Hsipaw

WIT: Trekking in Hsipaw – Everything You Need to…

The trekking in Hsipaw was one of the highlights of our entire Myanmar trip. Wild, authentic and with sweeping views of the Shan State mountains, Hsipaw is, unfortunately, the skipped by many backpackers in pursuit of the classic Kalaw – Inle walk.

Our time and budget in Myanmar dictated that we choose between the two, and we had no regrets in choosing to go trekking in Hsipaw instead.

The sleepy downtown is certainly accommodating for tourists but has by no means become overrun. Although there are many worthwhile attractions near the town itself, most people arrive here for the outstanding trekking options.

There are treks to suit every fitness and adventure level: you can get totally off the grid in the guerrilla-controlled Shan State, or enjoy light walking with some tubing and treehouse sleeping. We guarantee there’s an outing to suit you, and with our Guide to Trekking in Hsipaw, you won’t regret adding this to your Burma itinerary.

Getting There

BUS

Like most people do in Myanmar, we went to Hsipaw from Mandalay. It is possible to take a direct (but very, very long) bus from Bagan, but we broke up the journey instead by taking a local bus to Mandalay, stretching our legs for a couple of hours there, and then taking the next bus to Hsipaw.

Yes, you’re going to be passing the impossible Goteik Viaduct on the way, but please bear with us and take this journey on the way back instead: this train journey is really, really long and you don’t want that on your way there.

The bus drive from Mandalay is beautiful, and a couple hours outside of Mandalay you’ll start bending up the curves and contours of the hills, before reaching Pyin-oo-Lwin where the bus is likely to stop for a break. Chill out, plug in your headphones and try not to be mesmerized by the incredibly bizarre soap operas being shown on the TV.

TAXI

If you’re in a group, a shared taxi is the quickest option. Be sure to agree on a cost beforehand. Rough price is around 14,000MKK for the car.

TRAIN
Experience the Famous Viaduct

Not one for the faint-hearted, stick your head out the window if you dare. This train journey is a rickety, rocky riot of a journey, especially if, like us, you’re in the ordinary class where there are no cushions on the seats and they’re more like church pews (1200MKK to Pyin oo Lwin).

If you opt for Upper Class, it’s 2750MKK (to Pyin oo Lwin), and that extra dough gets you some cushions, but you’ll still be screeching along the same old tracks, and smashing your head off the same train ceiling.

The impressive Goteik Viaduct in Myanmar
Stick your head/camera out with caution

But we promise this is worth it for the incredible views. We’ve never been on a train journey quite like this one. Battered and bruised, we were then rewarded with outstanding views of the viaduct and the valley; the train even stops on the other side of the viaduct so that you can snap away.

Admittedly, the views are pretty good when the train trundles through the Burmese countryside towards the famous wooden viaduct too. When you arrive in Pyin oo Lwin, take a shared taxi (6,000MKK per person, 2 hours) to Mandalay. The train is fun, but 6 hours is definitely enough.

Old man smoking on train carriage in Myanmar
We will never be as cool as this old boy smoking in the no-smoking section

Trekking in Kalaw & Inle, or Hsipaw?

The popular backpacker question, and one that we couldn’t get a straightforward answer to: should you have a guide to do the popular hike from Kalaw to Inle Lake, or go trekking in Hsipaw instead? The simple answer is that if you have the time and money, do both!

Unfortunately for most backpackers on a budget, this isn’t an option. When we first left for Burma we had no doubt that we were going to do the Kalaw to Inle trek like everybody else did, but the longer we travelled in the country the more we heard bitter complaints about how the trek was too crowded, too expensive and ultimately, ruined.

Kalaw’s wet season also tends to go on a bit longer than surrounding areas, so often people were describing walks through mud pits, sliding in quicksand the whole way. That being said, we met some people who absolutely raved about the Kalaw – Inle hike. These people were definitely in the minority though.

Our Decision

We decided to hike instead in Hsipaw after hearing about it being the quieter and much more genuine option for trekking in Myanmar. The couple hiking with us had already hiked Kalaw – Inle and confirmed to us that it simply didn’t compare with the Hsipaw trekking.

So, this guide will leave it up to you: the Kalaw – Inle is the classic backpacker trek in Burma and still seems like an enjoyable outing overall; we believe Hsipaw offers you a great range of trekking in a much more genuine surrounding whilst in Myanmar.

If you have done, or end up doing the Kalaw – Inle trek, please get in touch in our Comments below and let us know your thoughts! And if you happen to find yourself in the Kalaw area, we would recommend doing a few day-trip hikes around Pindaya, where we’re (very) reliably informed that there are far fewer tourists, and outstanding scenery here as well.

Spiders found trekking near Hsipaw, Myanmar
O Moung told us that these spiders were not dangerous, but apparently ‘very delicious’ when cooked right.

Practicalities of Trekking in Hsipaw

Trekking Companies

There are around 30-40 guides that operate in the Hsipaw area, all working for a variety of companies. The major companies that we found in our research are:

  • Mr Bike
  • Firefly
  • Ko Pee Trekking

Ko Pee Trekking, along with other companies, operate within Mr Charles’ business. Every evening around 5pm all the local guides will gather at Mr Charles, eager to talk to new arrivals and help organise trekking in groups.

Mr Bike

After reading reviews online, we opted to try Mr Bike. If you’re arriving really late like we did, then email/Facebook message him in advance, or turn up at his office around 7.30am to see what groups are going that day.

Mountain views while trekking in Shan State, Myanmar
Views, views, views

To be honest, there doesn’t seem to be much between the companies. They’re all generally well-reviewed and similar in price. We hiked with Ko Pee Trekking (big shout out to O Moung), which was organised through Mr Bike.

We didn’t arrive until around 10pm, so it wasn’t quite as straightforward for us to organise our trek, but between Mr Bike’s Office and Mr Charles Hostel around 5pm, you shouldn’t have a problem finding a group to split the costs with.

WEE TIP: when we turned up at Mr Bike’s office at 08.00am, we arrived to learn that the other two people on the trek had cancelled just that morning. DISASTER. This doubled the price for us and essentially made this trek a private one, which was basically impossible with our small budget. Don’t be a dick by cancelling last minute – it has a pretty big impact on the other people in the group that you’re sharing the costs with. Luckily, Mr Bike was able to call some friends and he got us on a trek leaving from Mr Charles, so we could split the costs again. Good guy!

Trekking Options in Hspiaw

You can do just about every trekking tour imaginable in Hsipaw. Most companies will offer the same options, and they vary greatly according to fitness and experience level. Another factor to consider is your time in Hsipaw – do you want to do a few 1-day hikes? A simple 2-3 day hike? Or a hardcore 5-day hike in the mountains? Luckily, you should be able to arrange any of these.

The classic hike is the 2D/1N hike to Pankam village. We opted to do the ‘extended’ version of this hike, which had us sleeping in a different village (Mantang) only a few kilometres further away. It’s really, really important to know that these are proper hikes: on our first day we hiked 10.77 miles and climbed 3,629ft.

The temperatures were around 30C in November: We’re experienced walkers and absolutely loved this trekking. But, if this hike doesn’t sound like it’s for you, then don’t get yourself involved in a Hsipaw trek beyond your abilities!

A local family eating during a visit at a local homestay in Pan Kam, Myanmar
A local family at a homestay in Pan Kam

If this sounds hellish to you and you’re looking for something a little different (and potentially less strenuous), it’s also possible to do shorter, <5km hikes which include sleeping in treehouses, swimming in waterfalls and even tubing! There really is a Hsipaw trip which will suit all abilities.

WEE TIP: So that you’re aware, due to ongoing conflict in the area, these treks now avoid the Namshan area. This used to be a really popular extension to the standard trek, but sadly admittance for all foreigners has been prohibited for 3-4 years now.

Shan State trekking scenery in Myanmar
Our group mid-hike in spectacular early-morning scenery
What to Expect on your Hike in Hsipaw, Myanmar

We hope it won’t scare anybody that we hiked around 18 miles during our 2 day hike and climbed a total of over 5,500ft. Trekking in Hsipaw is a wonderful experience and is likely to become one of the highlights of your trip to Burma.

All of your meals will be included in the hike. We stopped for snacks on the first day, then lunch, then dinner. We were given breakfast, more snacks and lunch on our second day too – all of these are washed down with delicious green teas.

This was also the best food we had in Burma – at the local homestays they cooked chicken soups, stir-fried pumpkin, spicy beans and so much more. Staying with the local Shan families was in itself a rewarding experience.

On our first night, our guide O Moung even cooked up some banana flower which we picked ourselves just that morning – the food was phenomenal.

Local guide trekking fresh banana flower
Delicious banana flower… dinner doesn’t get fresher than this

On our hike we saw golden spiders and snakes, listened to cicadas, and sampled lemon flower, sesame and mint (a great addition to your water bottle!). If the weather’s right, you’ll pass through fields of rice, soya and corn, complimenting the towering mountains in every direction you look.

We visited local schools and dropped in on an English class, watched kids just being kids (not an iPad in sight) and listened to all of the wildlife around us.

Local tea offered at homestay while trekking near Hsipaw, Myanmar
Sipping tea at our homestay
Accommodation

We slept in the stilted houses in homestays. Despite it getting surprisingly cold at night (bring a jumper like Emma did), the blankets are provided and are snug and warm. Another option is to sip happy water with your tour guide like Daniel did. Either way, with a bonfire blazing and unbelievable stars above, the cold isn’t much of a distraction.

Conflict in Hsipaw, Myanmar

Also, be aware that you’ll also be passing through some guerrilla army posts. Although it’s safe for tourists to visit, there is still an awful lot of conflict in the area, and this guerrilla military are still fighting a long and complex fight against the Burmese military (and sadly, even one another).

At the outposts, you’ll fill in your name, nationality and passport number. Other than that, leave it to your guide to do the talking: he’ll speak to them and be notified of any necessary changes to the walk. And definitely don’t take any photos without permission (they even checked our cameras before leaving).

Guerrilla army checkpoint trekking in Hsipaw, Myanmar
One of the few army check-points we passed along the way (they were ok with this photo surprisingly)

Other than that, bring some anti-bacterial wipes (the tiny chillies are lethal) and some hand sanitizer and you’re all set. You won’t need mosquito nets, but mosquito spray and of course suncream should be in your bag.

Added Bonus: Moon Cakes

One more thing – you’re likely to get these ‘Moon Cakes’ as part of your snacks on the walk. Daniel absolutely loved them and was pretty addicted by the time we crossed the border into Thailand: beware. We’re not sure if they’re coconut flavoured, orange flavoured or whatever, but man they’re delicious.

Moon cake, local cake, Myanmar
Sweet, sweet moon cake

WEE TIP: you’re thinking ‘surely I could do this walking myself?’ We agree, MapsMe is a wonderful technology, but make no mistake: you need a local guide for these hikes. Much of the trekking in the Hsipaw area will take you to the borders of conflict areas, and will pass through guerrilla army strongholds. We saw signs along the way warning tourists that access was prohibited without a guide. What’s more, there are huge areas of land which are believed to be still littered with unexploded ordnance, as some poor tourists found out two years ago, with one of them badly injuring their leg after stepping on a landmine. All things considered, the cost (and the joy!) of having a guide is essential.

Views over Pan Kam village in Hsipaw, Myanmar
Pan Kam Village

Other Things to do in Hsipaw

Although trekking is the major draw for tourists, if you have the time to spend a few days longer there during your Myanmar trip, there are plenty of things to keep you occupied in Hsipaw. We would recommend hiring a scooter (10,000MKK) or bicycle (3,000MKK) from Mr Charles to get around.

Sunset Hill

Hike up to Thein Daung Pagoda (or Five Buddha Hill as it’s also known) at sunset for sweeping views over Hsipaw. The short climb takes around 15 minutes and you’ll be joined by a combination of both locals and other lucky backpackers.

Nam Hu Nwe Falls

The Nam Hu Nwe Falls have enjoyed some construction and urban planning in recent years. What used to just be waterfalls is now a rather man-made waterfall with a pool, a romantic ‘walkway’ and another natural pool that seems more suited to local couples than backpackers and trekkers.

You’ll arrive to find plenty of food and drink options from numerous kiosks, and a walkway leading to the first waterfall. There’s a man-made pool for swimming, a small waterfall which is partly constructed and a small pier.

Girls in bikinis will have to cover themselves or keep their bodies underwater when the local monks pass! Stairs behind these falls lead to a more open area with romantic walkways and a much taller and natural waterfall.

While the views of the surrounding area are nice, this seemed more like a place you would go on a date, and the man-made waterfall is pretty forgettable. Still, there are worse ways to cool down after a long day in the sun.

Nam Hu Nwe Falls in Hsipaw, Myanmar
Perfect for a post-hike dip
Nam Tok Falls

The Nam Tok Falls are labelled Nant Ton falls on Google Maps. Even more confusingly, they are commonly known as Hsipaw falls. It seems we went to the wrong falls – everybody in the hostel said that these falls were far more beautiful and natural than the ones we visited.

Around 4km west of Hsipaw town, the entrance to the (free) falls will take around half an hour to cycle. While Nam Hu Nwe Falls weren’t exactly ‘busy’, you’ve a very good chance of having these falls all to yourself when visiting. There’s a natural pool for swimming here as well.

Baw Gyo Pagoda

This Shan style paya from the 12th Century is of great importance to Shan pilgrims. You’ll get a glimpse of it as you make your way into Hsipaw from Mandalay – the dome is said to be studded with genuine rubies. Free (donations optional)

Little Bagan (MYAUK MYO)

A miniature version of the famous pagoda site, many people visit Little Bagan as part of a day trip on their bike. Don’t take the name literally. Combine this with a lunch stop at Mrs Popcorn’s Garden – an all-organic café selling both Western and Burmese options.

Where to Stay in Hspiaw

Good news if you’re indecisive – there are not many budget accommodation options to choose from in Hsipaw! All of them are located within the tiny centre and are similar in price. Many will also double up as tour operators, which is extremely useful for the main reason you’re probably visiting: trekking. Here are our top picks below:

Mr Charles Guesthouse our choice

The only real ‘hostel’ in town, the majority of backpackers end up staying at Mr Charles. The social balcony is a great way to organise treks and the free buffet breakfast is perhaps the best we had in the country (unlimited banana pancakes). Like other places in Myanmar, dorm rooms are cramped, but you’re only likely to be staying here for one night at the beginning or end of your Hsipaw trek so it doesn’t matter too much.

Dorm from 11,500MKK($7)

Red Dragon Hotel  our choice

If you’re looking for a private room, this budget hotel does the job. However, it’s worth splashing out for a ‘superior room’ with private toilet – we made the mistake of opting for a ‘standard’ without realising there is only one shared toilet on the ground floor (and two up on the rooftop).

Substantial breakfast is included and sets you up nicely for the walking but you’re unlikely to interact with many other backpackers here – not ideal if you’re looking for a group to split the hiking costs with. They also offer single rooms that are actually half the price of a double, which are great value for solo travellers craving a night in their own room.

Privates (double) from 23,000MKK($14)

Lily’s Guesthouse

This simple guesthouse gets rave reviews from travellers wanting some peace and quiet with a wonderful host in Miss Lily. They will also let you leave your bags here whilst you go trekking.

Privates from 20,000MKK($13) 

Where to Eat in Hsipaw

There are plenty of eating options in Hsipaw, most of them predictably named Mr X and Mrs X, to get in on the tourist scene. The food’s all pretty reasonably priced, and you’ll find lots of grilled meats, and just about every place selling the outstanding local dish: Shan Noodle Soup.

Mr Shake (Yuan Yuan – the correct one)

Although we heard the food here was good value for money, we only came for the milkshakes, and were delighted to find them actually using fresh milk! Not too many places in South East Asia can claim to be doing that.

You write your order on a notepad and hand it in – be prepared for a wait, the shakes are made from scratch – but when they arrive they’re delicious. We recommend the Banana & Oreo shake. Mmm.

Law Chun/Mr Food

Just about everybody we met recommended this local stop, but it was closed both nights when we were in town! We’re still recommending it, purely based on the number of people who recommended it to us, it must be good.

Shan Noodle Soup Stop (Opposite Fire Station)

This was Daniel’s favourite meal in Burma, and maybe his favourite soup in all of South East Asia. High praise indeed. We found this place totally by accident. Wandering around town we took a side street, which led to another side street and eventually found this local stall across from the fire station.

A bowl of shan noodle soup in Myanmar
Shan noodle soup (iPhone)

You get two choices for your dinner here: spicy or non-spicy Shan noodle soup. Daniel chowed down on spicy, while Emma took the non-spicy dish and they were both absolutely delicious. There was a bit of confusion when we were trying to pay: we thought they asked for 1,300MKK and were happy to pay that…but it turns out they only wanted 300MKK per bowl!

The cheapest, and perhaps the tastiest no-frills meal we had. It was also really interesting to see young men at the fire station across the road taking part in some sort of guerrilla army training – it certainly brings home the realities of where you are. 

So there you go! Our guide to trekking in Hsipaw, Myanmar. If you’d like to add anything to our guide, please get in touch using with the Comments section below. If you’re heading to Mandalay next, find all the information you need in our Guide to the Top Things to do in Mandalay.

Hsipaw, Myanmar Summary

Example Plan:

Day 1:

  • Trekking (outbound)

Day 2:

  • Trekking (return)
  • (your return trek is likely to include a visit to Nam Hu Nwe Falls)

Day 3:

  • Little Bagan (Myauk Myo)
  • Shan Palace (Baw Gyo Pagoda)
  • Sunset Hill
  • Nam Tok Falls
Accommodation:
  • Mr Charles Guesthouse
  • Red Dragon
  • Lily’s Guesthouse
Restaurants:
  • Mr Shake (Yuan Yuan)
  • Mr Food (Law Chun)
  • Shan Noodle Soup
  • Mr’s Popcorn’s Garden

Hsipaw, Myanmar Budget Breakdown

Getting There:
  • Mandalay (Pyi Gyi Myet Shin Highway Station) – Hsipaw (Dokhtawaddy Station) (bus)
  • 14:00 – 20:30 with DuHta Wadi Man
  • Normal (2+2)
  • $6.20 pp

Total: 19,000MKK ($12.40)

Accommodation:

Red Dragon Hotel (1N)

  • Economy Twin Room (breakfast included)
  • Booked on Hostelworld
  • $14.40

Mr. Charles Hostel (2N)

  • 6-bed dorm
  • Turn-up
  • $7.50 pp/pn

Total: 66,500MKK ($44)

Attractions:

Trekking:

  • 2D/1N trekking to Mantang
  • Ko Pee Trekking (organised through Mr Bike)
  • Included 1N accommodation in local village, x2 lunches, x1 dinner, x1 breakfast, x2 snacks and Nam Hu Nwe entry

Total: 80,000MKK ($52)

Local Transport:
  • Scooter hire 10,000MKK

Total: 10,000MKK ($6.50)

Moving On:
  • Hsipaw Train Station – Pyin-oo-Lwin Station (train)
    • 09:30 – 15:45
    • 2,400MKK ($1.50)
  • Pyin-oo-Lwin Station – Mandalay downtown (share taxi)
    • 2 hrs
    • 12,000MKK ($8)

Total: 29,400MKK ($19)

Total for 3D/4N: 227,500MKK/$148

The above budget is for x2 people. Food and drink is not included.

This budget breakdown isn’t meant to be an exact record of what we spent. However, it should give you a rough idea of what you’re likely to spend.

*all currencies accurate at the time of writing*

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