The last leg of my Myanmar adventure was a two day hike in Hsipaw, followed by a train journey to Pyin Oo Lwin.
Hiking in Hsipaw
I took a mini bus from Mandalay to Hsipaw (pronounced Sea-paw), a hilly town in the northern part of the Shan State. I stayed at Mr Charles, a Hsipaw institution that’s both a guesthouse and a place to book hiking trips. I opted for the two day and one night trip. It involved one full day hiking through the hills and villages of the area surround Hsipaw, staying with a Shan family in a hilltop village overnight, and then a shorter hike back, finishing up with a dip in a hot spring.
In the morning, I woke with a pain in my stomach and not feeling 100%. I was a bit worried but didn’t have time to go to the pharmacy before the hike, so I just filled up my water bottle and hoped for the best. I met my guide for the hike and the three other women who would be my companions for the next few days, hailing from Germany, The Netherlands and Alabama in the US.
We set off around 8am, and within an hour the heat was already beginning to build as we made our way through the farmland near Hsipaw town. As we got further into the countryside, we stopped for a tea and water break at a rest stop at a farmhouse. At this stage, my dodgy tummy got worse and I was starting to dread the next few hours of walking in the heat. Thankfully, it turns out that I was hiking with a bunch of goddess-like heroes, who do not come to the hills unprepared. They quickly sprang into action and came to my rescue, supplying me with the necessary drugs as well as peppermint oil, to settle the stomach. Once I’d taken everything they could throw at me and rehydrated, I was ready to roll again. Luckily, it did the trick and I had no problems for the rest of the hike.
Afer a couple more hours, we stopped for lunch at a family home in one of the villages. I’m glad my stomach was doing better as the food was delicious and I would have been very disappointed to miss it. I particularly liked the banyan leaf from the trees that grow in the area, which I’d never eaten before. We also had tomato salad, mixed beans and plenty of rice. All the food in Myanmar was basically veggie heaven!
I took advantage of the hour break to catch up on some vital napping. Once we were fed and rested, we hit the trail again.
The afternoon brought us over flat, dry agricultural land and then up into more jungle terrain, through thick and hilly bamboo forests. It was hard going but really beautiful.
The last stretch took us from the forest up a steep hill, to the village we would stay that night. We washed in the bathing area in the farmyard – the old barrel and pan approach again, though this time there was a wall around it so there was some privacy. They even had shower gel – spoilt rotten!
Once we were some way clean and in fresh clothes, we made out way down to the farmhouse for supper. Another delicious sharing style meal of banyan leaf curry, mustard leaf soup, fried bean curd, salad with rice and flasks of green tea. we ate well after the day’s walking, and headed to bed pretty early.
The next day the landscape was less varied, and we passed through quite a lot of land that was dried out, with very little farming happening givwn that it was dry season.
When we finished the hike, we had lunch and a relaxing dip in the hot springs. It was pretty basic – a small, outdoor, concrete pool of warm water – but a nice way to end the hike before our tuk tuk brought us back to town.
The train to Pyin Oo Lwin
The next day, I headed over to the train station to get my ticket for the 9.30am train.
The train journey actually runs between Lashio in the North and Mandalay, but the full journey take around 15 hours. I only needed to get as far as Pyin Oo Lwin, which would tak 7 hours from Hsipaw. From there I would catch a coach to Yangon for my flight to Bangkok.
The ordinary class ticket cost 1,200 kyat, which is about 70p. This isn’t a train made for tourists. It’s used by locals, and is slow and meandering as it makes its way through the countryside. Upper Class tickets are usually available, though I think on this day they were sold out, but honestly the ordinary class is the way to go. The old-fashioned carriages have basic wooden benches, and the windows are all open so the breeze blows trough the carriage as the train rolls through the beautiful green surroundings. It’s probably not considered safe to hang out the windows and doors as it does so, but that didn’t seem to stop anybody.
Every so often, the train stops at a station in a small town for anywhere between 5 and 20 minutes. During these stops, food sellers and street vendors line the platform, and you can hop off the train, pick up some snacks, and get back on. At some stops the vendors come onto the train, carrying baskets of snacks through the carriages to sell.
The highlight of the journey is when the train passes over the famous Gokteik viaduct. At 102 metres, it’s the highest bridge in Myanmar, and it was the biggest railway bridge in the world when it was built in 1901. It spans a huge gorge and provides incredible views as you cross it.
Although the viaduct underwent some updating in the mid 20th century, it doesn’t feel like the sturdiest piece of infrastructure and the train crawls across it incredibly slowly. I told myself this was to allow ample time to take pictures and admire the view, and not because they were afraid the bridge might buckle under the stress of the train, sending us all flying into the gorge below. Thankfully, it creaked its. way across safely and we lived to tell the tale. If you do take the train journey, be sure to get a seat on the right when coming from Hsipaw, to get the best views.
When I arrived in Pyin Oo Lwin, there was some confusion about the bus I had booked and paid for in Hsipaw. The man from the bus company didn’t speak much English, but on Facebook he showed me a picture of a huge traffic jam, what looked like a crash and a road closure. I realised that my bus was somewhere in that tailback and not coming to get me any time soon. It was a 10 hour drive to Yangon, almost 6pm and my flight was at 11am the next morning. I was it starting to panic as it got dark and I thought I might not make it. Then he handed me a phone, and I spoke to a woman who explained in English that there was another bus going to Yangon and they would be passing in a few minutes and had a seat for me. At this point I would have taken a tuk tuk to Yangon. Two friendly travellers who had waited while I sorted all this out, were kind enough to give me a bottle of water and a cupcake, as I didn’t have time to get anything before boarding the bus.
Once again, between the bus company making sure I got to Yangon and fellow backpackers helping me out, I was struck by the friendliness and kindness of all the people I’d met during my time in Myanmar. I was soon on board the bus and making my way towards Yangon, and the end of my Myanmar adventure. Eventful to the last!