Hsipaw, Myanmar Review-Trek Launch Point

Hsipaw Myanmar
The wide main road in Hsipaw is lined with shops, restaurants and trees

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Not aware that so many Westerners were onboard the famed train from Mandalay to Lashio over the Gokteik Viaduct, it was doubly surprising to see that our hotel, Mr. Charles Guesthouse, had to send three vans to scoop up the new arrivals from the train station who were heading to their hotel.

Quite the machine! Clipboard wielding hotel staff shepherd dozens of new arrivals quickly to their rooms, process their passports for check in and returned, and deliver the drill of how you can meet the hotel tour guides in morning or evening hours to discuss trek options .

Hsipaw Myanmar
Three young monks walk along an aloe farm

Even if you didn’t stay at Mr. Charles Guesthouse, as we learned in conversations with tourists we met throughout town, you’re likely to be referred to their trek operation and its menu of half-day, full-day, overnights, and sightseeing tours by car or bike to Shan and other ethnic group villages, waterfalls, tea plantations, with or without boat, and/or tours to nearby cities and towns.  

We opted for a 10-hour trek labeled as “hard” to a Palaung hill tribe village, and with 20-20 hindsight wished that we had instead done an overnight trip to this same village.  

Hsipaw Myanmar
A short trip from the center of town, you reach a small hamlet on the north side of Hsipaw

But before our trek day, we did spend some time exploring Hsipaw on bicycle.     If you stay at Mr Charles Guesthouse your day can begin before dawn when you awaken to the sound of the very young Buddhist nun girls next door, most quasi-orphans we learned, beginning their group recitations, an exercise that they do again for hours in the evening.

Hsipaw Myanmar
A (not-so) lazy Sunday, we saw many women doing the wash in the river. Here, an aqueduct in the same style the Romans built to move water frames the distant washer
Hsipaw Myanmar
Young nuns on their morning walk collecting alms

Bicycles are easy to come by in Hsipaw, or motorbikes, if you had the forethought to get an international drivers license before leaving home.   

Not a large city/town, you only go a short distance on bicycle before you come to a small ethnic village enclave and dirt roads small enough so that the hassle of motorbikes and cars road hogging is gone.  

Hsipaw Myanmar
While cycling, we had come upon the Hsipaw cemetary. Later on our trek, we learned that it was segregated into different sections. Here the Hindu section.
Hsipaw Myanmar
The cemetary's Christian section
Hsipaw Myanmar
Hsipaw Myanmar
People use the cemetary as a short cut to various locations
Hsipaw Myanmar
The hamlet bleeds seamlessly into rice paddies and other farmland

Like elsewhere in Myanmar, Hsipaw is a place where a Westerner can find so much to marvel at in almost every block.  Your eyes are looking at a very ramshackle thatch shack, and your ears are hearing the sounds of Korean singer Psy’s Gangnam Style.  You see the noodle factory’s clotheslines of noodles hanging out to dry, and you overhear a tour guide telling tourists on a walking tour that the factory is closed in honor of Valentines Day.  The dust and dirt reminds of Cambodia, and then the local gilded and beauteous temple emerges when you turn the paths corner.  

Hsipaw Myanmar
So rapidly changing, Myanmar seems to ever challenge the myth that it is a remote untouched outpost. When you look at this thatch hut, imagine you too are hearing the strains of "Gangnam Style", performed by South Korean superstar Psy
Hsipaw Myanmar
At first glance you might think this is clean linen hanging to dry. Look closer and you see that the noodle factory is hanging their famed Shan noodles out to dry
Hsipaw Myanmar
The dusty dirt road surrounds help to make this Buddhist temple stand out as a soothing sanctuary
Hsipaw Myanmar
Almost carousel-like, the figures in the hamlet's Buddhist temple give it a festive feel

Taking guidebook tips ,we made sure to stop for a Burmese curry lunch as opposed to dinner—because the same food is prepared in the late morning and you get a much better meal earlier in the day.   How surprising to find that you get so many side dishes with your curry, somewhat akin to the banquet that even the simplest Korean meal turns out to be.  More astonishing still, was that many of these side dishes are grasses, roots or full of sticks and stems that we wouldn’t ordinarily think of as food.  While not the exotica of eating insects in Issan Thailand, it did serve to expand our notion of a good chew, and quite literally, with a stem that tasted like chowing down on pine twigs.

Hsipaw Myanmar
A curry restaurant does mass assembly of meals in the morning, to ready for customers all day
Hsipaw Myanmar
This is ONE order of fish curry--and everything else you see here are the included free sides in the meal

It’s unlikely any Hsipaw tourists are there to see the town.  Rather, it’s the destination for trek launches, and especially if you are seeking something a notch less touristy than the overnight treks in Inle Lake.

How you feel about your trek will no doubt be largely colored by the luck of the draw of whom your guide is.  With “June”, as he is called by Westerners, we lucked out.  Though his English comprehension was 20% or so by our estimate, his sweet manner and enthusiasm more than made up for the communication gaps. 

Hsipaw Myanmar
Our trek cut through the cemetary also
Hsipaw Myanmar
Language gap aside, it was our guide's gentle attitude towards animals and admiration of nature, his Buddhist and village traditions, and eagerness to please, that counted most
Hsipaw Myanmar
Our trek group included a very high-EQ 30 year old Brit on holiday, Joe, who was able to draw out details of June's romantic life and share their similar feelings about the world

Now 18, he had been a Buddhist Monk until little more than a year before, when he explained he left the order to both get a girlfriend and to help his mother with farming the land.    Better yet, he knows all the back roads, or more precisely, the  barely traceable footpath shortcuts, that enabled us to stay an extra hour or so in his village up the mountain and still get back to a road and tuk tuk taxi by sundown.  

Hsipaw Myanmar
A part of the makeshift hydroelectric system set up by a Shan village we passed
Hsipaw Myanmar
The yellow sesame seed fields along the trek path
Hsipaw Myanmar
Tea shrubs along the path

Along this trek you go from one ethnic village to another, and with June as our guide, learned to say hello in various languages.  All was very friendly, with farmers of various clans and tribal groups setting up their homes as pit stops serving oranges, energizer tea leaf salad snacks, drinks, etc.  But through June’s explanations we became acutely aware, for the first time, of how saturated Myanmar life is with these ethnic differences, and how they are tied to the wars in so many regions of the country where the US State Department advisories warn you not to go.   You see that each ethnic hamlet has its own flag, for example.  Yet, though June is firmly Palaung in his identity, he sports a Shan flag on his travel pack, likely because that is what he could find and afford in the village markets.  Later in the day, when we stopped for a traditional meal in his village, he talked at great length about Myanmar politics, something out-of-date guidebooks had cautioned would rarely happen.  He, like everyone we spoke to in Myanmar, apparently thought the world of Aung San Suu Kyi, but at the same time—IF we understood him correctly—seemed dubious that his tribe would be treated fairly.  More puzzling still, given our inability to define “mercenary”, was June’s report that fellow Palaung had joined the Shan armies in the mountains to kill their own tribe.  One political message was clear—he believed in peace first and foremost.  

Hsipaw Myanmar
June shows us the welcome sign to his village, explaining its symbology to mean it is purely Buddhist and of the mountains
Hsipaw Myanmar
The vistas of beautiful farm land up and down hills make the journey as enjoyable as the destination
Hsipaw Myanmar
A makeshift wheel barrow in a Shan village
Hsipaw Myanmar
There aren't too many temples or stupas along the trek path, such that when you run into a typical gold color stupa in the bucolic surrounds you are truly awed
Hsipaw Myanmar
While much of the village seems to collaborate on joint efforts, the lack of attention to this elderly woman struggling to bring water home somewhat surprised us. She was clearly on her own, but language barriers made it difficult to find out why
Hsipaw Myanmar
A chronological peer examines this writer with great interest. The absence of Burmese style sun screen was perhaps a great curiosity

Staying overnight in the village, as opposed to doing the long trek and back in one day, would have been preferable not only to ease the wear and tear on muscle and bone, but more importantly to make more room for the little gestures that spoke large of what village life really is like.  When we first arrived, one villager was trying to fix one of the water well pumps,  and when June jumped in to help it spoke to the shared life in the community.  Then again, when an older woman was struggling and barely coping to carry a large jerry can of water,  June and other men in town were slow to help, which somewhat surprised us, later explaining that her children had married and gone elsewhere.  This suggested conversely how each family is at the same time a solo unit.  

Hsipaw Myanmar
Along the trek, women in sarongs who were washing themselves and their clothing, seemed to put up an invisible wall for sense of privacy
Hsipaw Myanmar
Our guide June reffered to this as a "Buddha Tree", one of many sacred trees in the Village that are sacrilegious to cut down
Hsipaw Myanmar
Having just walked several hours on dirt paths that motorbikes could barely squeak by on, it was somewhat surprising to see a truck in the Palaung hill tribe village
Hsipaw Myanmar
A Palaung family wears traditional dress and welcomes us into their home for tea and lunch
Hsipaw Myanmar
The traditional Palaung meal that we were treated to--all vegeterian-was one of the best meals we enjoyed during our month long stay in Myanmar
Hsipaw Myanmar
Many of the houses in this Palaung hill tribe village had distinct touches of decoration and personality
Hsipaw Myanmar
The weathered but inviting artistry of shutters and the like on many villagers' homes made one especially regret not planning to stay longer
Hsipaw Myanmar
A young Palaung mother is very happy to have her children photographed
Hsipaw Myanmar
After lunch, we joined our guide June to visit his parent's home in the village. June's mother seized the opportunity to borrow her son's cell phone to call one of her daughters now working in a distant city
Hsipaw Myanmar
Although June mainly grew up in a Buddhist monastery— seeing his family only once a year for a month— his deep family ties were quite evident as he showed us his family photo gallery
Hsipaw Myanmar
The village has its own monastery. Along the way, June pointed out two shan villages that had grown closer to help fight off attackers and also because one had a school and the other a temple--shared resourcesl
Hsipaw Myanmar
While trekkers are regulars in this Palaung village, you will be a point of interest and feel it especially in the stares of children
Hsipaw Myanmar
Two young women from the Palaung hill tribe village had traveled to high ground to get a Facebook connection. They were so enraptured by Facebook that they didn't hear our guide's hellos

Stopping at the village’s monastery, we saw a map of the world, or rather Asia and the Middle East, which was labeled with religious symbols.  This seemed to be the way and perhaps extent of geography education that monastery-educated June had been exposed to.  

If one reason you like to travel is to feed your appreciation and ponder just how varied our human experiences are, a trek launched in Hsipaw won’t disappoint.

Hsipaw Myanmar
When you return to Hsipaw from a trek, the rustic town tends to feel relatively cosmopolitan and urban

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