Hsipaw, a Shan State town, was once a Shan royal city and has a laid back, easy-going vibe with a riverfront location and monasteries, stupas and former palaces just out of town. We were based in Mr Charles guest house, and after a great breakfast (pancakes!) we joined the rest of the group in taking an early morning longboat ride up the river to one of the Shan villages that line the banks of the Dokhtawady River.
We split into 3 longboats and raced up the river which was absolutely stunning with an early morning mist hovering over the water which gradually cleared to give a gorgeous sunny day. All along the river were boatmen fishing, locals washing clothes or drying the corn harvest, while swallows swooped – we even saw a couple of electric blue flashes of kingfisher.
45 minutes up river we stopped at a small Shan community and took a wander through the monastery and then through the streets to get an idea of how the locals live in their wooden houses built on stilts. Buddhism is the main religion in the area but the locals also believe in spirits called Nats, and in the village we visited the locals had constructed a Nat Shrine complete with food offerings and 2 mini beds so that if a visiting Nat should require bed and board it was always available.
We took lunch in the local restaurant of a very tasty noodle soup with little packets of fried pig skin (surprisingly delicious) to add as croutons , then jumped back in the boats to take us back to Hsipaw.
We had a free afternoon so wandered up to the palace of the last Sawbwa (Sky Prince) which is less of a palace and more of an english-style mansion set back from the main road. The last Sky Prince was US educated, with an Austria wife, who was introducing really modern ideas to the region – giving land back to the farmers, and a belief in development. At the start of the Military junta in 1962, he was arrested, never to be seen again with no explanation of what had happened to him. Inga, his wife and 2 daughters fled to the US, and his nephew Mr Donald was left in charge with his wife Fern, themselves imprisoned then held under house arrest during the military rule, but now open the house most days to tell the story of the missing prince.
Following that somber tale, a group of us jumped into a local Tuk Tuk to race up Sunset Hill, stopping to pick up Michelle and Michael whose bikes had broken down at the bottom of the hill. The motorbike Tuk Tuk plodded slowly up the hill (not sure 7 people was a good idea) to the Thein Daung Pagoda, and we sat on the walls of the complex to admire the sunset and the sweeping views over the river, Hsipaw and the mountain behind.
That night we decided to go up-market and grabbed a group table at the lovely Club Terrace – a gorgeous 90-year old teak house with a terrace overlooking the Dokhtawady River. We caused chaos as everyone on the bus had the same idea, but the kitchen coped and we munched through platefuls of deep-fried spring rolls, bowls of tasty curry, and a few Myanmar beers – just perfect.