Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Hsipaw, the North's trekking centre

Hsipaw (pronounced see-paw) has rapidly become one of the most popular trekking centres in northern Burma.

Three years ago, when the previous issue of LP came out (a new one just came out this summer), they described it as a sleepy town where few tourists go. Not even vaguely true any more.

The central market and shop-fronts in "downtown" Hsipaw

The main road that runs along the edge of the town centre has heavy traffic and tonnes of lorries to and from China, so I'd avoid a hotel on this road, if possible. Once you move a few streets away from the main China road, you'll find it much calmer and quieter. Not that you had much choice in accommodation last winter: every guesthouse in town was apparently choc-o-bloc. But fear not: the intrepid locals weren't going to miss that big an opportunity. When I was visiting this June, seven new properties were said to be under construction, including a large expansion of the venerable Lily Guest House.

It's true that the town has been changing rapidly. The travel boffins at Travelfish were not enamoured when they visited last November (they felt the town was too noisy, crowded and dusty). But when I visited in low-season June, I found it a pleasant, friendly town that wasn't too crowded (although there were still quite a few tourists around).

Little Bagan, filled with little stupas

But here's the big question: what do you do here when you're not trekking?

The biggest attraction is the Shan Palace (back open to visitors after Mr Donald's troubles with the authorities), but it was unexpectedly closed when I visited, so I have nothing to say about it.

Another popular area to explore is the neighbourhood of Myauk Myo, known colloquially as Little Bagan. You'll wander down narrow alleyways or dirt roads, between decrepit and crumbling stupas, farmland, and small houses with their personal wells. Chickens wander about. Sleepy dogs ignore you. It's a very different feel from the bustling cities of Mandalay and Yangon.

Myauk Myo, a rather quiet neighbourhood of Hsipaw

Other options for the town include climbing up Sunset Hill (I skipped this one, as rain blew in late each afternoon when I was there), visiting a handful of monasteries and pagodas, and sitting on your guesthouse's balcony or porch, or in a coffee shop, watching the world go by or reading a book.

I recommend you spend plenty of time on the last one (all that hiking – or thinking about hiking – is pretty tiring).

Old advertising poster on the central market in Hsipaw

For supplies, the town centre has two market areas. The main central market sells dried goods, cosmetics, clothes, toys, and housewares. This is where you go if you're out of shampoo, or want beaded slippers. The wet market takes place along the riverside in the early hours of the morning. Set your alarm for pre-dawn, and you're treated to the sight of a small but popular market lit with a mix of candles and electric torches. Take your camera, wander up and down (the shoppers and vendors are all used to tourists hanging about), and buy some hot and greasy dosai to snack upon as you soak it all up.

Hsipaw wet market at four in the morning

The market traders sell fruit and veg, meat and fish, fresh tofu, and plenty of things I couldn't identify

Football, the universal language: this market-side coffee shop was busy at four in the morning with local men watching the World Cup matches

I never got around to trekking.

My bad.

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