Whilst planning our Myanmar itinerary, we were very much inspired by our friend Antonia’s trip, who did Myanmar from north to south in about the same time frame just a few months ago.
One of her recommendations was a town to the north east of Mandalay called Hsipaw (silent H…), which is base camp for several trekking trips. The most famous trek in Myanmar for travellers is further south, towards Inle Lake, but Tona said the Hsipaw one was a lot more authentic and not so overrun with tourists so we trusted her and off we headed for the hills!
We arrived off a very delayed bus (5 hours turned into 8) into the small and sleepy town of Hsipaw, and were ready for our bed. I had smartly booked us the cheapest accommodation I could find (Myanmar’s a bit pricier than the other countries we’ve been to in Asia), only to find what i can only describe as a prison. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. The bedroom was dark and moldy, but was better than the shared bathroom, all made of concrete, giving it the gloomiest of looks. Luckily we were exhausted so fell straight asleep, and promptly booked a different hotel for night two…
We awoke nice and early to escape from prison, and our mission was to find a two or three day trek for the following day. Mr Charles, who owns half the establishments in this town (there’s a mr. just about everything, mr shake, mr book, mr food), was able to offer us a two day trek for a decent price so we left happy and ready for the next few days. The rest of the day was spent pottering around town, eating some great curries and walking through some cute pathways.
At 8am we were ready to meet our group and head off. The group was larger than we expected (upon booking, we were actually the only ones who had booked), which consisted of 2 Israeli guys, an American woman, a French guy and two English guys, and our Burmese tour guide. Our first morning walk consisted of about 6 hours of hiking, a LOT of which was uphill and a bit of a struggle as the heat was strong. As we’re currently in the burning season (farmers burn their fields to a crisp to prepare the soil for next season) the scenery wasn’t hugely varied, mostly it consisted of ashen fields. But we walked through several ethnic villages which were thoroughly interesting and provided us with much entertainment as the local children were always keen to play.
Although our guide didn’t have the best English, he was able to explain to us the reason our group was so big: the group that was supposed to take a different path were unable to as one of the mountains was being badly affected by the ongoing civil fights between ethnic groups and the military presence. The north of Myanmar, which includes the outskirts of Hsipaw, is home to the majority of ethnic groups here in Myanmar, and are still struggling with the military government, but also fighting amongst the ethnic groups. No one we’ve met so far has really been able to shed huge amounts of light into the situation, so we’re still left a little confused as to the true happenings.
Nonetheless the walk was very interesting, both for seeing the countryside and for speaking with our fellow walkers. One of the English guys Joel, we particularly bonded with and spent many good hours sharing stories. We stopped off at a few villages for cups of tea, but sadly we weren’t always able to communicate too well with the local people, so I was left curious with few questions answered. We encountered three different languages on our two day trek though, which was fun to learn about.
Around 3pm we got to our homestay in a beautiful little village that has only recently had running water installed; we were staying at the huge house of a family with 8 kids (most of them no longer at home though). The father of the house, a cute 70 year old man, proudly took his position next to the fire place, and was in charge of offering the guests copious amounts of tea. The mother of the house was more hands on, and interacted with us best she could. She fed us a huge meal of rice with various vegetable dishes. Meat is considered a big luxury here so understandably all our meals were vegetarian.
Our guide taught us to say hi and thank you in this local language, called Palaung, and funnily the word for thank you (rok mai) is very similar to the word for I love you (rak mai), so there were a few laughs from our hosts as we probably told them on many occasions that we loved them!
Our evening was spent again eating copious amounts of food, but differently to our last trek and homestay in Vietnam, as there were other people in our group, we mostly spoke to them, and less to our hosts, which was a bit of a shame. But nevertheless we had some fascinating chats and all shared a hip flask of whisky (which costs us all of £0.65 for the bottle!) putting the world to right.
Interestingly, one of the Israelis had to be quite careful with the meals, as he’s allergic to small green beans. Apparently, it’s quite common for Israelis to be allergic to this bean, as some lack a certain enzyme, which in return makes them immune against malaria! Who knew!
The following morning we ate breakfast with our hosts and set off again at around 830 as the sun was so strong we wanted to beat it for the 45 minute uphill trek that started us off. After this followed another few hours that finished off our trek at a waterfall where we enjoyed our lunch and a little cool down before being driven back to Hsipaw.