“I’ve called the village elder and there’s no fighting today, so it’s safe to visit”…335 days in.
Hsipaw (drop the h and rhyme it with a playground ride) is well and truly in Shan state, bordering China and Thailand and home to many ethnic groups and a whole lot of tension. It’s mountainous terrain, scorched more by slash and burn farming than searing heat grants the land a rusty complexion that falls down into brown earth covered by patches of green crops irrigated by streams strewn with litter. The main road through Hsipaw leads to China and is inundated by trucks rolling through, bringing in cheap motorbikes, taking out all the best fruit and all the while throwing up a whole lot of dust. But somehow, it has a charm, though I can’t quite explain why?
Within moments of leaving our hotel we bumped into our old friends Teri and Nate who we first met just before leaving Laos and whose scrapes and adventures kept us entertained for hours over dinner. In fact, food here is a big part of why our stay has been enjoyable, the Shan cuisine was a gorgeous mix of Chinese style dishes but without so much emphasis on sauces and a keen turn on the bbq, scrummy!
Mrs Fern had been a big hit for Teri and Nate, so we popped into the palace for a look around and settled down to a few stories of how she came to be the current occupant. An ardent socialist, advocate of Burma and the British, she has lived her life with a watchful eye on the military government that arrested her husband’s uncle, the last prince of Shan, over forty years ago. He has never been seen since. Our eyes were opened to the demise of the country under the rule of General Ne Win, nationalising everything in sight, uprooting ethnic populations and arming a generation of child soldiers.
Our next day was the real reason for our eight hour bus ride here, to go out exploring the hilltribe areas that surround Hsipaw. With a few treks under our belts we instead opted to get on the back of two motorbikes (that’s right, one each this time!) and get taken far beyond the villages within walking distance. It turned out to be a fabulous experience! An hour’s ride away we reached a village with armed soldiers outside every other house. On the route back we passed a patrol of 30 men with grenades strapped across them Rambo style. Yet the hospitality was anything but hostile. The 80 year old elder who welcomed us into his home and gave us tea, sat smiling at us with an almost toothless grin as we questioned T (our guide who’s name I shan’t reveal) gave us a synopsis of his situation as a Muslim living in a non-Muslim community. We were welcomed in to a wedding, posed for photos with the bride and groom at their insistence and fed with as much pork belly as I could wish (which far exceeded any RDA guidelines). We stopped to sample some rice wine fresh from the distillation apparatus and were fed dumplings and smoothies. We rounded off the day with more great Shan food, though the BBQ duck was probably one indulgence too much, just as well I was fit enough to get my trainers on for an early morning run through the vegetable plots to work off all that fat! However, barking dogs giving me stress and still high levels of dust in the air alluded to a bit of my red eye problem flaring up; I’ve still got 10 weeks before my first ever marathon, plenty of time right? But the sights of the tour were brought into reality as the next day’s papers led with 20 die in village shootout.
Pyin OO Lwin (pronounced as if it’s Welsh) was a four hour bus ride away, but we spent eight hours on a train instead. Not that we’ve become masochists for long journeys now, but with first class seats at under £2 and the promise of the spectacular Goteik viaduct, who could resist? Not many is the answer, as our carriage contained just about every tourist that was travelling out of Hsipaw and yes, we were all running up and down the coach like giddy school girls as we chugged over the viaduct.
A rather affluent feel strikes you as you cycle around the town. Once a hill station to the Brits, now the summer getaway for well-off Burmese and Chinese tourists, much of the colonial architecture remains in good nic (everything being comparative in Myanmar) and we had a fun afternoon winding our way around the ring road taking in the buildings. To the south lies a botanical garden and by far the best piece of manicured land that we came across in Myanmar (and this even compares to international standards!). Rolling grassland separates pine woods from fish filled pools and is home to an avery, though it’s unlikely to have ever had a visit from the RSPB.
Rain rather scuppered our next day, though we shan’t complain too much as it was the first rain we’ve experienced since Vietnam back in January! Between showers we dashed from coffee shop to curio shop and clock towers to temples, though nothing to write a blog about. It was by now time for the beast of a bus ride, boarding at 3 pm and scheduled to arrive at 7 am. Still, our seats reclined, the air con was cooling and best of all, our favourite song was being looped every 45 minutes, everyone, “cho lai la ba…”. The hammering woke us from our daze around 4 am. We had been stationary for some time but without goods being loaded or the offer to go for breakfast. Then the driver’s fluffer walked the aisle and people began to get up, we followed suit and soon a songthaw was being piled high with luggage and boxes. From a 12 metre coach everything was now expected to fit into a three metre converted flatbed microvan. I refused, though mostly because Helen had gone in search of a toilet and had still not appeared 15 minutes later. Just as she got back, the songthaw left. But, shortly after we were on our way, bundled into an even more tightly packed songthaw on the commuter run. At two hours, I’d pay not to go to work! Slightly more flustered than expected we were deposited at our destination merely an hour later than anticipated and after a short motorbike ride had dropped off our bags and were heading out for breakfast. Welcome to Mawlamyine (pronounced like you’re going to a shopping arcade that sells amines)!
Despite being Myanmar’s third largest city, it was a far cry from the likes of Yangon or Mandalay. Traffic was sparse, eateries were thin on the ground and churches almost outnumbered payas. This was our “get out of Myanmar” town and so we had no expectations of breathtaking sights, which was fortuitous, although the ridge like walk above the upper road offered views of the city and nearby islands that led out to the Andaman coast. Our last meal that evening was taken at the night market on the banks of Thanlyin, fish and beer for £3, food has certainly been cheap, but does it rank with the delights of Indian cuisine? Myanmar certainly provided a mixture of Asia. The food on the whole was good, the accommodation was expensive and half the time pretty awful. The historical sites were decent but poorly maintained. The place is a bit over Buddha’d (make that massively) and litter is an issue in most of the country, which at this time of year is arid and dusty. But the people definitely account for a large draw to the place, without them, this would have been just another country to get through.