We arrive in Hsipaw late at night and ravenous. Fortunately, the guest house we had booked meets us at the bus stop and has kept the kitchen open for us. An Australian accent at the next table draws our attention and it is Steve Whan, formerly the local member in Queanbeyan (Keelie’s note: only Myles is drawn to this).
Hsipaw is in the mountains in Shan state towards the north of Myanmar. While the north of Myanmar is opening up to tourists, much of it is still off limits due to civil war. The people in Hsipaw are a lot more open about their political views, we even hear people go as far as to make sarcastic jokes about the government. While pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi and her father, independence hero Aung San are ubiquitous at souvenir stands, in Myanmar people disappear for having opposing views, so we haven’t asked anyone political questions. However once we are in Hsipaw for the first time people start to tell us without any prompting. Their opinions aren’t favourable. We start to understand why the government hasn’t gotten the north of Myanmar under control. We may have timed our visit well, with elections due in November things could quite easily get nasty if Aung San Suu Kyi’s party wins and the regime doesn’t cede power willingly, or if the pro-democracy forces lose and there are suspicions of vote rigging.
The main reason to come to Hsipaw is for trekking. Since it is still very hot, we decide a half day walk through the nearby Shan villages is enough. We wander through factories, fields and villages and make it to the restaurant for lunch just as a storm rolls in (lunch is Shan noodles, a delicious spicy noodle soup). The Shan are the second largest ethnic group in the Myanmar, mainly Buddhist (although our Shan guide was Christian) and closely related to Thai ethnic groups in Thailand. The Shan used to have a system of sawbwa or sky princes to rule themselves, but the sky princes were all eventually disappeared by the current government following the 1962 coup. The ancestral tombs of the sky princes of Hsipaw are accessible to the public, though in a poor state of disrepair.
The last sky prince of Hsipaw had an English wife, and relatives of the last prince still live in the area and open the palace to visitors. We walk to the palace in the afternoon, only to find it closed. Instead, we wander over to a complex of small temples known as little Bagan. The overgrown stupas have a magical appearance. That evening it begins to rain again. This time the monsoon really does start. It rains constantly for the next 42 hours, varying between a light drizzle and a downpour so heavy you can barely hear yourself think, but never stopping.