The following morning we briefly explored Pyin oo Lwin’s market and some of the old Colonial houses before we left by car for Hsipaw.
Our original plan had been to take the train part of the way to Hsipaw so that we could cross the famous Gokteik Viaduct. This bridge was once one of the world’s great engineering marvels – built in the USA and shipped to Burma in 1901, the bridge was reassembled to become one of the highest in the world. Today it is still possible to travel over the bridge…when the trains run. Unfortunately, when we reached the train station in the morning, we were told that the train had derailed a couple of days before and there was no service for us. So, we drove.
The drive to Hsipaw is actually much quicker than the train trip, taking about four hours instead of over 6 hours. Just out of Pyin oo Lwin we stopped at the Pwe Kauk falls (once known as the Hampshire Falls). They are a popular picnic spot and we had to pay to enter but it was incredibly disappointing. The falls were small and the water was filthy. Our plans for swimming evaporated.
Back on the road, the drive became spectacular as we descended down into the Gokteik Gorge,. This is the highway to China and it’s incredibly strategic. The road goes down and down, until it crosses the river at the bottom. It requires very careful driving, and here and there we noticed Nat shrines that our driver silently prayed to as we drove by. We saw the famous viaduct bridge briefly – seemingly impossibly high across the gorge (it’s over 350 feet high). The crossing is guarded by a military outpost, one of the very few we saw in our travels. If there was ever a war, this would be an incredibly important crossing. The countryside was spectacular – green paddy fields stretching everywhere.
Driving is a real experience in Myanmar. Firstly, you would be crazy to drive yourself – get a driver. Secondly, the country always drove on the left hand side of the road until 1970, when the reigning general decided to change to the right hand side of the road. The result is that some vehicles, including cars, truck and buses, have steering wheels on the left and others have their steering wheels on the right. The fact is, that half the drivers on the road can’t see what is going on ahead of them when there is traffic. So, throughout ones trip, drivers are signalling to those behind them what to do – they indicate when they can be overtaken, horns honk a lot, and sometimes you see a helper telling the driver what’s going on. It’s unbelievably crazy!
We finally arrived in Hsipaw (pronounced “Sipaw”). Hsipaw is a very small town with a wonderful off the beaten track atmosphere. We checked into Mt Charles’ guesthouse, which almost has a monopoly on accommodation. Not great, but certainly the best on town open to foreigners and we were pretty comfortable though the a/c was poor. The people themselves were very friendly. On our first day we explored the “highlights” which are basically various craft workshops. We visited a fascinating noodle workshop and a cheroot “factory” which consisted of one woman rolling Burmese cigars at an incredible pace. We also visited another house which was supposedly a workshop as well, but it turned out that the man of the house had died some time before. Nevertheless, the mother and grandmother were so happy that we were there that they insisted on pressing a huge bag of snacks into our hands! We also popped into the small monastery.
This was a fun afternoon – not because we saw anything incredible, but because the people were so delighted that we had come to see them at work. This is what makes Myanmar so wonderful – the people are just the greatest we have met anywhere.
That evening we went to the local carnival – very simple, with ice cream and other snacks for sale, a small fun fair, and most strangely, a fashion show, with local girls parading up and down a small stage to the latest hits. The kids went on a “ride” that was human powered, with someone pulling a rope to make the little cars go swing around. Imagine this at a big theme park in the USA!
(PS: I am now custom-designing trips to Myanmar. Click here for more details).