A ride through Shan state’s fascinating, sad, and intriguing history

After our heady introduction to Myanmar, we headed northeast into Shan state for a quick blitz through two stops: Hsipaw and Pyin Oo Lwin (Maymyo), one famous as an emerging trekking base, the second as Myanmar’s example of that colonial institution: the summer hill station. In between, there was also a famously rickety train ride over one of the world’s highest viaducts.

Recalling our random ride into the middle of nowhere, for our pilgrimage to Sri Lanka’s Adam’s Peak, our bus up to the Shan hills was one of slowly disappearing into blackness as night fell.

A region-wide power cut was the cause, but it was also a good lesson that, outside of the cities, Myanmar is an overwhelmingly rural country. I had imagined Hsipaw to be a bustling town, and exhaled slightly anxious relief everytime we passed through another small pocket of deserted darkness.

What if that had been it, turfed off the bus into unexpected nothingness? “Off  you go, into the night…”

That is, in fact, what happened. Kinda.

Hsipaw is a large village, and we arrived to a fairly sleepy scene. With accommodation booked only a short wander away, we weren’t stranded. Still…it’s always a strange sense of disorientation when you have a picture in your mind of a place, and arrive to find it completely at odds.

No mind, we quickly found and settled into Mr Charles’ sprawling guesthouse/hotel/restaurant/travel services compound, and the apprehension melted away.

With any kind of serious trekking out of season and out of the question, we focused on the few key sights around town, with time to explore the countryside too.

Hsipaw was once the capital of one of Shan state’s many kingdoms. Quite unlike anywhere else we’ve travelled, where power was historically centralised, Shan state was comprised of 32 independent but linked kingdoms, ruled by sawbwa (‘sky princes’).

The story of the last sawbwa of Hsipaw is the story of Myanmar’s post-independence history: political, sad, with many unanswered questions. It is recounted by Fern, the wife of his nephew, at the surviving second Shan palace (in reality, an early 20th century British-style manor house).

The last sky prince was US-educated and married an Austrian women he met while studying. He was arrested, along with the other sky princes and key figures in the Shan state government, after the military takeover in 1962. But where others were eventually released, he was disappeared. His wife and two daughters were left effectively under house arrest and eventually fled the country, settling in America. They never returned.

With the coming of democracy, this is obviously now technically possible, but there are still too many sensitivities around military matters, and the daughters – now grandmothers – refuse to consider return until the whereabouts of their father is finally resolved. The military has always maintained he was never detained long-term.

Hearing the story in the living room where so much of this family tragedy unfolded was quite a moving experience; the kind of impact the best museums can only dream of.

Fern and her husband have been telling their story to visitors since the 1990s, when Myanmar first opened up, and when there was a real risk in doing so. They relied on travellers sharing details with trusted acquaintances only. The authorities tried many times to jail them, and eventually succeeded in jailing Fern’s husband for having an unregistered library (the unofficial grapevine would let travellers know that the couple, effectively prisoners inside their home, loved to receive books).

Now, of course, they are free to receive visitors, and are busy gently fundraising for the Palace’s centennial in 2024. What was fascinating was the number of locals in attendance. Chatting to a young Monk outside, who grew up in Hsipaw, we learnt that locals had no idea about the story behind the end of their monarchy. Now that they can, they are desperately keen to learn about their pasts.

Hsipaw is also home to the so-called Little Bagan. While nowhere near the scale of real Bagan, it was certainly a charming wander through the countryside just to the north, where the original capital was, and Mrs Popcorn’s restaurant, set amongst a sprawling organic garden, was a great place to stop for lunch.

We had intended to head into the hills on day #2, and end by ambling up to a hill above the town and across the river, for a sunset view, however that plan was scuppered when a case of food poisoning hit and required a day of rest, so the Hsipaw experience was in some ways cut short. Bummer.

Next morning it was all aboard the Mandalay non-express for the slow train to Pyin Oo Lwin; the seven-hour ride covers less than 200km. While it is as bumpy as the legend recounts (you do wonder in places how it is that the carriages remain on the tracks), mercifully, you are generally going so slow that it doesn’t quite have the same unsettling feeling as we experienced at-times in Sri Lanka!

The key reason for taking the train is to cross over the Gokteik Viaduct bridge, which was the second-highest in the world when constructed in 1901. It was definitely an experience. Visible for some distance, as the train winds its way across the plateau, it slows right down across the viaduct. This is to avoid too much pressure being put on the aging infrastructure, but ignore that and focus instead on the pretty stellar views right down the valley (interestingly, coming the other way by bus, was in some ways just as interesting, riding the very sharp switchbacks…)

After the choking heat of Mandalay, I can see why Maymyo came to be, offering much needed respite from. However, like every other ex-British colonial hill station we’ve visited, the tagline is a stretch. Hill station conjures up very particular images and I think maybe the phrase needs to be consigned to the history books now; these places have moved on!

These days, Maymyo is best known for its strawberries (and jam), emerging wine production, and as a popular destination for domestic holidaymakers. It will no doubt continue to change.

That’s not to say it wasn’t a pleasant stopover, although I wouldn’t consider it a vital stop on the Myanmar itinerary.

There are indeed many examples of colonial buildings to discover. While the institutional buildings now seem to be government offices, many of the summer retreats are/seem closed up and/or in varying states of decay, sitting as they do on large barren/overgrown sections. It certainly adds an air of melancholy to the whole scene; something I always find appealing. They are also located just outside of the urban centre, in leafy settings, so you feel like you are exploring the countryside. The story of these places, however, needs to be told more effectively for it to be a real attraction.

Alongside this, the town boasts pretty extensive municipal gardens (including an unexpectedly fascinating and beautiful butterfly museum and a tower offering great region-wide views), a few temples (of course!) and a pretty lively market area (ditto). There’s plenty enough to make for an interesting day trip.

The other interesting thing about Maymyo is its pronounced Indian-ness, and it was the first time we learnt about this (for now) little discussed part of Myanmar’s modern history. Once under colonial rule, Burma, in fact, was officially governed as part of British India and Indian immigrants flooded into the country. For us, walking around Maymyo felt at-times like being back in a hill town in India, and it also meant we were able to find good Bhuja mix and great curry. #forthewin

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