Trekking in Shan State, Myanmar
From Hsipaw to a Palaung Hill Tribe Village
Myanmar is a beautiful and complex country: crumbling colonial architecture, history and swathes of untouched nature make it a magical place for travellers to explore.
Not least Shan State, up in the cooler highlands of the northeast. A separate ethnicity with a language similar to Thai, Shan people have long been persecuted and are embroiled in an ongoing conflict with the ruling military government of Myanmar. Much of Shan State is under an official warning for people not to travel there.
The town of Hsipaw, however, is a safe, friendly place, more than used to the foreign visitors attracted by its trekking. This is only possible with a guide, which instead of hindering our adventures actually made the trek a lot of fun. Our guide was a university student and spoke fairly good English; he was able to explain to us about local life and the people who lived in the area.
We started early, walking out of town through fields of crops tended to by busy women whilst oxen wallowed in the mud. There was an early morning chill in the air and the sky was hazy in the morning sun. Our path wound upwards through a valley until all we could see were fields and small farms in the distance.
Our guide told us about a German couple who strayed off the track and stepped on a landmine. The underlying danger became even more real after a snack-and-drink stop in a nearby village when we passed through a makeshift checkpoint guarded by some armed men.
The landscape opened up, revealing green hills and a city far in the distance. The continual upwards gradient was enjoyably strenuous, and we made sure we had enough water to keep hydrated.
We reached our destination, a village lived in by the Palaung, another of Myanmar’s many ethnic groups. Our guide was greeted by other young guys, his friends and cousins. The village was beautifully kept: small wooden houses lined dusty lanes where children played. We were given a tour of the village and shown the local school. It was a peaceful place secluded and still and made us dream about living a simpler life there.
We were glad we made the effort to go to Hsipaw and trek with our guide. We left with a greater understanding of the people who make up Myanmar and filled our hearts with love for the beautiful country.
SEE – Photos & Videos
GO – Getting There
A train runs daily from Mandalay all the way to Hsipaw, winding its way through hills and across the Goteik viaduct – one of Myanmar’s famous sights. It takes 11 hours and costs 2000 kyat.
We travelled to Hsipaw by car from Nyaungshwe, Inle Lake. We hired a local driver to take us to Hsipaw, this route is not recommended by the government as it crosses through areas currently under the control of the Shan rebel army along the nicknamed ‘danger road’. Our journey went smoothly; we were even able to stop off for lunch at a friendly roadside restaurant where the owner showed us her hot spring baths surrounded by green mountains. We paid $30 per person for the taxi.
Do – Activities & Attractions
Hsipaw itself has some nice sights. East Haw is the palace of the last prince of Hsipaw, Sao Kya Seng; it’s lived in and maintained by Sao Oo Kya (his nephew) and his wife, Sao Sarm Hpong. She holds daily talks about the history of East Haw, the prince’s German wife, and the current troubles of the Shan people.
Take yourself on a walking tour around town and visit the crumbling millennium-old stupas of ‘Little Bagan’ and stop off for a refreshing milkshake nearby at Mrs. Popcorn’s Garden.
Stay – Accommodation
We stayed in Hispaw at The Northern Land. The staff were friendly, the rooms were big, clean, with a television and modern ensuite bathroom. Cost $25 a night with a good breakfast included.
There’s also Mr Charles’ Guesthouse, the hub for arranging treks and other local experiences. Their guesthouse comes with great reviews.
Eat – Restaurants
The trek includes meals and snacks which are needed for energy to get you up the hills. At around 10 am we stopped at a small village for a type of sweet rice cake and some coffee. We stopped for a second snack at an incredible shack that was hanging halfway over the edge of a valley. Here we ate local staple tea leaf salad and also had a cooling fizzy drink.
Lunch was served at the Palaung village in a local family’s house. We enjoyed rice, vegetables and mock meatballs whilst the baby next to us swayed in a makeshift rocker. After lunch, we sipped on a cold, well-deserved beer and sat out in the sun on the porch taking in the village and the surrounding green nature.
Time – Seasonality & Schedules
10 hours round-trip. It’s 1 hour till you’re properly in the foothills.
Safety – Possible risks
Before colonial rule ended the Shan states were guaranteed the semi-autonomous federal existence, with an option to cede after 10 years. Following the 1962 military coup, however, all hopes of federation let alone independence were quashed. The Shan people have long struggled and fought against the atrocities carried out by the ruling party, much like the Rohingya Muslims, whose ongoing persecution by the Myanmar government has been called a genocide by the UN.
It’s important to be aware of the tensions when travelling to Shan state as there are various rebel armies at large. Trekking with an approved guide is essential and take caution when discussing political subjects with locals.
Please Note: Travel inherently comes with an element of risk (just like crossing the road does). You are putting yourself in elements that are unfamiliar and foreign to your usual lifestyle and with that, become more susceptible to fall victim those who try to play off those unfamiliar with their local scams. There are also potential dangers in the environments to which you may not be accustomed to.
Please take extra care in travelling, ensure that you have adequate medical insurance (accidents seem to happen when you least expect them), and have let a trusted colleague, family member or friend know your whereabouts and activities.
Where Sidewalks End travel advises you to travel at your own risk, and to be extra aware of your surroundings (without letting it spoiling your time).
Pay – How much does it cost?
Myanmar is a reasonably cheap country to travel in, hotels are a little more expensive than in neighbouring countries due to government tax. Expect to pay around $30 a night for a basic hotel room. But food in local restaurants is delicious and very reasonable. Consider the effect that your money has in the local communities and the benefit of spending it locally run establishments. Treks cost upwards of 20,000 kyats.
Responsible Travel – Best Practices
It goes without saying that you should be polite and follow what your guide says and does. Even saying hello in the wrong language (Burmese) can be seen as disrespectful.
Also, remember the usual practices to show respect: try to dress respectfully (avoid hot pants and singlets); ask before you take pictures; don’t touch people – even if you think you’re being friendly, it’s considered rude. And this one is important: when accepting something (money, food, etc.) or shaking hands, put your left hand under the elbow of your extended hand. This is a respectful gesture you should always be doing.
Reality Check – Be Aware
The trek is steep going so a moderate level of fitness is needed, but you make the pace – and there is an option to call for a taxi when you’re closer to town.
There are still landmines dotted around the landscape so make sure to follow your guide and stick to the track. Armed guards are also present at checkpoints which may seem alarming, but they are there for your safety.
Twilight Over Burma: My Life as a Shan Princess – the tale of Inga Sargent who met a Shan prince at university in America and moved to Hsipaw to reign as princess. This autobiography was banned for many years in Myanmar. It helps for a better understanding of the troubles the Shan people and minorities still face in Myanmar today.
Orwell’s Burmese Days is a must-read for anybody travelling to Myanmar: a satirical look at colonial Burma based on Orwell’s own experiences, exploring greed, British society and racism.
JOIN US! WSE Travel Packages
This sounds like quite the adventure, right? We thought so too! Though we realize it can be pretty intimidating to get out there into the world on your own, especially when travelling to some of these off the beaten path locations. We love it when our readers give it a shot and try it for themselves! In fact, please leave us feedback if you do!! If trying something ‘this’ adventurous on your own is just a bit outside of your comfort zone, WSE Travel is here to help!
Follow this link for our ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ Tours – packages that are highly personalized and tailored at your request.
Have you ever been to a city that had a really unique historical or cultural feature? Where was it and what made it so unique?
Please feel free to share your stories and thoughts in the comment section below!