On the (Burma) Road again

Trip Start Jan 16, 2006
Trip End May 21, 2006

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Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Hsipaw, the tiny capitol of the northern Shan state, doesn't have any significant tourist attractions but still attracts a large number of tourists for its size, thanks no doubt to the Lonely Planet's glowing description. Still, it's a good place to spend a few days relaxing, which is what I did, recovering from running around Yunnan. The locals were friendly enough, but a little reserved, perhaps because Hsipaw is so near the restricted parts of the Shan state. The Shan State Army, the main group that is trying to get autonomy from Burma, is strong, but underground, around Hsipaw. There are a few buildings here and there, including a clock tower that chimes like Big Ben and the horrible rickety bridge, that are reminders of the British colonial days.
Hsipaw is peaceful but big enough that it feels like something's going on. It's spread out but compact enough to be walkable and fortunately, has some of the largest and most beautiful trees that I've seen in Burma, helping alleviate the scorching heat and provide protection from the dust and smoke-filled air. There are only three guesthouses in town and the most popular by far is Mr. Charles, run by a group of Shan sisters. "Mr. Charles" also seems to have a monopoly on the local trekking/walking tours to surrounding villages. Apart from these walks, there's not a whole lot to see or do in Hsipaw, other than absorb the atmosphere of a place stuck in time somewhere around 1930. For a town of its size, it is surprisingly diverse ethnically. Although a Shan stronghold, there are also Chinese, Bangladeshis, Burmese and some tribal groups like the Padaung living in the area, not to mention the regular flow of westerners through town. Apart from being a colonial outpost, Hsipaw's main claim to fame is that the last sawbwa, or hereditary chief, Sao Kya Seng, lived there. The sawbwa disappeared in 1962, probably killed by the dictator Ne Win who stripped all the Shan chiefs of their power by killing or imprisoning them. The Shan are ethnically related to the Thais who they call the Tai Noi (younger Thais) while they call themselves the Tai Yai (older Thais). It's a complicated history (check out Shanworld.org for more details) but basically they don't like the Burmese (the Bamar majority) and want to be independent. "Mr. Donald", the nephew of the last sawbwa of Hsipaw, used to invite foreigners into his home where he would talk about the history of the Shan state and his family. His luck ran out when on September 30, 2005, he was sentenced to 13 years in prison for "operating as an unlicensed tour guide, defaming the State and being in violation of restrictions imposed under the Habitual Offenders Act." Apparently, he talked a little too openly and freely about the Shan struggle for independence. I had read about Mr Donald and had hoped to visit myself and did not learn until I got to Hsipaw that he had been arrested. I did wander by his house (the last sawbwa's home) where his wife still lives but there was a sign in Burmese and English on the gate stating that visitors could not be received. As I was walking up the dirt road to the house, a Shan woman muttered something to me and waved her hand in the direction of the house; she knew what I was looking for. After peering through the gate, I started to walk back to Mr. Charles and this time I was stopped by a man, who said in English with a sad expression on his face, that the house was not open. The sawbwas may be gone, but for the locals they are a reminder of their independence and happier past.
The next day I went on a village walking tour organized by Pipi, brother of the sisters running the guesthouse. We set off in the early morning for some of the Shan villages around Hsipaw. I was expecting the walk to be up and downhill, but it was flat and easy all the way (to my relief), even though Lonely Planet had described Hsipaw as a "hill town." We wandered through illegal soy bean fields-illegal because the Burmese government tells people what they can plant and around Hsipaw, they are supposed to grow rice, but soy beans can be sold for more money to the Chinese-before stopping at our first village to watch a husband-and-wife knife-making team. The knives looked more like swords to me. The missionaries had also gotten to this village because some of the kids were wandering around clutching religious tracts. We asked Pipi to translate (they were all in Burmese). Some of the uplifting phrases in these pamphlets were "sin leads to death" and "accept Jesus or go to hell", or something like that. I didn't bother asking what group had been terrorizing these poor Shan kids with images of hellfire and brimstone.
We walked on a bit further through the dry landscape, every once in a while relieved by the green of rice paddies, past a crumbling monastery (see photo) and on to another Shan village where we sat and had tea with a family, friends of Pipi's. Some more wandering through fields, another Shan family busy making cheroots and then back to Hsipaw, just before it got really hot.
The heat, dust and dry air made me just want to sit on the porch of Mr Charles and drink lime juice all day and talk with other travelers. After not really speaking much English to anyone in China for two weeks, it was nice just to have some good conversations which didn't involve pantomiming and gesturing and struggling just to convey one simple idea. I ran into an Israeli guy, also staying at Mr. Charles, who I had met in Kampot, Cambodia 6 weeks before. There's a south east Asia travelers circuit and you end up seeing the same people over and over. I saw a couple of other westerners around that I had also seen in Vietnam. Hsipaw gave me some much-needed downtime recovering from my whirlwind tour of Yunnan, but after five days, it was time to head south and brave the heat of Mandalay. I braced myself for the bus journey. Short though it was, it was still going to be a Burmese bus.
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