2015
06.21

A slow day spent in the laid-back Shan town of Hsipaw.   Looking at old ruins, eating the freshest noodles ever, and stumbling on the palace of the last prince of the Shan.  

Two big afternoon rainstorms had cleared the air yesterday and the temperatures had cooled down to a breezy 25C/77F; temperatures I had not seen this low in weeks!  I slept without air conditioning and with an open window.  After 12 hours (5 PM to 5 AM) I woke up to a concert by the roosters in town.  It set the tone for the day.

There is no immediate evidence indicating that Hsipaw was a royal capital throughout its history more than once.  It is as sleepy and slow of a small city as any.  Hsipaw is a Shan town.  After the Mon in Mawlamyine, the Arakan in Sittwe, the Chin in Mrauk U, the Burmese in Yangon and Mandalay, I was happy to add yet another one of the major ethnic groups to the people I met.  Hsipaw is not a mixed town as so many others but a nearly pure Shan town.  That means Shan is spoken as the first language here, a language distinctly different from Burmese.   But since I have not made it beyond two words of Burmese yet, I won’t even try.

Hsipaw as you see it today is a town of the 20th century.  There is nothing old left except in the northern part of it: two teak monasteries and a dozen or so ruined brick pagodas.  That’s where I was heading today.  It felt good, after all these days of driving around in a taxi to be up and about again like in the good old days:  walking.

At the outskirt of town the Sao Pu Sao Nai temple is dedicated to the Nat of Hsipaw and as it was still barely 7 AM, many locals were busy lighting candles and incense and saying prayers.

The area of the ruined pagodas is referred to locally as “Little Bagan”, a gross overstatement but an endearing way of referring to the overgrown, dilapidated brick pagodas which are nestled between two teak-wood monasteries.  A water buffalo was grazing between some of them and decided to have a little standoff with me.  He won.  The first monastery, the Maha Nanda Kantha, has a famous Bamboo Buddha — I have now seen a couple of them.  This one is 150 years old and the bamboo has long been covered by gold, but it was a particularly serene image which actually made me sit down and contemplate it for quite some time (something none of the “plaster” Buddhas has managed).

It is nice to see how old authentic images in monastic halls exist side by side with contemporary life.  Particularly in the second monastery, the Madahya Monastery, part of the hall surrounding the main Buddha image was partitioned off for about 10 monks as sleeping area.  The opposite was reserved as dining hall, and the area across the image was equipped with a flat-screen TV on which an older monk watched a boxing match!  At other times, that area seemed to serve for schooling.

I still had energy left, the day was cloudy and the heat merciful, so I turned to another point of interest indicated on my map:  a Noodle Factory.  I hiked through little neighborhoods of bamboo huts along the river.  This village had more vegetable gardens than I had seen anywhere.  Perhaps, I just did not see any so far, because I was always racing through the land in my taxi — today I could observe, appreciate and take it all in.  The laundry, the satellite dish on a teak hut, the bamboo chicken coop.  I reached the factory around 11:30 AM and was told to come back by 1.  That’s when production would start again.  🙁  Darn.  I had missed the morning shift.

But I had a look anyhow and found three children age 8-10, squatting on the ground spooning ground cheese into small little packages, two spoons full at a time.  When about 50 of the packages were lined up, the kids lit a candle and in three skillful moves sealed the plastic bags applying just enough heat; one at a time.  I bet you, these little packages will be sold alongside the spaghetti for seasoning.  Another one of those incidents where I could not have imagined how these little cheese packages came about…

A woman at the entrance of the factory had a concession stand selling noodles to the locals who stopped by on their motorbikes.  The smell of fresh tomato sauce was just too tempting for me to pass.  I ordered a helping of noodles.  Right out of a bucket full of freshly produced thick noodles she grabbed a hand full (yes, bare hands) of noodles, seasoned them with some oil, cheese, chili and sauce and served them to me.  You have absolutely no idea how good this tasted!

But the biggest surprise of the day was still in store for me:  the Shan Palace.  I had expected a ramshackle remain of a former palace or a museum but instead, after walking for another 1/2 hour found myself in front of a garden gate.  It was closed but not locked, and since opening hours were posted, I entered.  A long driveway lead to an impressive 1924 colonial mansion, a private residence, which was obviously lived in.

While I was still inspecting the grounds, a young couple on bikes from GB had caught up with me and together we discovered a side door which invited visitors to enter.  We stood in the reception hall of the last prince of the Shan and were greeted by Fern, the wife of the prince’s uncle Mr. Donald, who unfortunately had to leave on an errand for town that morning.  The Shan heiress, a well-educated English speaking Shan woman, welcomed us in, invited us to inspect the dozens of photographs lining window sills, mantles, tables and walls and started to tell us about the recent history of the Shan kings.  

Not being familiar with this history, it boiled down to a bewildering number of names and events, but a few general themes stood out to me:  An impressive number of the recent kings had been educated in the west with the distinct goal of modernizing their state and  improving their populations’ lot.  The last and most important one had gotten his engineering degree in Boulder, Colorado in the early 1950’s!  There, he met an Austrian exchange student named Inge, married her and took her home to a royal welcome.  It was supposedly only then, that she realized that her engineering husband was also a crown prince!    But within ten years, the military took over in Burma in the 1962 coup, and arrested her husband and various other members of the ruling family, including Mr. Donald himself.  Inge and her two children found themselves under house arrest and eventually managed to flee.

To this date, there is no acknowledgment of the arrest and of the secretly confirmed death of this last heir to the Shan throne, not even under the newly elected government since 2011!   The family is waiting and in the meantime is telling the story and taking care of the house and the belongings that were left by the prince and his wife.   Inge, now in her 80’s is writing annually to the Burmese government demanding an official closure to the story, to no avail.  In the meantime, she has returned to Boulder where she lives with her second husband, an American, and under her current name Inge SargentShe has published a book:  Twilight over Burma. My life as a Shan Princess that is available in English, German, and Burmese.  What a story!  You can’t make this up.  I wonder, if ever, under the new regime in Myanmar now or in the future, justice will be done to the many minorities who have been side-lined, wronged, imprisoned, and killed, ever since colonial  and certainly since military junta times.

By mid-afternoon I returned to my hotel, the 6 story brand-new Red Dragon in Hsipan.  The mist was hanging over the mountains and the views across town from the roof top terrace were great.  The hotel is so new, it’s barely on anyone’s list.  I am one of only six guests judging by the table settings for breakfast this morning.

The noodles will last me through the night but just to get a bit more exercise, I went out for an early evening walk and my first beer since my night out with mama/sister.  It tasted as good as ever, overlooking the Dokhtawadi River from a riverside terrace.

Hsipan is my kind of town.  Low key, yet full of little surprises.  If the weather were cooler and if I had not just come out of being sick, I would schedule a trek into the mountains, visiting one of many remote Shan villages…  Next time.

Prost!

2 comments so far

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  1. This is my kind of day, discovering little surprises along the way – soaking in each moment and not whizzing by in a taxi. I am anxious to read “Twilight Over Burma” and hope I can find it on inter library loan.

  2. To judge by the well-worn books in her cabinets, Madame Fern is well-educated, indeed.