Once considered something of a hidden gem, Hsipaw (pronounced as either “see-paw” or “tee-bor”) is transforming from a sleepy little backwater into a bustling town, thanks both to trade with China and to a burgeoning tourist industry.
Most people visit to go trekking, but Hsipaw itself is an engaging place to wander around. If you explore the backstreets of the town, you’ll find various cottage industries carried out in small shops and family homes, while the riverside produce market is particularly interesting before dawn when it’s lit with candles.
There are several attractions further north on the edge of town, including a small nat guardian spirit shrine which is signposted on the left-hand side of Namtu Road (after you’ve crossed the railway line). West of the shrine is an area known as Little Bagan – it’s a tongue-in-cheek name, but the decaying stupas are photogenic. On the western edge of Little Bagan is the Bamboo Buddha Monastery, although the actual bamboo construction of its statue is now hidden by gold leaf.
To learn more about the town and its history, a visit to the Shan Palace to the north of the centre is a must. The nephew of the last Shan saopha (prince) Sao Oo Kya – aka Mr Donald – was arrested in 2005 on trumped-up charges and although released in 2009 he no longer lives in Hsipaw. His wife, Mrs Fern, opens the gates of the palace around 4pm each day to receive visitors for conversation.
If you fancy a late-afternoon stroll then head up to Thein Daung Pagoda on top of Sunset Hill, 2.5km south of town across the Dokhtawady River. Take a left just after the bridge, then a right at the signposted temple gateway; it’s a fifteen-minute walk from there to the top for lovely sunset views of the river and town.
The most popular trekking route from Hsipaw is to a Palaung village called Pan Kam, which can be visited in a day but is usually done as an overnight trip. It’s a 4–5 hour walk through fields and then uphill, starting at a Muslim cemetery on the western edge of Hsipaw and continuing through the villages of Nar Loy, Par Pheit, Nar Moon and Man Pyit.
Pan Kam can get busy and some people prefer, therefore, to sleep at Htan Sant around ninety minutes further along. The next day you can either retrace your steps or press on through Paw Ka, Ohn Mu and Sar Maw. The latter takes around eight hours and comes out at Baw Gyo Pagoda on the main highway, from where you can find a pick-up or hitch back the 8km to Hsipaw.
Other options include a longer hike starting at the hilltop village of Namhsan and walks around Kyaukme, a town partway between Pyin Oo Lwin and Hsipaw which has accommodation for foreigners.