’. While visitor numbers are steadily increasing, travelling in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) still allows you to feel as though you are the first person discovering this captivating, predominantly Buddhist nation still in the grasp of harsh military control.
Unlike other parts of South East Asia, Myanmar is relatively untouched from the double-edged sword of tourism. Venturing too far away from major cities and towns still requires difficult-to-acquire military permits and clearances. However, northeast of the famous city of Mandalay lies a readily accessible jewel in the remote region close to the border of China.
Hsipaw (pronounced ‘See-Po’) is a small town in the Shan state of Eastern Myanmar that has been gaining recognition as a must-see destination for intrepid travellers.
Surrounded by mountainous landscapes and farmland Hsipaw has become the gateway for those wishing to explore the hills to visit ethnic minority groups and see how life outside of the cities still operates.
Active backpackers will find themselves on single- or multi-day treks through imposing scenery to stay with the hill tribes or cycling through the agricultural fields just outside of town.
Hsipaw boasts one of the most unique markets in the country where tribal minorities from the region congregate to sell produce and other various products – This is definitely a local affair.
While the rest of the country, particularly in minority states, still remains off-limits to tourists, Hsipaw has developed enough basic traveller infrastructure to attract those seeking to venture even further off the beaten track and learn more about the fascinating way of life of the robust Shan people.
Where to Stay in Hsipaw
Hsipaw has some of the cheapest accommodation options of any of the major tourist destinations in Myanmar. When you disembark from the train or bus you will be approached by friendly staff members from the various guesthouses.
Rooms can be found for as little as $5 a person and they can all organise guided treks to visit local hill tribes and transport to your next destination.
Yee Shin Guest House: Located on the main street close to good eateries and transport, Yee Shin Guest House offers basic, budget lodgings in a comfortable setting.
Small rooms with clean Western-style bathrooms are the cheapest option although ensuite rooms are available. The friendly English-speaking staff go out of their way to ensure your stay is an enjoyable one.
Every day in high season they have guides come to the guesthouse to meet with those interested in trekking. Breakfast is included with your stay.
Nam Khae Mao Guest House: Positioned near the clock tower Nam Khae Mao Guest House provides simple accommodation at affordable prices.
Rooms are basic yet clean and you have the choice of shared or private bathrooms. Affable staff members will happily organise all trekking and transportation requests.
Mr Charles Guest House: Once the most popular place in town, Mr Charles Guest House is the closest you’ll find to a typical backpacker’s hostel in Hsipaw.
They have two sections to the hotel, one newly renovated but more expensive. A large breakfast is included in the price.
Mr Charles was one of the first to offer organised trekking in the area, although current reports are that his groups being sent into the villages are growing too large to be accommodated in genuine homestays. Everything you could want to do in town can be organised from the reception.
Lily Guest House: This new hostel has a great atmosphere with a large communal area for guests to hang out in. Lily Guest House has a dormitory as well as private rooms with shared or ensuite bathrooms.
The staff are very helpful and will organise all activities for you. Situated walking distance from town, the location is quiet and beautiful. Lily, the owner, is building a new hotel next to the guest house so expect there to be more lodging options soon.
Things To Do in Hsipaw
Hsipaw is a town that attracts visitors for usually one thing – trekking. But for those who are happy to just enjoy life in a genuine Burmese village, there are plenty of other options to fill your days. The vibe here is relaxed and friendly and many find themselves staying longer than they anticipated.
The major drawcard for Hsipaw is the treks to visit and stay with hill tribes in the surrounding mountains. While some of the ethnic minority treks in other neighbouring countries give the impression of being outdated and overrun with tourists, the ones from Hsipaw are still quite authentic.
Those with just one day in town will find quite a few different options to visit some of the outlying villages. If you have a few extra days up your sleeve consider a one or two-night journey that takes you to some of the more remote and isolated settlements.
The terrain is steep and dusty but you will be rewarded with spectacular views and the chance to spend a night or two with a Shan family. All trekking services can be organised from your guesthouse and prices will include a guide, accommodation and food.
An enjoyable day can be had by simply renting a bicycle and getting lost on the many dirt roads and paths that meander through the surrounding farmlands.
There is a historic Shan palace you can visit at the northern end of town. Waterfalls and a hot spring are also found within riding distance from your guesthouse and make for a pleasant morning or afternoon.
Read more about cycling in South East Asia here!
Climbing to the top of Five Buddha Hill to watch the sunset over town has become a favourite pastime of tourists to Hsipaw. There is a story saying that when foreigners first started visiting Hsipaw they all began to climb the hill for sunset.
Locals were confused as to what the attraction was and why tourists would climb this hill at dusk. Finally, the villagers started walking up Five Buddha Hill at sunset to see what the fuss was about.
Eventually, they learned that the foreigners just wanted to watch the beauty of the day’s end from a high vantage point. Now the local population makes the climb themselves to witness this daily occurrence from Five Buddha Hill.
If you are a (very) early riser, you can visit this great market set up entirely for the local tribal population. Starting at 3:30 am and usually finishing by 6 am, this market is the place for the Shan, Kachin and other ethnic tribes of the area to meet and sell produce, clothing and just about any other kind of merchandise you can expect to find in a remote town so close to China.
If you wish to check out a market that hasn’t developed a tourist twist then you have come to the right place
How To Get Here
Train: Besides the slow boat to Luang Prabang, there are not many places where the mode of transport to reach the town can actually be the highlight of your travel experiences!
Taking 12 hours from Mandalay the train is a slow, rickety affair that winds its way through mountains and valleys. The stretch from Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw, however, holds the journey’s greatest attraction: The Goteik Viaduct.
Considered an engineering marvel due to its technical and natural condition, construction of the viaduct began in 1899 and was completed two years later.
The single railway track spans 689 metres and peaks out at 102 metres above the valley floor. It is the highest bridge in Myanmar, and at the time of its construction was the highest railway trestle in the world. One of the must-do train journeys on the planet. Not for the faint-hearted!
Bus: Buses in Myanmar vary from modern, European coaches to typical dilapidated local vehicles. Air-conditioned transport is available daily from Mandalay.
Overnight buses from Inle Lake and Kalaw leave every afternoon. Consider taking motion sickness tablets on this leg of the journey as the road is very mountainous with lots of switchbacks. If you want to travel to the closest point to China before you need military permits, a bus to Lashio leaves early every morning.
Where To Next?
Mandalay: The second largest city in Myanmar and often unwisely avoided by backpackers, Mandalay has enough attractions to warrant visiting for at least a day. Checking out the Shwenandaw Monastery (the teak wood monastery) climbing Mandalay Hill, exploring the temples of Amarapura and sunset at U-Bein Bridge are all things you should not leave Burma without doing.
Kalaw: If you haven’t had enough trekking, consider heading to the town of Kalaw to take part in a gorgeous three-day hike to the picturesque Inle Lake. With a great balance of alluring scenery and friendly hill tribes, this is the most memorable way to reach Inle Lake.
Inle Lake: Alongside the temples of Bagan, Inle Lake is the country’s greatest tourist attraction. A large, shallow body of water 22km long, life doesn’t just revolve around the lake, it exists on it. Take part in day trips to explore the floating villages and see how the people of the area survive on fishing and agriculture in unique ways.
Pyin Oo Lwin: This scenic town used to be the summer capital for the Indian Army during British rule and therefore has a distinctly different feel to the rest of the towns in the Shan state. There is a great selection of activities for travellers to check out including visits to waterfalls and trekking. Is also the coffee plantation centre of Myanmar.
About the author: Written by ambassador Jarryd Salem, who also documents his own exciting travel journeys with his girlfriend, Alesha Bradford on their blog, NOMADasaurus. Alesha was the photographer for this destination guide.