Why you should care
It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see an untouched corner of the country.
The town of Hsipaw is both a literal and symbolic crossroads in Myanmar’s northern Shan State. Trucks straining under the weight of Burmese logs bound for China and others filled with cheap electrical goods moving the opposite way pass each other at the bustling center of town. To the south, a different Myanmar emerges, one slowly beginning to come to grips with the modern world. Head north and you embark on a life-changing hike through the country’s wild northern reaches — home to self-sustaining ethnic villages, insurgent armies and, if you venture far enough, wild tigers.
Hsipaw is the starting point of a spectacular and tranquil 20-mile hike that offers an intimate look at one of the world’s most fascinating countries. With endless undulating tea plantations and hidden villages cut off from the outside world, the trek takes you into a world rarely seen by foreigners. For the two-day stretch, you’ll likely be the only one.
But you can’t hike the trail alone. Trailhead signs warn that foreigners are required to hike with a guide. The story is that guides help hikers get the most out of the experience, but it’s hard to look past the political sensitivity of the area. Uncertainty and the potential for danger lie ahead — which your guide will both help you avoid and bring to life. There are a number of guides available, but one of the best is O Moung. Something of a local celebrity, O Moung acts as de facto mayor of a cluster of four Palaung villages through which the hike passes — he seems to know everyone you pass by.
After about two miles, you’ll emerge from a slippery, leaf-covered woodland path into a series of dramatic valleys.
After leaving town and a succession of pockmarked logging fields, you’ll gain elevation along a paved road and enter a thick forest. “My father tells stories of bears that used to stalk the village’s livestock, and falling asleep to the distant sound of tigers roaming the surrounding hills,” O Moung tells me as we walk. Both species, he says, have been pushed much further north by deforestation and the expansion of Hsipaw.
After about two miles, you’ll emerge from a slippery, leaf-covered woodland path into a series of dramatic valleys — tea trees planted with military precision in endless rows. The track splits here, and you pick your own route along the rough pathways, carved out by generations of workers, through the tea fields for about two miles. Stilted wooden shacks, used by the tea pickers as a refuge from the midday sun, are the only interruptions in the mesmerizing fields of uniformly planted, short, stout trees. Rain is a constant threat, even in the dry season, but necessary for the lush surroundings.
The first day of hiking ends in one of the self-sustaining Palaung villages, where you’ll stay with your guide’s family for the night. A huge banyan tree, a Burmese tradition, welcomes you. Then a traditional Palaung feast awaits, including pickled tea-leaf salad and broad bean curry, followed by an evening of tea and beer drinking.
The next day, you’ll travel back to Hsipaw by way of more isolated villages. Some homes have old bolt-action rifles on display, remnants of colonial British times. You’re told they’re for hunting rabbits, but it’s difficult to discount their role in deterring potentially unwelcome guests. Tea leaves dry in the sun on tarpaulins. Each village has a truck, used to deliver vital provisions — including crates of Chang beer from Thailand, a local favorite.
Despite the hike’s beauty and tranquility, danger lurks. O Moung tells a story of being “taken hostage and forced to join the [insurgent group]” when the village that asked him to visit realized what town he was from. The area is largely safe for visitors; however, certain areas or trails can be closed if tensions in the area rise.
Dangers aside, this lush and quiet, relatively accessible trek around Hsipaw’s tea-growing mountains is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a corner of Myanmar largely untouched by the developed world. As the country slowly opens up, it might not stay this way for long.
Go There: Hiking Myanmar’s Northern Shan State
- How to get there: It’s a five-hour shared taxi ride from Mandalay to Hsipaw (included in most tours).
- Cost: Tours can be booked through Ko Pee Travel and Trekking Tours: $220 per person includes three nights of accommodation, breakfast, a guide, transfers from Mandalay and dinner during home stays.
- When to go: The best time to visit is at the beginning of the tea harvest (April to May).
- Pro tip: Before you go, read up on the Burma Road and Myanmar’s ethnic struggles.