The days in Mandalay passed quickly and it was time to move on, to get out of the city and explore some more remote regions. I wanted to head Northwest to a small village named Hsipaw in the Shan Highlands. A few people I met on the way mentioned that the area offered some great trekking along scenic trails to touristically still unspoiled minority villages. It sounded better than trekking down at Kalaw, close to Inle Lake, which was already supposed to be well frequented by tourists. The only challenge was getting to Hsipaw. I decided to take the old train which was built by the English empire in order to secure their colonial control. Rated one of the world’s top train rides, I was up for a rocky adventure.
The train ticket was only 8 dollars for first class which is a bargain taken the fact that it is an 11 hour ride. With my ticket in my pocket and heavily loaded, I arrived at the Mandalay station at 3:30 am with the train scheduled to leave at 4:00. Wow, so early but the train station was busy already. People were waiting for trains, chatting with each other or just lying on the ground sleeping. My train was already there waiting for passengers to board. A friendly conductor helped me to find my seat and wished me a good journey. What a service. I was excited and ready to leave. And surprisingly the train left right on time.
Rocking on the Dancing Train
First class was quiet alright with cushioned seats, armrests and enough leg space. Not too bad but definitely not comparable to first class seats in Europe or other Western countries. I started to snooze away to be woken up by a little tickle on my right arm. I looked down and saw a little mouse which had just crawled out of a hole in the armrest and was sniffing my wrist. As soon as I moved it disappeared again into its unusual home. Good thing I am not so sensitive to encounters like that and after stuffing the hole with plastic I was good to go again. I guess mice like traveling first class as well.
The started to rise outside dipping the sky in bright purple. At the same time, the train stopped several times, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, to pick up school kids. Their school was a few towns away so everyday they had to take the train to get there. They rushed into the carriage and instantly filled it with their laughter and happiness. I enjoyed the moment and gazed outside, taking in the sunrise and great scenery. The train went along farm lands, dense jungle and paths cut into the rock. The interesting thing about it though is the fact that the tracks have been laid a long, very long time ago and hence are not straight at all. The train bounces and rocks violently like a roller coaster at times. I learnt that people actually refer to the train as “Dancing Train” which seems pretty appropriate. All this is also the reason why the train can’t go much faster than about 30 mph and hence takes 11 hours to Hsipaw. I guess in this case the phrase “the journey is the reward” applies perfectly.
Crossing the Gokteik Viaduct
After about 5 hour of rattling and clacking, we approached the highlight of the ride. We were about to cross the Gokteik Viaduct, a railroad bridge crossing the Gokteik Groge. With its almost 800 meters in length and 111 in height, it is Myanmar’s highest bridge and used to be the worlds largest railway trestle by the time of its completion in 1900. It is still regarded as a technical masterpiece. The views were impressive and a bit frightening at the same time. The massive gorge covered in jungle, a river flowing on the bottom and the train moving slowly across this narrow steel construction, still rattling and bouncing. The few tourists in the carriage rushed to the windows and doors, cameras ready to snap away. Everyone wanted to capture this crazy part of the ride and for some it even was the sole reason to take this train.
Crossing the Gokteik Viaduct was the highlight of the ride and from here it would only be a few more hours before arriving in Hsipaw. The higher our dancing train jolted, the greener the landscape became. Little streams cut through flower and vegetable fields, buffaloes grazing and in between huts made of woven bamboo mats. The massive hills around us signaled that we were in the Shan Highlands now, our final destination and starting point for more adventure.
On the train I had met Aris, a greek traveler living in Italy. Being a very good photographer, Aris and I had a lot to talk about. Since we had about the same plans, we decided to stick together and find cheap accommodation in Hsipaw. Said and done, we found a nice and cosy place named Lily the home. The place was newly built and we were warmly welcomed by its owner Lily. Aris and I wanted to go trekking and we were lucky to join a small group that had planned to leave right the next morning. Things seemed to work out well and we were looking forward to explore some of the Shan Highlands.
Trekking through the Shan Highlands
After a delicious breakfast the next morning we met our guide and our group. It was a good mix of people including a couple of honeymooners from Holland. Our guide was Sandi, an about 60 year old man from neighboring Namshan who knew the area inside out. His English was good and he was very cheerful and energetic. So far so good – we were driven to our starting point and starting hiking. The weather was perfect, no clouds, blue sky and the sun dipping the green rice and corn fields in bright green. Walking through the fields and small, picturesque villages was great, especially after having spent the last few days in the busy city of Mandalay. However, after a while it got very hot outside which made u decide to take a break in a village along the trail. We had some tea and snacks and tried to talk to the owners of the shop. Not so easy but with the help of good old Sandi we managed to have a little bit of a conversation. Two little monks, curious what these foreigners were all about, joined in. It was a nice little break which already gave us a good idea of the upcoming encounters.
After a couple of more hours hiking, we made it to another village, where we were supposed to have lunch in a sort of homestay. It was very good timing since everyone was a bit exhausted after a steep ascent in the brutal heat. Our hosts had expected us already so food was ready within 10 minutes. Everything just tastes so much better when being outside so we all dug in and enjoyed the traditional Burmese cuisine. After a coffee and some well deserved relaxation it was time to go again. We had another 2 hours to make it to the next village where we would stay overnight.
We finally arrived exhausted but very happy at the village. It was on top of a hill, picturesque and scenic, with only a handful of wooden houses and a small monastery at the other end of it. Our host gave us a warm welcome and invited us for the obligatory tea. He had a small shop with basic items for the villagers but made his living mainly by harvesting and processing tea. The sun started to set which made Aris and I nervous. It was the blue hour and hence time to take pictures. Everyone was very curious when we strolled along the small lanes of the village. Some of the kids followed us and some were just in their houses observing what were doing. On every corner there was something interesting to see which made it hard to actually see a lot of the village. It was great to just see how the people live and go about their daily lives with them being so friendly and welcoming at the same time. Such a unique experience.
After dinner, we spent some time at or hosts shop which also seemed to be some sort central gathering point for the locals. People came, sat down for a smoke or drink, people left and on it went for quiet some time. I had brought a traditional Burmese cheroot cigar which I had bought back in Bagan. I thought it would be a good moment to light it up and share it with the locals. They were actually pretty amazed by the sheer size of the cigar and it was passed around to everybody. With people coughing here and there and even the girls hitting it, it became the entertainment of the night.
After a good night of sleep, only disturbed by a strong downpour, we woke up early. It was cold outside and most of the villagers were already up and going about their daily routine. Most of them were headed for the tea plantations close by to pick tea leaves. While the villagers were setting off, we had a simple breakfast and got ready for another day of trekking. We wanted to be back in Hsipaw by early evening.
On the way down, we came through another picturesque village. It had a lively school and a monastery. Kids were out playing and adults were also just leaving to head to their fields. The village had a nice atmosphere and what I didn’t know at that point was that I would come back here very soon. For now, it was only a brief visit though.
An encounter of a different kind
Further down the way, I had split from the group at that point, I had a strange encounter. I passed a big hollow tree with smoke coming out of it. Taking a closer look, it all seemed like someone was actually living in that tree. And then I spotted this white haired women sitting on the other side of that tree. She wasn’t that old and just looked at me without any reaction. I tried to talk to her with my few Burmese sentences I knew. No reaction, no reply. It was a very strange situation and after I while I decided to leave her alone. I have to admit that pictures of witches living in the forest came to my mind when I encountered that scene. I later asked our guide Sandi about it and he said the women had been expelled from her village. Reason being her light skin complexion which they thought was very contagious and a dangerous disease. This explained the situation but made me a little bit sad. In a society in which family and community play such an important role, being forcefully removed from just that must be terrible. And I am sure that she didn’t have a terrible illness or anything like that. The people have probably never seen anything like it before and were just scared. I hope that she will find her way back into her society one day.
After some more hiking we decided to hitchhike the rest of the way. The part of the trek didn’t seem really worth it and the heat was killing us. A truck full of tea leave bags gave us a lift and we made it back to Hsipaw later afternoon.
Last thoughts …
Going to Hsipaw was the right decision, even though it took some time to get there. If you want to venture a little bit off the beaten track, this is what you need to do. And the bumpy ride on the “Dancing Train” was actually quiet an experience. The journey truly was the reward and I wouldn’t wanna miss that experience. That being said, I have to admit that I probably would not do it again. In the end, 11 hours can be very long . I took the minivan back.
Hsipaw itself is a great place to unwind. It is small, quiet and it’s location in the middle of the Shan Highlands make it a perfect jump off for trekking. I fell in love with the place at first sight. I think you can easily spend a week in Hsipaw. There is so much to do and explore but still most people decide to only spend a couple of days there. I had the same itinerary in mind but sometime things turn out differently then planned….