We wake up early and head to the Hsipaw market to have breakfast in a small shop that sells black tea and chapatis with curry. Hsipaw is not the semi-deserted village we had imagined, but a small town of 30,000 people! While we fill our bellies, we discuss on how to spend the day, finally deciding to dedicate it to nature with a trek to the waterfall we have been told about.
We start a steady walk towards the hills and approach Hsipaw train station where we cross tracks flooded with people, cows and children. We then walk through small Shan villages where people greets us showing polite and friendly manners; the path that leads us across the rice fields and towards the waterfall is getting smaller as the scenery gets more and more rural. It’s pretty obvious that Hsipaw is an important agricultural center: there are rice paddies, watermelons and papaya plantations, carrots and cauliflower fields. Nearby a tractor and a heap of corn, we make a break and socialize with a family of peasant that is resting under a wood and bamboo hut. The family men share a cheroots with us, and we manage to take pictures of their two kids that are watching us with curiosity, going crazy with joy when we show them their photos on the camera screen. Their alleged mother is having a shower dressed in a lungy sarong in the creek nearby, and laughs amused at the scene. The rest of the path is uphill until we reach an impressive waterfall with a pond below where we treat ourselves to a bath of cool, clear water that restores our strength after the two-hour walk under the sun. From there we have a beautiful view of the valleys below; at their edges, the houses of Hsipaw.
On the way back we get a lift from a farmer carrying corn in the tractor trailer; we sit on the hard yellow pile, our body stoically bearing the hits the trailer gets due to the road potholes. We get off at the train station, where they are expecting the regional 3pm train that travels from Mandalay to Lashio, a city 100 kilometers from the border with China. This train, as all trains coming from Pyin U Lwin, had to cross the Gokteik Viaduct, the most significant artifact of this rail line, as well as the highest bridge in Myanmar. Completed in 1900, it is said that it was built to last 100 years, and this means it is lasting longer than expected; in fact the trains run through it at a very limited speed in order to avoid causing structural damage. A good reason perhaps to get to Hsipaw by bus…
There are groups of all races waiting for the convoy, in addition to fruit, betel and tea merchants, and a pair of permanent stalls that sell biscuits, coffee and snacks, where I make the acquaintance of one of the owners. She’s a nice middle-aged lady with the face smeared with tanaka powder; while eating betel leaves, she tells me that she is a Catholic and she still remembers a little Italian from the nun’s boarding school! Her daughter (or granddaughter), a small girl of about three years old with shaven head, painted nails and toes, her face also stained by tanaka powder, is sitting on a step eating an ice cream with her fingers and looking at us with amusement. And as time passes and 3pm passes as well, I explore the station, entering a colonial office that reminds me of the Indian train stations built in the 1800’s by the East Indian Railway Company, with the walls of wooden planks varnished in a cream colour, the iron furniture rusty from the tropical climate, the spinning old and noisy fan, the timetables written in white chalk on blackboards hanging from uncertain nails, and a servant in white shirt, linen trousers and flip-flops who counts U.S. dollars and notes the amounts with a pen under the ‘revenue’ column of a faded brown paper register. If it were not for the dollars and the ball-point pen, it could really be a scene from more than a century ago. Amongst the boards on the walls, all written in Burmese language incomprehensible to me, and next to a wall clock that clearly marks 3,20pm, there is the only sign in English, and it states “we will always be on time”…
The walk back to town takes us along suburban narrow streets where artisans work wood and handbags, and manufacture cheroots cigarettes. We come across a noodle factory where young workers produce, by hand, sort of spaghetti that will be part of two of the most famous dishes in the area: Mohinga, a fish soup with noodles that is an essential part of the Myanmar cuisine and that is considered by many to be the national dish of Myanmar, and Shan noodles, a traditional dish of the Shan people! At the Hindu temple we contemplate a joyful and skilled pagodas maker in the middle of a new work, red brick over red brick. Mr Ashà, given our interest in his work, invites us to drink a cup of tea in the nearby shack where, seated at a table, he tells us the story of his life, from mischievous child in India to pagodas maker in Myanmar, proudly listing the names and locations of all the pagodas he has built during his career.
The main street is now overrun by locals with their rickety scooters; we pass besides 3 children monks in burgundy robes with replicas of automatic pistols and shotguns proudly showing on their shoulder, an incongruous sight that puzzles us a bit. We look at them puzzled, and accompanied by the their distant smiles we continue walking towards a Buddhist temple where the ordination of a large group of nuns is taking place. Hundreds of them are sitting in the large temple hall, dressed in pink robes, their head shaved; they recite mantras or listen to the sermons of an important-looking priest. The religious chants are mixed with the noise of the outside traffic; the night is falling.
The Hollywood action movie we watch on a 13-inch TV hanging precariously from a TV wall mount in a shack that serves roti and beans, the only dish on the menu, reminds us that a couple of days in Hsipaw are more than enough for our tastes.