After having spent three days in hot and hectic Mandalay we decided it would be nice to follow the traces of the British, who ruled Burma (as they still call Myanmar) for about a hundred years, to escape to the northeastern hills of Shan State.
Pyin Oo Lwin hill station
We first headed to the former hill station of Pyin Oo Lwin by shared taxi, sharing the back seat with an elderly and very chatty Russian lady (‘from Vladivostok’ – imagine a very heavy accent – and an avid supporter of President Putin). Pyin Oo Lwin is best known for its cute and colorful horse drawn carriages and the Botanical Garden. The gardens were well kept, but we didn’t find them very interesting.
Feeding time for the birds in the aviary was fun, though, with birds swooshing over our heads. But after having visited British hill stations and botanical gardens before in India and Sri Lanka we can now safely say that both are not really our cup of tea. Most of the time we just cycled about for a bit on probably the most shitty bikes we ever had (and had to pay 3.000 kyats each to our hotel for the privilege of using them).
Crossing the Gokteik Viaduct
From Pyin Oo Lwin we took the train to Hsipaw, further east into the hills of Shan State. We were advised to buy tickets the day before to get a hold of seats at the left side of the train. These would afford the best views of the Gokteik Viaduct, the ramshackle 97 meter high railway bridge built over a gorge in 1901. Trains slow down to a walking pace crossing the bridge to avoid unnecessary strain on the structure.
Buying the tickets a day earlier didn’t seem possible (or our request got lost in translation), so we had to get up early the next day to secure the desired seats. In the end an extra beat-up carriage that looked like it hadn’t been used for years was added to the train. It was just as well that the train crossed the Gokteik viaduct at a slow pace, as the train jolted from side to side for seven hours the rest of the way. But as train lovers we wouldn’t have liked to miss it, with local life and nice scenery slowly passing us by.
Our final destination Hsipaw (altitude 700 meters) is (still) a bit off the regular Myanmar tourist trails. It’s not the most attractive town in Southeast Asia, but it had a relaxed backpacker vibe and was a good base for exploring the surrounding countryside. We didn’t do the two day trek we’d planned – the most popular activity here – because Eugénie wasn’t feeling 100%, but walking and cycling for two days in the immediate surroundings of Hsipaw had its rewards as well.
Most of it was flat terrain, but getting up to Sunset Hill was pretty tough. I made it up cycling despite some bike trouble (the pedal kept coming off) but Eugénie had to walk up part of the way, pushing her bicycle. Going down we had to break full force if we didn’t want to end up next to the road. There’s a little temple at the top and (sunset) views of Hsipaw were nice.
From what we gathered from other travelers the longer guided treks into the surrounding hills were great but didn’t add very much to experiencing villages and local life compared to exploring closer to town on your own. But if you’ve never spent the night in a local village before and enjoy some trekking it should be a worthwhile experience.
We visited Pyin Oo Lwin and Hsipaw in November 2014
Pyin Oo Lwin and Hsipaw travel tips
Sleep – In Pyin Oo Lwin we spent one night at the basic Mya Nan Taw Hotel, that had seen better days. It was one of the cheaper options in town, though, and the double room was clean, the shower hot and we slept well. The dining room was cold and cheerless, breakfast was OK, dinner so-so. We ate here because the hotel is at the edge of town and there were not many eating options around. The bicycles for hire at the hotel were ridiculously bad.
In Hsipaw we stayed three nights in a twin room at Lily the Home guesthouse. It has two buildings: the old guesthouse and the new ‘boutique hotel’. We were staying in the old building. Room looked a bit barren, but was spacious, had air-con (not really needed in November) and hot water (water pressure was a bit iffy at times). Buffet breakfast was served at the rooftop restaurant of the new building with broad vistas over Hsipaw. Front desk staff (mostly Lily and her family) were full of useful information to explore the environment.
Eat – Hsipaw has several places to eat that are friendly on the wallet. We enjoyed eating at Low Chun, a Chinese restaurant, and Ah Kong Kaik, a restaurant that serves traditional Myanmar dishes. The curries come with several side dishes, as is usual in local Myanmar eateries. When exploring the surroundings of Hsipaw make sure to stop at Mrs Popcorn’s Garden for a refreshing juice. The ‘lounging’ chairs were not very comfortable, however, and the garden looked a bit bleak, but the owner was a very nice and friendly lady.
Transport – The best way to get to/from Hsipaw is by taking the train at least one way. It’s also very cheap. We payed a little over 2 USD one way for ‘upper class’ (which wasn’t saying much, LOL). Shared taxi (most expensive, most comfortable, quickest) and (mini)bus are other options. We rode a minibus arranged by our guesthouse back to Mandalay, which took six rather uncomfortable hours.
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