Hsipaw was formerly the seat of the autonomous Shan state and is referred to as Thibaw in Burmese. Right now, the little town is saturated with an atmosphere of distinguished tamarind and rain trees arranged in the major street, the Dokhtawady (or Namtu) a slow flowing river to the east of the town and thatched roofs are hidden by nearby hills in Lisu and Palaung villages. There are also very comfortable accommodation and some beautiful cafés available, and it's no surprise that Hsipaw is a renowned starting point for strolling into the neighbouring countryside.
Exploring the town is itself an engaging experience, with a bustling early morning market located along the riverbank, and various little workshops scattered around town, where you get to see first-hand as cheroots are being rolled and tea is being sorted. The very captivating sceneries however all lie along the suburbs of town and it’s only a short bike ride away.
Amongst the most influential leaders in the Shan states are the Shan saophas, or “sky lords”, of Hsipaw, and this is mostly due to Hsipaw's strategic location right at the tip of the Shan Plateau, well placed just above the Bamar-filled lowlands. In the year 1886, Sao Hkun Hseng was one of the foremost Shan saophas to surrender to colonial British rule and was also the foremost Shan chieftain to have met with Queen Victoria. Sao Hke (later called Sir Sao Hke), his radiant looking son, married forty wives and reigned from a throne decorated with jewels from his spectacular courtyard at Sakandar, which is now lying in decay just outside Hsipaw.
Of all Hsipaw's saophas, the most popular however, was Sao Kya Seng, who ruled at a time when Hsipaw brilliantly flourished alongside his Austrian mahadevi, Inge Sargent, from 1954 up until 1962 when Sao Kya Seng was declared missing while he was going home from a political conference in the wake of Ne Win's coup. Apart from the two letters that were secretly delivered from a military camp close to Taunggyi to his wife, there were no other words that were heard from Hsipaw's last saopha , and his death was never recognized by the regime – this story was narrated in the book Twilight over Burma written by Inge Sargent's, and the book was written after she had fled Burma for the US in company of the couple's two daughters. Sao and Inge's wedding portrait is still very much seen in Hsipaw today, which confirms their popularity in Hsipaw.
During the Second World War, while the Neoclassical summer palace of the Hsipaw saophas, Sakandar was destroyed, the 1924 East Haw building still stands firm till today, and it was in this same building that Sao Kya Seng and Inge Sargent lived in the 1950s. This building has however not been properly maintained as its swimming pool have been covered with vegetation, still, saopha's last niece-in-law, Mrs Fern, opens up the palace gates and welcomes visitors. While the buildings have remained in a deplorable state, you however still gain a rare opportunity to be told first-hand about stories of Hsipaw's glorious recent history.
Hsipaw’s north-west corner is scattered all over it, overgrown and crumbling brick pagodas, which has earned it the comically exaggerated name of Little Bagan. It may represent a small portion of the main Bagan, however, it remains a beautiful place to behold. At the other eastern extreme is Kotaun Kyaung, which is recognised by a considerably cracked pagoda consisting of a tree which sprouts from its crown. Heading west you'll encounter Madhaya Shwe Kyaung and Maha Nanda Kantha Kyaung, the latter being a Buddha figure fabricated from bamboo and adorned with gold leaf and both a pair of beautiful 150-year-old hardwood monasteries located right at the edge of the road. Moving further north-west, you also get to find a few more groups of pagodas lying there.
Sao Pu Sao Nai Nat Shrine
Sao Pu Sao Nai Nat Shrine, located between Namtu Road and Little Bagan is a lively temple filled with attractive sculptures of different animals, devoted to Hsipaw's guardian nat, Tong Sunt Bo BoGyi, whose effigy is visible in the main hall filled with gifts and offerings. This vicinity also plays host to various smaller pavilions decorated with mini beds, spread with pink satin sheets - the final word in nat hospitality. Located somewhere around the rear of the complex is a shrine that is covered with green canopy and holds two swings; the locals push the (empty) swings to appeal to the female nat displayed behind them in order to receive her blessing.
Thein Daung Pagoda
Also referred to as Sunset Pagoda, Thein Daung Pagoda provides ecstatic views over Hsipaw and the hills that enclose the town and river. To arrive at this point, travel south along the Mandalay-Lashio road and go across the Dokhtawady River. Further beyond the bridge you get to find a decorative passageway just by the roadside - the pagoda stretches uphill from here covering a walking distance of thirty minutes.
Driving twenty minutes west of Hsipaw is the astonishingly tiered, Shan-style Bawgyo Paya. At the central shrine, you get to find four wooden Buddha statues which are believed to be carved from a piece of wood that was given to Bagan's King Narapatisithu by an immortal as far back as the thirteenth century with the leftovers buried underneath the temple complex, where it has mysteriously grown into a tree which still exists as at today. These images of Buddha are displayed publicly at least once every year, during an elaborate festival that occurs in this town around (February/March) the Tabaung full moon.
HIKING AROUND HSIPAW
The most prominent hike is the four- to five-hour walk from Hsipaw to Pan Kam village, where you can afford to spend the night. The trail begins at western edge of Hsipaw from the Muslim cemetery and ends uphill through the Nar Loy, Nar Moon and Man Pyit villages. With the headman at Pan Kam working closely with Mr Charles Guesthouse and the locals, O Maung, is almost looking like a tourist destination at peak periods. On the alternative, you can hike a further 75 minutes to Htan Sant, that is if you’re not interested in spending the night in Pan Kam itself. The ideal way to arrive at Htan Sant is to take a left route at a fork immediately after leaving Pan Kam, the alternative right-hand route has however got breath-taking views of the valley. You can arrange for accommodation at Htan Sant through the head man, Khao San Aye, and the next day you can choose to either retrace your steps backwards or move on further to Sar Maw village and subsequently to Bawgyo Paya, from whence you can now hitch back the 8km journey to Hsipaw.