Our time in Hsi-Paw (pronounced See paw) ended up being one of the highlights of our time in Myanmar. The town itself is small and fairly laid back, with a nice mix of having tourist infrastructure but without being dominated by tourists.
Most guidebooks laud the guesthouse/hostel Mr. Charles as being the “must visit” spot to get information about the town and local trekking options. We opted instead to stay at Lily’s (confusingly named “Lily the Home”), where we received so much helpful advice that we never felt the need to step foot in Mr. Charles.
Visiting the Town of Hsi-Paw
I would say that we got up bright and early on our first full day in town, but that would be a lie. We went to see the morning market, which is only open from 2am to 6am. Meaning we were up well before the sun to see with our own eyes what kind of market is only open in the middle of the night. The answer — it was pretty much like every other produce/fish market with two notable exceptions. First, it was dark. Second, most of the shopping was being done by people who were attaching tons of little plastic bags with various bits of produce to the back of their motorcycles. They would then be driving their goods up into the surrounding mountains to sell in time for breakfast.
After eating our own breakfast (and maybe taking a nap…) we rented bicycles (because we never learn from our mistakes). We started by cycling around several villages to the south of town. The cycling was tough. We were on fixed-gear road bikes with thin tires and trying to ride on very rocky dirt roads with hills — not fun! I actually preferred getting off our bikes as we entered each village so that we wouldn’t pass through as quickly and I’d have a chance to look around. At least no bikes (or people) were broken this time around!
The countryside was beautiful — the kind of scenic farming at the bottom of green hills that is featured in advertisements. Our hand drawn map of the villages was good enough to get us out of town, but we would have missed the narrow path to return along without out GPS. Another win for maps.me!
Back in town, we enjoyed the most amazing fruit shakes at Mr. Shake. I’ve become obsessed with anything that includes passion fruit. For the afternoon, we opted to ditch our bikes and walk instead. Heading north of town we wandered through a couple small monasteries. These were clearly working monasteries and, while open to the public to wander through, catering to tourists was clearly not their primary function.
In one of them, the young monks were receiving their classroom instruction and were all gathered around an older monk and repeating the lesson (that appears to be how classroom instruction works here).
Consistent with the naming scheme of the rest of the places that we visited in Hsi-Paw, our next stop was at Mrs. Popcorn’s Garden. Apparently, Mrs. Popcorn used to make… popcorn. Now, she runs a peaceful garden oasis outside of the town — complete with excellent food and delightful drinks at virtually the same prices being charged in town. I loved the tamarind ice tea, which set me back a full 50 cents! We liked Mrs. Popcorn’s Garden so much that when we found ourselves with an extra day in Hsi-Paw after our trek (below), we spent a good chunk of our day reading, eating, and drinking here. A perfect down day.
We closed out our (action-packed for us) day with a stop at Hsi-Paw’s Shan Palace. The building itself is more a colonial-style mansion than palace, but the visit was more about learning the incredible history of the family that still lives in the house. Hsi-Paw is in the Shan State region of Myanmar. Before the military junta took over in 1962, Shan State was separated into 32 regions, with each being ruled by a sawbwa (sky prince).
The building that we visited was the palace for the local sawbwa. The last sawbwa in Hsi-Paw disappeared during the military takeover. The military denied having imprisoned the sawbwa, but the family believes that he likely died in prison. His nephew (Mr. Donald) now manages the building. Mr. Donald’s wife now invites people into the home and tells them about the family’s history and current efforts to maintain the home. It was a fascinating visit.
Trekking Around Hsi-Paw
One of the primary reasons that we visited Hsi-Paw was because we’d heard that there was great trekking opportunities in the surrounding countryside. We asked Lily about our options for trekking on a route that would avoid other tourists, and she recommended a two-day trek with guide Aike Thein. Aike Thein turned out to be a wonderful guide and has developed a route that only he and one other guide uses. The experience was just as advertised — we did not run into any other trekkers and only saw two other foreigners on our first day who were out on a motorcycle.
As we hiked up into the mountains, Aike Thein told us all about his life growing up working on a farm before leaving to work in the local jade mines. While the money was much better (about $60 per month instead of $20), he described how the rampant use of heroin by miners to help them work longer hours eventually ended up killing many of the miners, including his best friend. After a couple years in the mines, he jumped at the opportunity to work at a banana plantation before ultimately becoming a trekking guide.
The area that we trekked through is relatively close to fighting that continues between various ethnic minority groups in northern Shan State. The village that Aike Thein grew up in is about 17km from where we were trekking, but he explained that he doesn’t dare spend very long there for fear that he will be forced to fight in the local militia. While we were in Hsi-Paw, the fighting further up the road actually intensified. No need to worry about our safety though — other than disrupting bus schedules you really wouldn’t have known that anything was going on from walking around Hsi-Paw. That and the fact that we ran into several armed local militia men doing “patrols” during our trek. They weren’t very intimidating though, because they were literally armed with 19th century muskets that had to be reloaded after every shot with gunpowder, a bullet, and cotton!
After lunch at a home along the way, we were joined by a man wielding a machete and we stepped off the dirt roads and onto the tract developed by Aike Thein. We had asked for jungle trekking and we got it. Machete man (we never learned him name) led the way, chopping sticks of bamboo and overgrown bushes. At times it was difficult to see where the trail was and I frequently couldn’t see my feet as I slogged through the bushes. I swear that even machete man found certain segments hopeless and didn’t even bother using his machete because he knew it wouldn’t make a difference. Now we know why we didn’t run into a bunch of other tourists ;). All part of the adventure though!
We spent the night with a family in a small village along the mountain road. We played around with the kids (one of the guys taught them to whistle), shared a communal meal, and gazed up at the Milky Way. Eventually, we all made our way to the communal room upstairs that was lined with mattress pads and blankets for a good night’s sleep.
In the morning, I was excited to see the back end of the morning market that we witnessed in Hsi-Paw. A couple motorcycles showed up, with lots of bits and pieces still hanging off the back, and the family went out to pick up everything that they needed for the day. A full circle!
Our hike on the second day was a mix of jungle trekking (but not quite as overgrown as the day before) and small country roads. The weather was beautiful and the views were great — we couldn’t have asked for a better day!
When we arrived back in Hsi-Paw, we headed straight to Mr. Shake for a refreshing treat. I opted for the passion fruit & banana shake. So good! I developed a serious addiction to the shakes at Mr. Shake during our time in Hsi-Paw. It’s fruit though, so it’s totally healthy… right?
For anyone thinking about trekking in Hsi-Paw, our guide was excellent and I was happy that we weren’t stuck with a constant stream of other trekkers. You can reach our guide, Aike Thein Taw, either directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or through Lily. We paid about 25,000 kyat each (~$18) for the two-day trek, including accommodations and food (beer and bottled water extra).
Hsi-Paw ended up hitting a sweet spot for us at this point in our travels. The trekking was great and more “off the beaten path” then I heard trekking around Kalaw (Inle Lake) was based on comments from other travelers. There was also enough to do in town to keep us pleasantly occupied if we wanted to be, but also places to relax with a cold drink in the shade if we didn’t feel like doing much at all (a harder thing to find then you’d think).
[This blog post describes our visit to Hsi-Paw, Myanmar on November 18 through 23, 2016.]