In the northeast of Myanmar is one of the country’s most popular states: Shan state. Its popularity is due to the incredible landscapes, famous sights and delicious food that it offers. An increasingly visited town is Hsipaw (pronounced ‘see-paw). Despite the increase in tourism, it remains a genuinely typical Myanmar town, while having just enough infrastructure to offer comfort and convenience to travellers.
Surrounded by rolling hills and wide open countryside, Hsipaw offers more authentic, less touristic trekking experiences than Kalaw or Northern Thailand. Due to insurgency in the area, however, destinations such as Namhsan are off limits to foreign visitors. It’s advisable to check the current situation with local authorities before you set off.
We have visited this charming town twice, most recently in October 2018, and it still had its old character, despite some new buildings and infrastructure. Here’s all you need to know before you go:
What to See and Do around Hsipaw:
The area’s oldest neighbourhood at the northern edge of town has a village-like atmosphere. There is a small cluster of ancient brick stupas, known to locals as Little Bagan.
For a different style of Buddha statue, pay a visit to Bamboo Buddha Monastery which, as the name suggests, has a seated Buddha made of lacquered bamboo. The 150-year-old image is covered in layers of gold.
Taking an unpaved track east behind the monastery is a nice alternative route back to town, passing Eissa Paya. Look out for the tree that is growing up through one of the brick stupas! Along the way there is also Sao Pu Sao Nai, a shrine dedicated to the guardian nat of Hsipaw.
Just over a mile south of Hsipaw is Sunset Hill, also known as Nine Buddha Hill. At the top lies the small but quaint Thein Daung Pagoda. The 15-minute climb rewards you with sweeping views over the river and Hsipaw itself. It is currently free to enter.
Five miles west of Hsipaw, this pagoda was built by a Shan king to mark the site where his daughter died and to demonstrate Shan-Burmese friendship. To this day it is of great significance to Shan people.
Unmissable as it is the biggest and grandest pagoda in town, the large seated Buddha here has a brass face. The image was inspired by the famous Mahamuni Buddha in Mandalay.
This particular temple is right in the middle of town and has a shimmering golden stupa that can be seen from quite a distance away!
No Myanmar town would be complete without a produce market! The one in Hsipaw is an early affair, starting at 4:30am! Most of the sellers are gone by 7am but it officially continues until 1pm. The villagers’ produce is laid out on plastic sheets on the ground.
A bit larger and more established than the produce market, the central market goes on all day and is housed in a large building close to the centre of town. It’s most active in the early morning and quieter in the afternoon. Both markets are good for photo opportunities!
Banyan Tree Nat Shrine
This is an important place of traditional nat worship, although it would seem rather insignificant to the untrained eye!
Less of a palace in the traditional sense and more of an English-style mansion, this grand building was constructed in 1924 and was home to the last ruler of Hsipaw (known as a sky prince). That was until the military junta seized power in 1962, ending the centuries-old tradition of the various regions of Shan state being ruled as separate kingdoms by 32 sky princes.
The last sky prince disappeared during the army takeover, leaving his nephew, Mr. Donald, in charge of the palace. Imprisoned for a number of years and then placed under house arrest, Mr. Donald is once again free and the family home is, for a few hours each day, open to visitors.
The palace is set in rather run-down grounds inside a walled compound. Mr. Donald and his wife, Fern, make great hosts; they enjoy relating the fascinating history of their ancestors and the sad fate of the last sky price. A donation is expected and goes towards maintaining the building. Unfortunately, the palace was closed at the time of our last visit! If you have any updates, please feel free to let us know.
Trekking around Hsipaw
The area surrounding Hsipaw is very popular for day hikes or longer treks that last between two and three days. Most of the routes are fairly easy going, traversing forest and pleasant hill country that is dotted with numerous Shan and Palaung villages. Be careful if trekking in wet season though as paths can be slippery!
The most popular village to visit is Pankam, a Palaung settlement nestled on a ridge about five hours walk from Hsipaw. It’s best done over two days with an overnight stay, but hiring a motorbike one way (around 5,000 kyats) is also possible. Because Pankam has become popular as a destination, some people are now seeking alternative villages to visit that are in more remote locations.
Most guesthouses, as well as numerous agencies around town, can arrange guides and transport to trailheads. It’s advisable to hire a guide to help you communicate with the local people in the villages and to make sure you don’t stray into insurgent territory. Prices start from 10,000 kyats/person for one day or 20,000 kyats/person per day for multi-day treks.
A nice option for a day hike, which you can do independently, is to Nam Tuk Waterfall, a very easy and pleasant 5.5km walk from town. Head along the highway towards Mandalay and before you turn the corner, there’s a three-way junction. Taking the middle path will lead you along a well-marked and easy to follow trail through villages and countryside. If you have Maps.me (which we couldn’t live without these days!) you can easily find the way but if needs be, friendly locals will assist you if you ask.
Another waterfall worth paying a visit to (near Nam Tuk but in a different direction) is Nam Hu Nwe Waterfall. A more popular spot than the former, it has lots of kitschy photo spots, including walkways and painted stationary bicycles. There are also several food shacks and restaurants that offer simple snacks and beverages.
Nam Hu Nwe usually has an influx of trekkers, stopping with their guides for a well-earned rest and lunch at the end of a multi-day trek. The waterfall isn’t as impressive as Nam Tuk but the relaxed atmosphere makes it a nice area to relax in for a while.
Where to Stay and Eat
Due to the increase in tourism, there are a number of places to stay in and around Hsipaw. It’s a good idea to stay in town as that’s where most of the action is! Depending on budget and requirements, something can be found for everyone!
Our personal favourite accommodation is Lily the Home Hotel, a brilliantly run, clean and comfortable place in a quiet location in town. Friendly staff can help you with anything you need and the included buffet breakfast is very generous!
Eating options range from standard tea houses and beer stations, offering the usual fare, to more upmarket restaurants and street vendors that sell sweet treats such as sticky rice. One particularly good place on the side of the road is Mr. Pizza, which serves everything from traditional Myanmar food to shakes, smoothies and of course, pizza! It makes for a good dinner spot.
Another recommendation is Mrs. Popcorn’s Garden. Set in the grounds of a lovely little house, the peaceful garden setting is a great place to chill out and enjoy the calm surroundings! Snacks and drinks are healthy, tasty and reasonably priced too.
There are also a few small convenience stores and one slightly bigger ‘supermarket’ where essentials, as well as drinks and snacks, can be purchased.
How to Get There and Around
Getting to and away from Hsipaw is relatively easy with buses going to some destinations multiple times a day. From Hsipaw, it’s possible to get to Bagan, Mandalay, Pyin Oo Lwin, Kyaukme, Lashio and Taunggyi by bus. Taking the train is also a popular option, offering travellers the chance to see some stunning scenery along the way. The Mandalay-Lashio line runs via Pyin Oo Lwin, Kyaukme and Hsipaw and passes over the famous Gokteik Viaduct.
Shared taxis are an option to some destinations but can be cramped and costly; they should be avoided unless you are short on time and want to get between places quickly! Any hotel, guesthouse or travel agency can assist you in making bookings and will be happy to provide up to date information for any mode of transport.
Hsipaw is pretty compact, making walking around town, as well as the immediate surrounding area, eminently possible. If you do need transport though, trishaws start from 500 kyats and drivers wait around the central market. If you want to get around a little quicker or explore further afield at your own leisure, most hotels, guesthouses and travel agencies rent bicycles (2,000 kyats/day) or motorbikes/scooters (typically 10,000 kyats/day).
It’s easy to spend a good couple of days in Hsipaw, whether you’re out exploring the surrounding area or strolling around town; it is definitely a place we would recommend when visiting Myanmar. If you’re looking to experience Myanmar culture and a preserved way of life, with just enough convenience to avoid it feeling too rustic, there are many reasons why you should visit Hsipaw. I’m sure you won’t be disappointed!
Have you been to Hsipaw? What did you think? Leave a comment and let us know!
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