18 November 2015

18 November 2015

“It’s just a bridge,” complained Nicky as I craned my neck out of the window to try and catch another vertiginous shot of our train somehow clinging to the track, with just a few inches of metal between us and a 100-metre drop into the valley below.

“It’s more than just a bridge,” I insisted, “it’s over a hundred years old and when it was built it was considered an engineering marvel”.

“It’s just a bridge”.

Ok, it IS just a bridge, but it’s still a pretty impressive one – and one that was well worth persevering the seven-hour journey for en route from Pyin Oo Lwin by train to Hsipaw, in Myanmar’s Shan province.

The journey was part of five days we were spending to the north-east of Mandalay, in an area that’s a little under the radar compared to the “big three” destinations of Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake. It’s an area, though that’s not only beautiful but provides an opportunity for travellers to get well off the beaten path, including visiting hill tribes who are not yet heavily influenced by tourism.

Pyin Oo Lwin is just an hour and a half by car from Mandalay and, as a hill station was the summer capital for The Establishment during the days of British Burma when the elite would escape from the heat and humidity of Rangoon (now Yangon). As a result, there are plenty of old colonial mansions and villas dotted in and around the town – now mainly owned and occupied by rich Indians and Chinese. And horse-drawn carriages can be seen and heard clopping their way around the streets as if the British Victorian transport system had never left.

There’s also a bar in town which exclusively sells “Spirulina Beer”, a temptation that was just impossible to ignore. Apparently, the combination of beer and spirulina makes it a “healthy anti-aging drink”.

You can imagine the unrestrained glee with which we set about testing these claims out. And sure enough, we could feel the years draining away as we worked our way through the first, second and third glasses, wondering if we could persuade our doctor back home to provide an annual supply of prescription. Sadly, the anti-aging effect seemed to disappear as soon as I tried to get out of my seat and walk towards the door – maybe it just doesn’t work on the legs. Ah well – experiment over.

Spirulina beer

The following day it was time for our train journey to Hsipaw (pronounced See-paw) – a full seven hours for the ridiculously cheap ticket price of £1.40 each – and that was first class! However, there was a catch, of sorts. Although we’d paid for a seat, we hadn’t figured on spending much of our time with our backsides actually detached from it, as the train jumped around so much for the majority of the journey. In fact, it was so bad that we were even tempted to strap our limbs to the seat legs, along with our bags.

Still, the train was full, combining locals with inquisitive tourists, keen to experience one of the “train journeys of the world”. In truth, the scenery before we arrived at the viaduct (about two and half hours in) was fairly humdrum – but the excitement levels began to grow upon the first sighting of the silver structure. First on the left, then to the right as the tracks twisted their way around the valley edge as it approached. Nicky will no doubt disagree, but the sight of the 100-year-old silver structure stretching out over the gorge like a prototype rollercoaster was something to behold.

Approaching Gokteik Viaduct

The imposing Gokteik Viaduct

And, as we got closer the train slowly ground to a halt, before pushing off again at a snail’s pace as the driver negotiated the track and the 100-metre sheer drop on each side. After the bumpy ride, we’d had until now this did come as something of a relief. And despite the engineering wonder that the viaduct truly is, better to give it the full respect that 100 years of wear and tear has undoubtedly produced.

In fact, as we inched our way along the track it was easy to get a sense of what an engineering feat this must have been. However, I’d read that the reason why the train travels over it so slowly is so that it doesn’t provoke any further damage to what is is ultimately a pretty antique structure. I’m not sure if that’s true or not but I was pretty happy for us to take it NICE AND EASY!

View from Gokteik Viaduct

View from the viaduct

View from Gokteik Viaduct, looking down

View from the viaduct – looking down!

The main event over, it was time to head on to Hsipaw and, from here, the scenery just got better and better. Miles upon miles of rolling hills crammed full of rice paddy fields and other crops. We thought that the train journey in Sri Lanka from Ella to Kandy was pretty special but this actually trumped it. So worth splurging the £1.40 on!

Hsipaw itself was a joy. Not only because our accommodation at the Tai House Resort was so good, but the town itself had a wonderful, relaxed vibe about it.

Situated in Shan state, it’s one of the areas within Myanmar where the ethnic Shan population speaks a different language to Burmese (although many are fluent in both) and they’ve been in conflict with the military government over independence rights for decades. Many Shans have suffered as a result, including those who’ve been effectively burned out of their villages and forced to flee to Thailand. Nevertheless, just wandering through the many traditional Shan villages surrounding Hsipaw brought us face to face with some of the warmest and friendliest people we’ve met.

The countryside around Hsipaw was pretty special, too. Take our trip to a nearby waterfall, for instance. To start with we cycled through some glorious countryside, passing through small Shan villages where adults and children alike would stop to say hello, wave and generally welcome us with smiles as wide as the rice paddies themselves.

Cycling around Hsipaw

Cycling around the Shan countryside

And then we parked up our bikes within the walls of a monastery and hiked up through more rice fields, banana and chilli plantations to another glorious waterfall, this time plunging 100 feet into a small pool below. The views of it changed repeatedly as we approached, each one giving us a different perspective – but each time we could hear the roar of the water, almost coaxing us towards it as we continued on foot. The payoff was to have the waterfall to ourselves, where we were able to cool off before heading back through the fields and being reunited with our bikes.

Just a great way to spend a few hours.

Waterfall near Hsipaw

Waterfall trek

Another highlight was visiting the Shan Palace in Hsipaw, home to the last Shan Prince, who mysteriously disappeared in 1962 during the country’s military coup and who the family believes was kidnapped and killed. The prince’s nephew still lives there (apart from his regular spells in jail on trumped up charges), along with his wife, Fern who now takes in tourists and openly discusses the history of the past 50 years in return for a small donation for the palace’s upkeep. It’s perhaps a sign of the changing times in Myanmar that Fern can actually be openly critical of the government without fearing imprisonment – and she certainly doesn’t pull any punches. A truly unique experience.

Fern at Shan Palace

“Unique” is also a word that describes Hsipaw itself. Despite the fact that it’s now established on the tourist trail it still felt like the “real Burma” to us. We wished we had more time to spend there – and with hindsight, we wished we’d managed to do an overnight trek to one of the Palaung hill tribe villages – but we’re pretty sure we’ll be returning sometime soon.

One of our abiding memories is of watching lines of pink-robed nuns, clutching alms bowls, pass by our guest house as we ate breakfast. They’d stop at a large house opposite and pick up an offering before continuing on their way, the younger nuns singing a blessing as they went. It felt like we were eavesdropping on a way of life that was a million miles away from our own. And long may it continue.

However, as with a lot of Myanmar, we expect that Hsipaw will change over the next few years as developers muscle in on the natural and cultural attractions – it’s also quite close to the Chinese border, as can be witnessed by the number of Chinese lorries that are something of a blight on the roads around town. Don’t miss it if you’re planning to visit Myanmar soon. But just do us a favour – arrive there by train!

What did you think? Have you been to Hsipaw? Or perhaps you’re thinking of visiting there in the near future? Either way, we’d love to hear from you so please add your comments below.


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Hi, we’re Ian and Nicky, an English couple on a voyage of discovery around the world, and this blog is designed to reflect what we see, think and do. Actually, we’d like to think it also provides information, entertainment and inspiration for other “mature” travellers, too. So please feel free to pour yourself a glass of something suitably chilled and take a look around.

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