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 .
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.