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Asean Affairs   11 November  2014

Myanmar’s Hsipaw in Northern Shan State becomes backpackers’ heaven

Reinhard Hohler, Chiang Mai
Full moon days are very special days in Myanmar’s Lunar Calendar. It is in the month of Thadingyut, corresponding to October, that the Full Moon Day is celebrated for three days known as the Festival of Lights. Thadingyut is also the beginning of merit-making at the end of Buddhist Lent, when Lord Buddha returned from Tavatimsa Heaven, where he had preached his teachings to his mother for three months. It was then that he came back to earth to take care the whole of mankind learning them about the way to reach enlightenment.

This year, the annual Thadingyut Full Moon Festival fell on October 8. I was told that an eclipse of the moon will happen then, so that people will celebrate the festival more auspiciously than in other years. So I took the chance to follow an invitation to join a photographer’s crew to go to Hsipaw in Northern Shan State, a new emerging destination in Myanmar, which is more and more becoming a heaven for backpackers.

Hsipaw in Northern Shan State is one of the places in modern Myanmar, which easily can be reached by road or train from Mandalay in the central part of the country. As there is a daily flight by the low-cost airline “Air Asia” from Bangkok to Mandalay International Airport, a constant stream of backpackers from all over the world is getting there to explore Mandalay and its surroundings. As there are now more new hotels and guesthouses mushrooming in Mandalay, accommodation is no problem. I opted to stay at the centrally-located Mandalay City Hotel, which is in easy reach to the old Royal Palace or busy Zegyo Market. Rooms are clean and the hotel offers value for money.   
One of the most interesting excursions to do will be a nostalgic train ride from Mandalay to Lashio, which departs early in the morning to cross the impressive Goteik Steel Bridge and reaches Hsipaw in the late afternoon, before ending in Lashio on the Old Burma Road to China. But we decided to go by car to Hsipaw instead to save time and have a visit to the Goteik Steel Bridge by foot on the way back to Mandalay.

We departed to Hsipaw around noon on October 8. Having left the eastern outskirts of Mandalay, we soon reached the first hills of the Shan Plateau and after two hours of a steep ascend stopped in Pyin U Lwin, formerly called Maymyo, which is located over 1,000m above sea level. We had a mutton curry lunch in a restaurant near the Purcell Tower and then continued another two hours to the deep valley ground, from where to watch the Goteik Steel Bridge high above.

Via Kyaukme further on, we reached the famous Bawgyo Pagoda some 8km west of Hsipaw, just in time to see the moon rising in the dark. People had lighted their houses with candles and tried to chase away the demon, which hided the moonlight, with loud fireworks. Actually, the Bawgyo Pagoda was renovated in 1995 and houses four venerated 800 years old wooden Buddha statues.

Hsipaw, also written Thibaw in Burmese, is a former Tai Yai (Shan) principality, which is located some 200km northeast of Mandalay. It is lying around some 400m above sea level and is surrounded by green paddy fields and blue high mountains. We stayed at the newly opened “La Residence”, which is a pub, a restaurant, and a smart 4-room hotel with elegant spa facilities. Understated elegance is the philosophy here and the place is close to all the attractions within the charming little town. Other accommodation choices abound, such as the basic Yee Shin Guest House or the high-end Tai House Resort.

During the next days in Hsipaw, we tried to explore the town with a visit to the old Shan Palace, which is overlooking the Dokhtawaddi River in the east of the town, the important “nat” spirit shrine as well as the intriguing temple ruins of “Little Bagan” in the north of the town. The small railway station is located at the eastern side, while the lively Shan market is easily reached near the river. Religious monuments serve the Buddhist Tai Yai, but there are also churches, mosques, a Chinese temple and even a Hindu sanctuary for a Gurkha community from Nepal. A cosmopolitan flair seems to be everywhere. As a river town, Hsipaw also has its clock tower built by the British in colonial times.

In the south part of town is a huge monastery with a “Standing Buddha” and outside via the highway to Lashio there is “Sunset Hill”, from where to get a superb panorama view over the whole valley with hills, waterfalls and mountains in the distance. In these mountains, villages of the Mon-Khmer speaking Palaung hill tribe people can be visited, who make their living on vast tea plantations.

The most holy Buddhist place is also at the south end of town and the monastery houses a copy of the Mahamuni Buddha image from Mandalay. It was here, where the nearly six-hour long parade of young people with carriages of money trees ended, making their way with dancing to noisy disco music through the main Hsipaw-Nam Tu Road in the afternoon of October 11. A lot of alcohol consuming did the rest.

With all these astonishing attractions, it is no wonder that more and more backpackers and international tourists will make their way to Hsipaw in the future. If there will be a long lasting peace treaty between the Shan Resistance and the Burmese Army, even more visitors will come this way one day.

The last day of our excursion arrived. In the morning of October 12, we drove back from Hsipaw to Mandalay. On the way back we did not miss to visit the Goteik Steel Bridge, which was constructed more than 100 years ago by an American company from Pennsylvania and Maryland. The length of the bridge is more than 700m long and more than 100 m high above the deep ragged stony rock valley. The bridge was destroyed in World War II, but was repaired later by the Myanma Railway. Today, it is a remarkable construction still in good condition and be considered as a masterpiece of engineering. It can be reached by road from Naung Cho, where the bridge is located near a military camp about 5km further east. Arriving there, we met the passenger train passing the bridge at exactly around noon coming from Mandalay. Arriving back in Pyin U Lwin, we had a late lunch at a nice garden restaurant, enjoying our last Shan meal and fruit shake.

Arriving back in Mandalay at around 16.00 o’clock, I checked in at the Mandalay City Hotel to wait for another night passing by, before leaving with “Air Asia” on the next day back to Bangkok. Finally, at Don Muang Airport, I had a straight connecting flight with “Nok Air” back to Chiang Mai and was sure that I will revisit Hsipaw again next year.

For further information, please contact GMS Media Travel Consultant Reinhard Hohler based in Chiang Mai/Thailand by e-mail:

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