The Shan town Hsipaw (or Thibaw, the old name which locals prefer) is on many tourists’ Myanmar itinerary, but few linger long enough to appreciate its natural beauty and rich history – most just do an organised trek then leave. I happily stayed a full five days, soaking up its culture and sleepy riverside charm.
Words & images: James Fable
If you’ve got time to spare in Hsipaw, here are some suggestions for how to spend it – perhaps you’ll also be seduced into lingering.
Go Swimming at Nam Hu Nwe Waterfall
An attractive, cascading waterfall and favourite local hang-out. Start by picking up one of the crude maps provided by most Hsipaw guesthouses (every attraction mentioned in this article is labelled on these maps), and rent a bicycle – you can do this cheaply from Mr Charles Guesthouse and Yee Shin Guesthouse. A few kilometres down the main Mandalay road, turn right up a dirt track then take a left through the Chinese cemetery. Dismount and begin the verdant 45-minute hike to Nam Hu Nwe. You can cool off in the waterfall’s refreshing plunge pool.
Visit the Shan Palace
For centuries Shan state was divided into 32 separate kingdoms, each ruled by a sawbwa (sky prince). When the military junta seized power in 1962, they ended this tradition – and the last sawbwa disappeared ominously. His wife, Inge Sargent, relates the tragic events in her book, Twilight over Burma: My Life as a Shan Princess.
The palace itself is a British colonial-style home built in 1924. Visitors are welcomed daily between 3pm and 5pm; if the gates are shut, the family’s not playing host. When we visited, the sister-in-law of Hsipaw’s last sawbwa passionately recounted the fateful military takeover, explained what had happened to Inge Sargent and answered questions on contemporary Burmese politics. Visiting Hsipaw’s Shan palace provides a fantastic opportunity to gain an insight into recent Myanmar history and to learn about a tale of tradition, tragedy and terror; it may be the most informative and enlightening thing you do in Myanmar.
Visit Little Bagan
Located in Hsipaw’s oldest and perhaps most tranquil neighbourhood, Little Bagan is a quaint series of ancient brick stupas and two fabulous teak monasteries. It may not be on a grand Bagan scale, but the overgrown stupas – some of which have trees sprouting out of them, Angkor Wat style – are elegant and intriguing, and strolling round them is pleasing.
Maha Nanda Kantha Monastery is built entirely from teak and was done so without nails – even the 147 pillars! It houses a 150-year-old Buddha image made from lacquered bamboo strips, and its palm-shaded pond is the perfect place from which to view the attractive Madahya Monastery.
Climb Sunset Hill
The perfect spot for sweeping sunset views. It goes by a few names – also Theing Daung Paya and Nine Buddha Hill – but is best known as Sunset Hill. The forested ascent takes only 15 minutes by foot, and picturesque panoramas are a worthy reward. Bring a torch if you don’t want to get lost on the way down like we did.
Go for a Country Walk
Not all walks must be treks, and often the best walks are guideless. Hsipaw is rich in plush rice paddies and curving hills, many of which are easily accessed by following local paths. We went for wanders by the river, round hills, to nearby Shan villages and even into a factory for packing sweetcorn! On one we got a little lost and so spent a while threading our way through rice fields – but that only added to the fun.
Some tracks are marked on the maps provided by guesthouses, but for others you will have to rely on GPS; ask your guesthouse for route recommendations and advice. Beware the midday heat.
Relax by the River
Hsipaw enjoys a delightful setting on the Duthawadi River, and the riverside cafés make for perfect relaxation spots. The 75-year-old, teak Black House Coffee Shop was my personal favourite – their cheap cakes, chilled juices, and a good novel kept me hooked for hours – but its neighbour, Club Terrace, boasts equally pleasant views and a range of delicious dishes.
The above attractions are all located in and around central Hsipaw, but further afield lie hot springs, tribal villages, the Gokteik Viaduct, the stunning Nawng Kaw Gyi Lake and other places of intrigue and beauty. No guide can be fully comprehensive, so get out there and explore for yourself – maybe you’ll find your own slice of paradise.
GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to Mandalay from Bangkok. From Mandalay, Hsipaw can be reached by bus (5-6 hrs) or by train (13 hrs). Book your seats now at airasia.com
About James Fable
I am a freelance travel journalist based in Myanmar. Outside of work, I enjoy reading, writing, learning languages, playing badminton, and travelling. My ambition is to become a successful travel writer and children’s author.