We decided to extend our stay in Burma in the hope that we could see a slightly less touristy side of the country and that Burma might redeem itself after Inle’s rude-a-thon and meet our (perhaps unfairly high) expectations.
Our favourite travel equation is definitely: small town + easily walk-able x lots of places to explore = happy times, and Hispaw, a small town in the Shan state, certainly had all of our favourite things, even a bacon sandwich! Almost a one road town, it was dusty but beautiful in it’s rough, raw and rural way. We spent three very content days pottering around the town, having a much-needed refreshing beer as the sun set on the river and trying the weird things on sale in the market.
We also signed up for a one day trek to various villages and a waterfall, though the latter turned out to be non-existent, just a damp bit of rock, the rest of the walk around the valley was absolutely stunning. It was almost as if the locals were employed by the tourist board to be photogenic. The farmland was dotted with people hand picking rice in straw hats and buffalo sitting in the shade. Plus, we were joined by a brilliant guy called Yutah, a Japanese-American, who had lots of stories of life in LA and Tokyo.
Our highlight of Hispaw was definitely meeting Miss Fern, guardian of the Shan Palace. The gently decaying estate is tucked in next to the river at the end of a dirt track. Complete with an over grown and unloved tennis court and gardens the palace looks like an old English country pile. The Shan Palace was home to the last Prince of Hsipaw, Sao Kya Seng, and his wife, Inge, an Austrian national. In the Prince’s absence, Fern and her husband, Donald, the Prince’s nephew, welcome tourists into their home to share their family history.
Fern’s softly spoken account in near-perfect English was surprisingly candid and she didn’t shy away from talking openly about the military junta that ruled Burma until 2010 and who still have a strong hold now. She talked to us about the imprisonment of the Prince in 1962 and how he was never seen again – when all the other princes were released, he was not. His family later learnt that he died in custody, though the government continues to deny that he was ever imprisoned in the first place. His wife and two daughters left Burma not long after his arrest and have never returned. Every year on the anniversary of Sau Kya Seng’s imprisonment the family write to the government asking for confirmation of his whereabouts. They have never received a reply. Inge later wrote a book about the whole saga, called Twilight Over Burma: My Life as a Shan Princess.
Fern’s husband, Donald, used to show tourists around himself but in 2005 he was also arrested, this time on the charge of ‘operating as an unlicensed tour guide and defaming the state’. For this he received a 13 year prison sentence, though he was released in 2009. The palace only reopened in 2012 as part of Burma’s slow emergence from paranoid military rule.
It was an absolute pleasure to spend time with Fern and hear her story. I was blown away by her calm stoicism. The fact that they continue to welcome tourists after Donald’s arrest is quite something. Turns out she is also a Shan Princess from a neighbouring state, so we can legitimately say that we have met Burmese royalty. She also has a love for reading, especially the English classics, on account of the fact that modern romance novels have too much ‘boom boom’ for her. I promised I would send a copy of my favourite book, Jane Eyre, which she hasn’t read yet.
To continue our journey and reach our final stop, Mandalay, we chose to take the train part of the way. It was a slow and bumpy ride. Scary at times too. The carriages literally swayed on the tracks, though I managed to have a nap, it was almost impossible to read. Mind you, the scenery was stunning and the locals smiling and waving as the train bumbled through was an incredible experience.
The icing on the proverbial cake was certainly the Goteik Viaduct. Given that the train seemed to be only just managing to stay on the rails going over a high metal structure was pretty terrifying.
Though our destination, Mandalay, was probably one of our least favourite places we have been so far, the extra week in Burma was a breath of hot and dusty air, and one which helped us understand this complicated country a tiny bit more.