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Myanmar’s new INSIDER TRAVEL Trekking Mecca

Ican hardly claim to be a trekking expert, yet the options for even the most novice of ramblers are limited in Myanmar.

Putao, in the country’s far north, is nestled close to the Himalayas, but with hotels ru- moured to cost a sizeable chunk, that is rela- tively off-limits.

With its rolling countryside, tea plantations and varied and friendly ethnic groups, Northern Shan State is one area that is beginning to develop a reputation for itself in the area of trekking tourism. Hsipaw, one of the final towns on the way to Lashio, and after that the Chinese border, is one destina- tion that has been discussed by some travel experts in-country as having the potential to develop into a popular trekking destination, not only for its scenery, but also the famous train journey to the town from Mandalay.

The journey from Pyin Oo Lwin, an at- tractive hillside town two hours east of Man- dalay, to Hsipaw takes three hours by car, but more than seven by train. Yet the draw of traveling by train in Myanmar is certainly not its practicality, rather the beautiful scen- ery and insight into the local way of life that it gives.

The journey eastwards from Mandalay to Lashio has another selling point – the Go- teik Viaduct.

Constructed in 1899 by the British and completed a year later, the viaduct made its way into railway folklore when it appeared in Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar.

“Its presence there was bizarre, this manmade thing in so remote a place, com- peting with the grandeur of the enormous gorge and yet seeming more grand than its surroundings, which were hardly negligible.”

Since trundling east from Pyin Oo Lwin early that morning, the carriage had constantly been filled with the pleasant sound of chatter as people greeted old and new friends alike. At each and every stop, huge loads of produce were lifted on and off the train and hawkers hustled away in the aisles, selling almost every imaginable edible product.

Yet, when the bridge came into view, an eerie sort of quiet – not exactly a silence – came across the train as people leaned out of the window to catch a glimpse. As we crossed its expanse, far below – 102 metres accord- ing to the bridge’s official height – a violent- ly flowing river carved its way through the rocky, tree-dense terrain. At one moment, I lean a little too far over to catch a glimpse and a small bout of vertigo kicks in, forcing me to cower inside the carriage for the rest of the crossing.

After the viaduct, the temperature drops suddenly and we enter a pitch-black tunnel that smells strongly of bat excrement. When we exit a few minutes later, the via- duct is a long-forgotten speck behind us.

It’s mid-afternoon by the time the train drops us at Hsipaw’s small but lively train station and we take a tuk-tuk out to our hotel. As a town that is still a little-known tourist destination, there are limited hotel options in the town, but just across the Dokhtawady River from the main town (ac- cessible by a free boat provided by the hotel) is the newly-opened Hsipaw Resort.

The hotel has 20 rooms, housed in 10 bungalows that sit along the river’s edge. Lo- cated next to a small village, the bungalows have been designed well to blend in to the calm, tranquil environment on the river’s eastern side. There is also an excellent, and well-priced restaurant, which offers mostly Shan and Burmese dishes and is worthy of a visit even for those who are not staying at the hotel.

Just up-river is the Shan Palace (which was closed during our visit), which was the home to the last Shan sawbwa (prince), who ruled the state until the military coup in 1962 and the palace is apparently still cared for by the prince’s descendants who are more than willing to share their family’s interesting tale.

It’s also possible to organise sightsee- ing trips along the river (which got very good reviews from people I met during the trip), while it is worth spending a morning or af- ternoon browsing the main town, which is dominated by the lively Central Market.

Yet Hsipaw’s main draw is the trek- king options on offer outside the town’s limits. Just a 10 minute walk from town and we were into rural surroundings, passing through attractive Shan villages where the usual smiles and hello were replaced by a healthy dousing of water – despite thinking we’d got away from it, the long arm of Thing- yan made it all the way up here.

After a relatively flat trek for the first hour or so, the hills began and we started to ascend before arriving at the lip of a vast val- ley that stretched below us.

It is around this time of year that “slash and burn” season – when farmers burn some of their crops to prepare the ground for next year’s harvest – so here and there the scen- ery was spoilt by charred grounds and trees but despite this, with rolling green hills and utter isolation from even the remotest villag- es, it’s easy to see why the town is beginning to develop a reputation as a popular trekking destination.

We arrived at our destination mid-af- ternoon, a pleasant Palaung village where we were to stay with a local family. After a much-needed late lunch, the family took us out to a tea plantation on the far edge of the village.

Much like many of the villages here,the majority of industry is tea. After allowing us to practice the skill of tea-picking (which he managed with incredible swiftness) we arrive back at the village just in time for the villagers, laden with huge sacks of tea, re- turning on their commute home.

The Palaung, one of Myanmar’s old- est hill tribes, are most recognisable for the colourful striped (usually in pinks and pur- ples) longyis that the women wear, and ev- ery woman who passes wears the traditional dress.

During our walk around, we notice that many of the villages have solar panels on their roofs, which allows us to read late into the night. Yet life is slow here and, after an excellent Palaung village with the family – the Palaung are mostly vegetarian, so the food is usually made up of edible crops such as rice and chillies, but very flavoursome – it’s an early night before we rise early the following morning and begin the walk back to Hsipaw.