Hsipaw is a small mountain-side town in the Shan state. Home to enthnicity of people who after constant battle with the Burmese army, have gained some degree of autonomous control in the governance of their state. The only thing new about our public bus was the upholstery on the seats. Aside from that it’s quite possible the bus has lived a life of capacitated servitude since it’s inception in the 50’s. We packed in and Burmese are falling asleep on my arm and shoulders, vomiting out the windows and somewhere up the back a baby won’t stop crying. We’re endlessly stopping at checkpoints. We stop some 3 hours later at Pyin U Lwin, a town renown for it’s military and government training facilities. Among the dirty streets and shantys are enourmous gates and menancing military statues guarding the entrance to what could be cities by themselves but are housing and facilities for soldiers and government officials. Signs and placard out the front of these facilities make it clear that they will ‘resist foreign invasion’ at all costs. Just in case we got any ideas.
We have a chai at the bus stop, slap on the tiger balm and are soon away again. The air is noticably cooler as leafy roadsides turn to twisting hairpin turns and switchbacks around dusty mountain roads, more locals vomiting out the windows. We’re soon some 35 kilometers away from Hsipaw, stuck in a town called Kyaukme while our bus is unloaded of cargo (mostly whisky and cement) and reloaded with supplies. An hour later, we’re running cargo errands around Kyuakme. You see ‘Yoma Express’ appears to have converted it’s Mandalay – Hsipaw leg into a dual passenger/cargo line. A shan festival drums through the streets, highly adorned parasols twist colourfully around children on the shoulders of young men. They are dressed in traditional clothing, wear sunglasses and rythmnically jostle hankerchiefs in time to the drums while people around them clap.
We soon rattle into Hsipaw after meandering our way alongside vast green ricefields, spattered with the occasional shady tree, running up to the base of a rolling mountain range. Hsipaws main street is lined with the same mammoth trees seemingly from the cro-magnum era, they are a vaccuum of cool air, their shade harbouring its own weather system, their twisting roots witness to the ages. Foot-high sidewalks with kerbside yellow and black painting preface two story shop/homes, strange brands and blatant copy products displayed for sale, results of trade embargoes. Occasionally the odd can of Sprite or Coke appears, evidence of a black market trade from Thailand. The sidewalk fragments in sections, exposing stagnant drainage, occasionally wood panelling ammends the breakage, yet eventually the main road sidewalk disapears and turns into rough edged roadside asphalt. Chinese trucks en route from Mu se on the Chinese border storm past, their airhorns tickling the hair on the back of your neck. Farm trucks thunder past, their cyclinders gnashing like machine guns. Yet despite the throughfare aspect of this town theres townspeople and villagers parusing through on bicycles, kids with bikes 3 times their size screaming ‘bye-bye’ at you, their pedaling movement exaggerated by the oversized frame, appearing more like a running motion. All under the shady, watchful eye of the towns elder tree population. Open-air tea shops with playset tables and chairs serve free Chinese tea with the purchase of a chai or samosa or the like. Groups of Burmese and Indians gather together at dusk and watch the sun settle by the roasting open flame of wood and coal fires cooking up fried snacks. There’s no provision for gas supply so cooking fires are predominantly stoked with coals and wood, from the roadside tea-shops to the restaurants in town.
Children cheekily scream ‘I love you’ as we pass and then run screaming as we turn and appraoch them to take some photos. Soon they are squealing in sheer delight as they look back into their digital reflection on the LCD of our camera, each of them jostling for a personal portrait.
Even parents share their childrens curiosity and pose willingly just to see how they look. Soon enough the main road turns rural and we turn off onto a dirt track, wandering past partitioned properties, their gardens and fences superbly manicured despite the modesty of their thatch houses. An old woman in a white wide-brimmed hat, sporting a white singlet, munches on the end of a cigar, glowing at the end like a cherry. Following our noses we stumble onto an open air property, a cemented area covered only by a roof and divided at the ends. A woman sits turning a cast iron pot over an open fire as another woman welcomes us to Hsipaws popcorn factory.
Kernals bought at the market are emptied with baking soda and sugar into the top of the cast iron pressure cooker whos top is sealed with a series of levers and bolts. The cooker is rotated over an open flame and some 15 minutes later we are summoned over. The woman aims the cooker into the divided section of the room and with a heave of the back of an axe, knocks a topside lever, literally exploding the popcorn out of the top of the cooker with an incredible gutteral boom, shaking my vision and leaving a ringing in my ears. Her business funding her childrens education. Her salary as a principal of the local school could no longer sustain her needs after nationalisation. We leave with packets of crunchy corn and stumble further along the dirt path until the concrete peaks of stupas emerge from the folliage in the distance. Branching off the road slightly we find evidence of some 5 scattered brick payas of an undetermined age, their fading whitewash and fragmented brickwork left somewhat to the elements as folliage and vines continue their consumption of these Buddhist relics.
In the immediate area we can see another paya whos peak has been condiluted by the growth of a tree whos branches now form the top of the paya. Two monks in plum robes watch us with amusement as a farmer leading two ox emerges from behind the payas. Further along the path passing rolling green ricefields, mountains in the far distance and scattered old pays to our left and right, overgrown and seemingly untouched, three boys not more than 14 ride past on water buffalo, giggling at the funny looking Westerners in their village.
Night falls and so does the temperature, we sip some sweet chai at dusk and sit down to a vegetarian Shan meal. Typically a vegetable soup/seasoning for rice, chilled eggplant, beans and sprouts, chilli oil, rice and a tomato relish. Each bought out on a small dish making out table like the surface of the moon, dotted with craters. It’s an overly satisfying meal for under $1US for both of us.
For a modern cultural experience we purchase balcony seats in the enourmous Hsipaw theatre. Straw/wooden seats, wooden everything else with a high ceiling adorned with randomly placed/operating fans. We reluctantly stand with the under exhuberant audience for the national anthem, more out of fear of spies than anything else. An LCD projector shines an even square in the middle of an enourmous rectangular screen. People continue their conversations and much loudly on snacks as the opening scenes show peaceful villagers suddenly disrupted by unconvincing explosions and spontaneous combustions at the hands of imperialists brandishing British flags. We sink in our seats. The movie continues in a bizarre mix of soapie-drama and keyboard suspence chords mixed with passion-driven action sequences and a touch a romance, the crowd wooing as the lead characters touch hands. The movie ends ubruptly, the projector turned of before the final scene is played out, like a curfew had been met and we were now ordered to go home.
We soak in the local market and come face to face with local Shan tribespeople in traditional dress. They gladly allow us to take their picture. Metal hoops around their waist, garments of black with patches of pink and green.
Despite our intentions to visit their village, the elements gave no relent and 3 mornings bore torrential rain rendering paths unsuitable for sandals, our only shoes. Instead we take a sunset walk to Nine Mile Pagoda, a typical Burmese stupa with switchbacked paths guarded by a row of a dozen or so lifesize concrete monks with alms bowls, lined up at the foot of the hill, their feet smudged in red soil, their blank eyes staring with a paradoxically warm stare. From a height the mountains that enclose Hsipaw roll across the background in various shades of hazy pale blue, township dense in vegetation seeps into fertile rice fields.
Amoung the view are the tops of stupas poking through lush vegetation. We have the pagoda to ourselves and feel the warm of the day blow through, tailed by the cool breeze of dusk.
Travel in Burmas small towns