Favourite place; trekking in the Hsipaw area. This was literally one of the best experiences of my life from the time in the local village to the fantastic landscape we trekked through. My guide Jack was friendly and great fun. The other “experience” I loved was getting the local train to Hsipaw. This was an 11 hour journey and the train departed Mandalay at 3am.
The exceptional part was also Jacks knowledge of the local area from the crops to the culture of the tribes, I saw 11 different crops from the lowland irrigation to the cropping the mountains. I had never seen oaka or black sesame being grown, so that was cool. Once we returned to Hsipaw Jack in his free time took me to sunset point and then dinner. It was then I learnt that this amazing young man couldn’t wait to try real cheese and had also just returned for a young leaders course focusing on peacekeeping as we met other participants from the course.
I feel it was a privilege to be able to stay in a local village home, eat amazing food cooked over a fire and be completely immersed in local life. Our host easily dished up 7 dishes for each meal. I would sit down and take a photo then more dishes appeared. I had never been to a village that didn’t have running water or electricity yet It was both fascinating and eye-opening as they collected their daily water and carried to the house. To shower you had a small basin you could use to throw water on yourself. They did have a western style toilet, again you used a basin of water to flush it.
What I did: I did the 2D/1N trek to the Pankam village and had a private guide Jack organized through the tour company/individual known as Mr Bike for AUD$90. Originally I wanted to do the Jungle trek but the village trek was more accessible by motorbike if my foot injury flared up after discussions with the lovely Mr Bike.
Time with the locals in the village including visiting the school was fantastic insight into the local life. When visiting each household green tea is offered. The older generation is huddled around the fire either a communal fire in the middle of the room or a small individual one. There are no chimneys and the younger generation can understand english. The above lady was walking to work as we began our return trip on Day 2. I was privileged to meet local families before breakfast while dressed in my hosts traditional Palaung costume. The older generation wear most parts of the traditional costume, the younger generation mainly wear the skirt. You can notice a grandmother with a cigar in her hand in a photo on the top right. This addiction is due to cigars being provided to tea pickers to rid the tea bushes of mosquitos as the picked tea.
The area I was in had signed a ceasefire with the government, however another tribe (rebels) was still fighting the government. I do need to disclose that the sounds of fighting in the distance between the rebels and government did echo through the mountains on occasion. This varied from the odd bomb to rapid-fire shooting in the afternoon. Was I worried, not at all. I am honestly more concerned about my safety as I travel in Europe/England. From regular stabbings in London to the presence of the automatic guns being carried by police as I pass through train stations and airports due to terror threats.
*As of November 2019 Hsipaw is in a suggested do not travel zone from my government. This, therefore, means it meant that I was not covered by travel insurance while in the area and have limited to no government support in the event of a situation. This was a key place I wanted to go too so I took local advice in Mandalay and then hired a private guide for my trek. I also advised a family member of legal documents I have in place (ie will, enduring power of attorney) and location of my finances in the event something happened.
Moments where my eyes popped a little in my travels through Myanmar aside from the first bomb sound I heard while trekking (much quieter than a shot gun echo in the Australian bush as it was appox 70-100km away).
•The number of people on this motorbike
•The check-in counter in Bagan airport with the handwritten flight times on the whiteboard (right side of the photo)
•Sunset yoga in Bagan that involved getting on this wobbly boat to head to the other side of the river and watching it get stuck in the low tide as it returned to collect us. And hoping we werent going to get stuck on the return, in the dark.
•An attendant unwrapping my scarf/sarong at the Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, without asking me. I quickly looked to ensure I was wearing shorts under it. Myself and another girl just stared at each other in shock as she re-tied it to ensure I was respectful enough to enter the place of worship.
• I was more excited about seeing an elephant on the drive to U Bein bridge than the bridge itself. The shear amount of tourists on boats to see the sunset and then rubbish around it was an interesting sight.
A quick summary
Which country? Myanmar (formally Burma)
When did I visit there? In November 2019 for 11 days
Which places did I visit? Mandalay > Hsipaw* > Mandalay > Bagan > Yangon
Would I visit again? I would love to see positive progression and prosperity for the general population and return in 10 years.
The local people were some of the nicest people I have ever experienced in my travels (40th country)
Would I suggest you visit? Absolutely but only if you can handle getting dirty, long distances between places and poor infrastructure. It is also hard to find out the safety ratings on domestic airlines. English is widely spoken and locals will proactively help tourist ie I was in the only queue at the train station but I someone checked where I was going and walked me to the correct counter.
For me the highlight was the trekking, there is also an insane amount of Buddhist pagoda and stupas in Myanmar. One website site estimated there are 2,200 remaining stupas reduced from 13,000. So if you are up for an adventure in a developing country go for it although it is one of the higher costing country for budget travellers and the entry visa is +US$50 alone.
Unless you have a burning desire to see the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon or the Buddha on the side of a cliff I would skip visiting Yangon.
Appox costs ($AUD) – meals range from 70cents in rural areas to appox $7 in Yangon at an upscale restaurant (enclosed with air-con). A dorm bed $15-20/night. Local train for 11hours (Mandalay > Hsipaw) $4, 1st class. or $2 for a second class bench with no cushion. Just imagine your first class seat being from an airplane in the 1970’s with extra leg room. The priceless part; ordering an unknown breakfast from the train window which ended up being two types of rice and fried vegetables.
My style of travel; sole backpacker (hostel dorms). Side note; I found my 2nd most comfy backpacker bed at the Ned Kelly Hotel in Mandalay, defiantly like a luxury hotel bed. And what an ironic name for an Aussie to stay in (google Ned Kelly Bushranger to understand this).
Mode of travel; Local train, bus, horse and cart, plane, Grab app; tuk-tuks and motorbikes.
Honestly, I think when I visit again I’ll fly most places. The roads are crazy and time-consuming, one Aussie I met told me they hose down the brakes on heavy vehicles as they come down the mountains which then makes it extra exciting when you are on a motorbike.
Blogs that I used for research included https://adventuresoflilnicki.com/hsipaw-trekking/
And some snaps I sent through to my friends below.