Our ultimate guide to Hsipaw
Once a royal city and now a peaceful base for treks through the nearby jungle and tribal villages, Hsipaw (pronounced ‘see-paw’) is a delightful small town of wooden houses, riverside markets and randomly, delicious milkshakes.
Make the journey here and you will be rewarded with fewer crowds than Kalaw and some of the best noodle soup you can hope to have in Shan state.
What to do
Nº 1 - Trek with Mr Bike
Three-day hikes through small hillside villages and dense jungle are led by the professional, funny and kindhearted ‘Mr Bike’, so named as he was one of the first in Hsipaw to make the voyage to China, purchase scooters and bring them back to Myanmar to sell to locals.
After hiking for around four hours on Day One, you will sleep in a tree house that offers superb views of the surrounding forest. Mr Bike and a few local villagers built it themselves in just 45 days; when we completed the trek another taller tree house was in the middle of construction.
A longer hike on Day Two sees you reach a clearing by the river, where the crew prepare your hammocks for the night. Day Three is a blast, as you tube down the river over some fun rapids for no less than four hours.
Mr Bike works with a handful of different families in nearby villages, who act as his porters and chefs on a rotational basis, meaning that your money is going to the people who deserve it most, and not a tour company.
Mr Bike used to run tours on behalf of Mr Charles Guesthouse, so he is well known in the village and definitely worth seeking out.
How to book
Mr. Bike's 3D/2N treks cost K70,000 / $51.50 and include all food and transport. They start on different days weekly, as he has a day off in between departures. So, we trekked from Wednesday - Friday, the next trek would be Sunday - Tuesday, and then Thursday - Saturday, etc. The best way to contact him is by telephone on +95786565443. You can pick up a local sim card in a number of shops, we recommend network MPT, which had good coverage everywhere we visited.
Nº 2 - Visit the Shan Palace
Sao Kya Seng was the last Shan prince (sawbwa) of the area, and he has been presumed dead since he vanished during the military takeover in 1962. His Austrian wife and princess Inge Sargent writes about this event and more in her book ‘Twilight over Burma: My life as a Shan Princess’, however you can also visit the Shan palace-villa and speak with Seng’s family about the history of Myanmar and Shan state in particular.
His nephew, Donald, was arrested in 2005 ‘operating as an unlicensed tour guide and defaming the state’, and whilst he was released in 2009 he no longer lives in Hsipaw. You can, however, speak with his lovely wife Fern who has perfect English and an incredibly soothing voice.
Opening hours & how to get there
The Shan palace is usually open between 3-5pm daily, your hostel can confirm these times during your visit. Take the main Namtu Road north, towards Myauk Myo. You will cross a bridge over a small stream that is heading east towards the river. Follow the hill and take the first right, and then a left, before the road curves round to the right and you will see the palace gates up ahead. The Shan palace is a fifteen-minute walk from the centre of town, or a short cycle.
Nº 3 - Cycle around Myauk Myo
Grab a bike from your hostel and make the short (circa fifteen minute) cycle ride to this area of town. You will reach two teak monasteries amidst old brick stupas, which is why this area has been dubbed ‘Little Bagan’ (it’s not, but is stil worth a visit). Continue your cycle in a loop and you will reach Mrs Popcorn’s Garden (mentioned below).
How to get there
After passing the bridge, heading north on Namtu Road, take a left at the police station, and then the small path on the right. The track will fork; take the left-hand option and across the railway track and continue until you reach 'Little Bagan'. You can carry on from here to Mrs Popcorn's Garden, and make a loop back to the main road, and into town.
Nº 4 - Visit Mr. Book
If you want to do some travel reading or if you have books to give away (you can also donate them to the Shan palace to be read by local children seeking to learn and improve their English) visit Ko Zaw Tunat. He is well-known in town, and also manages donations to local villagers; $50 can feed four families for a month, and you can join Mr Book in purchasing and delivering supplies if you want to make a difference.
How to find him
Mr. Book's stall is opposite the (large and gold) Central Pagoda main entrance, which is located a few blocks away from the main market on Namtu Road. He’s not there all the time, so check with your hostel or a local when to expect his stall to be open.
Nº 5 - Browse the markets
The central riverfront area to the left of the park hosts an excellent produce market from early morning to around lunchtime, selling beautiful flowers, vegetables and textiles. The best time to visit is between 3.00 and 6.00am, when it heaves with people and vendors sell by candelight.
There is also the indoor Central market just a few blocks east of Namtu Road which is worth a visit if you need to stock up on anything. And we mean ANYTHING, from shaving foam to rechargeable batteries and the ubiquitous longyi.
Nº 6 - Walk to Sunset Hill
Climb to Thein Daung Pagoda for stunning views of the river and the town for sunset. There’s usually a few other tourists heading that way so you’re unlikely to get lost, but just look out for the English sign at the gateway down the laterite track, not far after the river bridge.
Where to eat
Nº 1 - Mrs Popcorn’s Garden ($)
The late Mrs Popcorn sadly passed away in March 2017, yet the family still run this pretty restaurant which is the perfect stop off on a cycle ride. The shakshouka is surprisingly good, and you can’t go wrong with the Shan Noodle soup. There’s a pretty view of the vegetable gardens and a very friendly cat to keep you company.
Two meals with two drinks will set you back around K5000 / $3.70.
Nº 2 - Blackhouse Coffee Shop ($)
Housed in a lovely dark wood building with a large terrace beside the river, this was our favourite place to kick back with a cheap Myanmar beer and Shan noodle soup in Hsipaw. The couple that run the place are pleasant and it’s not far from the centre.
Two bowls of Noodle soup with two drinks will cost around K5500 / $4.
Nº 3 - Mr Shake ($)
There are two Mr Shakes, but the original can be found near the football field. The Oreo smoothie is to die for, but there’s plenty more on the menu if you fancy something fruity.
Shakes start from K1200 / $0.88.
Nº 4 - Club Terrace ($$$)
This sister restaurant of the Pyin Oo Lwin original (which we also visited) this is a more upmarket dining experience with tables at the riverfront as well as indoors. There’s a huge, varied menu and a good cocktail list.
Dinner for two with alcohol will come to around K18,000 / $13.25.
Nº 5 - San ($)
Rough around the edges but offering a range of BBQ options, we were pretty impressed with the duck here and if that doesn’t take your fancy, there’s an amusing picture menu to help you choose something else.
Two meals from the BBQ with beers will set you back around K8500 / $6.25.
Nº 6 - Mr Food, a.k.a Law Chun ($)
Chinese-style main dishes dominate at this large, practically fluorescent white restaurant that attracts a backpacker crowd.
Two main meals and beers will cost around K7000 / $5.15.
Where to stay
We stayed at... Hotel Lily the Home ($$)
Lily is the sister of Mr Charles, so the family appears to have a monopoly in town. This is a surprisingly modern, quiet hotel with big, bright rooms and good showers (in the new block, at least!) Breakfast (including eggs made to order, nom) is taken on the top floor with a pleasant view from the terrace.
When we were there, one of Lily’s dogs had just given birth to a litter of puppies, which were just adorable. You can rent bicycles for a cheap price to explore the area and Lily will happily book your onward travel and give you plenty of information about the town.
We paid K43,000 / $31.50 per night for our double room with ensuite, including breakfast, however rooms in the old building out the back are cheaper.
We also recommend... Hotel Thipaw ($$)
Only just opened when we visited in March 2017, Mr Bike suggested this hotel to us. Although we didn’t stay there ourselves, having already booked Hotel Lily, we heard great things from fellow travellers so it's worth considering.
Rooms start from K41,000 / $30 per night.
The backpacker favourite... Mr Charles Guesthouse ($)
The majority of backpackers stay here as it’s cheap, boasts a nice balcony and helpful staff. It's simple, but sociable, which is why so many people that we met rated it. Plus, it's quite near to Mr. Shake...
Rooms start from K19,000 / $14 per night.
From Mandalay/Pyin Oo Lwin...
We’d urge you to take the train over the Goteik Viaduct to get here from either Mandalay or Pyin Oo Lwin. You could always take the bus from Mandalay to Pyin Oo Lwin to cut journey time, then join the train from there.
The train goes painfully slow and if you’re in lower class (which we asked for, and which costs K1200 / $0.90) expect a sore bottom after your journey, but the scenery is beautiful and it’s an incredible ‘local’ experience. Seats in first-class are around double the price. Tickets can be booked at the station on the day, but arrive early to make sure you get the class you want.
You can take a door-to-door bus to or from Mandalay for K8000 / $6. Ask your accommodation for details, Lily booked ours one day in advance.
From further afield
Buses run to Hsipaw from further afield, but you can expect to change along the way, although there is a non-stop bus that runs to and from Yangon (at the time of writing).