5-Days in the Shan State: Maymyo, Hsipaw, Namhsan

Discussion in 'Myanmar - Road Trip Reports' started by mikehohman, Jul 6, 2014.

  1. mikehohman

    mikehohman Ol'Timer

    My friends and I rode for 5 days through the northern Shan State basically along the Burma Road from Mandalay up to Maymyo and on to Hsipaw and back with a couple of major diversions...


    Day 1: Sat: BKK to Mandalay by AirAsia, pickup the bikes at Zach's, lunch, and ride up 75k and 3,500 feet to Maymyo
    Day 2: Sun: Maymyo to Kyaukme to Hsipaw, lunch, touch at Lashio and then back to Hsipaw.
    Day 3: Mon: Namhsan, ride up to Namhsan and back to Hsipaw
    Day 4: Tue: Hsipaw to Maymyo, through the mountains by way of Mailo
    Day 5: Wed: Maymo down to Mandalay, return the bikes, flight back to BKK by BangkokAir, home for dinner

    Flights: AirAsia and BangkokAir both fly to Mandalay from Bangkok, 1 flight per day, both around midday, and cheap, less than 3,000 baht one way
    Bikes: Available at http://www.mandalaymotorbike.com/ from Zach. Honda CRF250Ls @$55/d and XR125 @$35/d.

    Highway 3 is the main road (Burma Road) from Mandalay to Lashio and then on to the Chinese Border and Kunming.


    DAY 1

    Easy morning and easy flight to Mandalay, arriving about noon. It's a 1.5 hour flight, and Burma is half an hour behind Bangkok at GMT +6.5. First off the plane, 1st thru immigration, and 1st to the taxi stand at a more or less empty airport. $12 for the ride into town, which is a LONG way, why the airport is so far away is anyone's guess. Arrived at Zach's shop (Teak Bridge Travels) near the train station, and met my friends who came in the day before.

    We strapped our bags on the 3 Honda XR125s and headed off - arrived at the gas station about 10k along and realized the ignition key wouldn't fit the tank lock, so back to Zach for remediation. Turns out we had the wrong key. Get that sorted and back to the station to fill up. Once full, the bike would no longer start (dead battery), so after a couple of push starts, back again to Zachs. Luckily for me, no more XR125s, so Zach's lovely wife upgraded me to the CRF250L. Finally sorted, off we went for the hill climb to 3,500 feet and the old British summer capital of Maymyo, currently named Pyin Oo Lwin. (Maymyo was named after a British colonel who originally founded the hill station).

    Tyler chatting with Zach, owner of Teak Bridge Travels - Zach's a really nice, easy going American from Boston/Chicago who studied international business at Websters in Hua Hin and is now doing just that in Burma with his Chinese/Shan wife and 2 young boys (Max, 5, and ??, 1). Highly recommend his services.


    Just 75 km from Mandalay, we spent the 1st night in Maymyo, which is a wonderfully cool and pleasant old British Hill Station and summer capital. The colonial government would retreat up here in the summer months for some relief from the furnaces below. Today it's a bustling, charming, cosmopolitan town on the Burma road at 3,500 feet with tree lined streets, wonderful old British houses, an old Anglican church, a big mosque on the main street, and hindu temples. It is incredibly diverse with a great vibe. Would make a perfect base for exploring. And there's a decent bakery on the main street called Golden Triangle bakery... There's a winding, tree-lined road along the southern edge of the town with several 'resorts'. We stayed at the Royal Park View which was very nice with good service. Breakfast was weak though.

    Dinner at Sun Top Burgers - not recommended unless VERY hungry... The "pizza" was ok...

    DAY 2
    Up and out early, we continued on the main road towards Hsipaw and Lashio. The road itself is in very good condition, a smooth and easy ride, tree-lined most of the way to keep the sun off. It's fairly busy with trucks but traffic is not a problem and you can go as fast as your safety threshold allows. There are dogs and all sorts of things about the side of the road, so a leisurely pace is best. Overall a very pleasant ride except for the trucks/exhaust.

    Between Maymyo and Kyaukme there is an impressive gorge. Here is a photo from the far side looking back.

    Along the way we 'crashed' a Shan wedding by the roadside and were very warmly welcomed. A pic of me with the happy couple.

    One of the VERY FEW English roadsigns you will see, passing Kyaukme. Note that all distances on any sign, and when people speak, are all in imperial miles. No silly metric system here...

    We arrived in Hsipaw by lunchtime. Hsipaw is a very pleasant little town and old Shan Royal Seat; we ended up staying here 2 nights. After lunch we started for Namhsan fully aware it is closed to foreigners, but curious to find out for sure. Turns out it is, and there's a toll bridge with guards about 20k north from Hsipaw. They refused to let us cross, so back to town it was. We spent the afternoon with a run up to Lashio but were unswayed by that town's charm so back to Hsipaw we went in time for sundown. I'd pass on Lashio unless you have some purpose or are intending to reach points farther along.

    We were welcomed at "Lily The Home" Guesthouse in Hsipaw with a big hug from Lily herself, the eponymous owner of the guesthouse. It's a nice place near the river but can be a little tricky to find as it's in the middle/middle of the block with access by narrow ally only. At $15 a night its a steal, with nice big clean rooms, air con, and a friendly staff. Lily is a real character and was incredibly helpful with suggestions on things to see and do, and places to eat. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

    Tyler ready to roll out from Lily's...

    Tyler and Lily

    Lily has about 15 rooms now spread between 3 buildings, and is improving the "4th" side of the compound with a 38-room hotel. I reckon the place will lose some of it's charm and character when that is done, but let's see...

    We had dinner at a very nice restaurant along the river in Hsipaw called the River Cafe or something like that. It's next to Black House Coffee...

    DAY 3 - Namhsan
    I spent the early morning hours in the bathroom suffering from some seriously bad food poisoning. A couple hits of norfloxacin did the trick but i was still very nauseous and lightheaded. Anyway, i wasn't going to miss a 2nd attempt at Namhsan, so i pulled myself on the bike and off we went about 7:00 back to the bridge. On the advice of Lily and armed with a "note" in Burmese, we made it through the checkpoint.

    Namhsan http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Namhsan is the capital of the Palaung autonomous region north of the Burma road. It sits at 5,000 feet and overlooks an incredible mountainous area of ridges and valleys that has been cultivated by the Palaung people, a Mon-Khmer language-speaking tribe found in the Shan State and in parts of southern China (and in a couple spots in Thailand). They have been waging a low-level insurgency against the Burmese military government for some time now, and the town is still off limits to visitors. You can read more about it and the Palaung online http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palaung_people.

    The ride up is stunning. About 30k north of Hsipaw you make a left turn and head up into the mountains. It's twisty the rest of the way and the road gets very rocky/bumpy. But the views are spectacular, and we had a beautiful day. Didn't get many pix as i was feeling bad the whole day, and had to stop every hour or so to throw up. But we made it up all the way... By the time we reached Namhsan i was feeling so bad i just laid down on the sidewalk to rest...

    Road sign at the turn off to Namhsan

    Road traffic

    In the mountains on the way to Namhsan

    We rolled up on this Palaung funeral about 7 miles short of Namhsan. The pagoda is full of chanting monks...

    Children waiting for the funeral to end

    Kitchen with a view...

    Young Palaung

    At Namhsan town we got a little turned around and headed back down the way came, rather than pushing on and making a loop of it by existing at Kyaukme. I want to go back someday to complete this loop - I suspect the Namhsan to Kyaukme route is stunning... But i digress... I still felt like shit and got delirious as we headed down the mountain, so it's probably just as well. Anyway, as we headed down, i hit a bad patch of dirt where they are working on the road and went down pretty hard, slamming my head, scraping up my elbow and knee, and putting some scratches in the CRF. The bike slid a bit and stopped 1 foot short of the edge of road... another foot and goodbye bike and goodbye me. I stood up, took off my helmet, and promptly puked. The whole experience is a good reminder to take it easy and not ride when feeling so ill. Here's a shot of the drop off along the road, if you look closely you can see the river 500 feet straight down...

    Anyway, back in Hsipaw by mid-afternoon, i took a rest and then headed to the old Shan "Palace" north of town. The palace itself is in ruins but the resident of the erstwhile prince is still there, and presently occupied by a Ms. Fern, a Shan princess herself and wife of the nephew of the last prince. She provides a wonderful oral history of the place for visitors, and we thoroughly enjoyed chatting with her and learning about the region and Burma. What a lovely lady.

    Residence of the former Shan Prince of Hsipaw. They can trace the genealogy back 88 generations. It was built in the 1920's in the British style. There are many houses like this one in Maymyo...

    Ms. Fern sharing the stories of the last Prince of Hsipaw who is pictured in the photograph in the window, beneath the flag of the Shan State.


    Farmer outside Hsipaw

    Gossipping at Sundown, Hsipaw

    Fierce Takraw match in front of the fire station, Hsipaw

    Mr. Shake, some fine fruit shakes, Hsipaw

    DAY 4 - Hsipaw back to Maymyo by way of the Mountains

    After a good 12 hours of rest the night before, i was feeling better, but still maybe 80%. We finally got our first rain of the trip during the night, and by rain i mean MONSOON RAIN, and for hours it poured. Anyway, we were up early and made a quick run of the 35k or so back to Kyaukme and then turned north into the mountains heading for Mogok. We hit patches of intermittent rain, but otherwise it was mostly gray. The road to Mogok is in pretty bad condition, and i was happy to have the 250, my friends on the 125s i think we suffering a bit. The scenery is beautiful and runs through tea plantations which are very fragrant, you can smell the tea as you ride though the mountains...

    Tea Plantation high in the mountains

    Palaung Tea Farmer

    Hilltop Village

    Beautiful rice terraces with freshly planting rice, on the road to Mogok

    As we neared Maylo, the road was under construction and hence had turned to slippery slick mud. It was slow going the last 10k into Maylo village...


    Crossroads in Maylo

    About 10k short of Mogok the road is closed, as Mogok is a mining town and the area has gold and gem mines, and hence is off-limits, so a left turn over the river and then up into the mountains for the run south back to Maymyo. This area turned out to offer some of the most stunning scenery, rivaling Namhsan, although not inhabited for the most part.





    High Plains Drifter

    We arrived back in Maymyo in time for evening cocktails - we stayed again at the Royal Park View.

    DAY 5 - Maymyo to Mandalay to Bangkok

    I was up at 2:30 AM to watch the USA-Belgium match which was incredibly entertaining but with a very unfortunate ending. Back to sleep about 5:30 AM for another hour or so, and then we were on the road by 7:30 AM back down to Mandalay to return the bikes to Zach and head home.

    Mandalay Airport

    Overall, a really fantastic ride through the Shan Hills. I am eager to go back and explore more, take it a bit slower, and stop from time to time to breathe it all in and really experience the country. There must be so much more to see off the beaten path. We were lucky with the weather, with rain really only on the last day, and the dry season is certainly the time to go. Cool, comfortable and dry the whole way.

    HIGHLY Recommended: Zach for the bikes, Lily's in Hsipaw. Both great!!! Namhsan for the views and the culture.

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  3. Poompui

    Poompui Ol'Timer

    Awesome trip report and photos.......it's no fun riding when you are crook (sick)!
    Will be doing the same ride in the near future!
  4. Oddvar

    Oddvar Ol'Timer

    Thanks for a great ride report and sharing this. This got my "internal planner" working at the moment.
    I'll try to convince the Bangkok Weekend Warriors to saddle up.
  5. DavidFL

    DavidFL Administrator Staff Member

    Wow that look fun & relatively easy to set up.
    You've definitely got me interested now - flying & renting is the way to go.

    Apart from the liquid shirts & vomiting it looks like a good trip.
    I note that you used Norfloxacin, but fore me I swear by Disento.

    Gods gift to bikers for "upset tummy."
  6. ianyonok

    ianyonok Ol'Timer

    Fantastic stuff. Thanks for the report. This gets a lot of people thinking I'm sure.
  7. ronwebb

    ronwebb Ol'Timer

    Good information here and some memorable photos. Hopefully I will be going through the Shan Hills at the end of the year, so all info is welcome. Many thanks for posting.
  8. mikehohman

    mikehohman Ol'Timer

    Thanks all for the feedback - it was a really great trip, and i come away from it all thinking how much more there is to explore. I think a whole new world is opening up in Burma, will be exciting over the next few years to explore. I am eager to head back. I look forward to the day when we sail across the border on our own bikes without any hassle, but for now, this does seem like the easy way. Zach had got his rental biz all set up in Mandalay, and the flights in a cheap cheap, so this is the way to go for now.

    David, thanks for the tip on the Disento - i will get some of that for sure. Riding sick does suck, but no way i was missing that day up to Namhsan. Got to ride on! But be careful. The norflaxacin took care of the back end great, but i was still so nauseous the whole day. I wonder what could have helped that. It wasn;t for lack of fresh air anywaY.

    Look forward to hearing about others' trips to the Shan State and anyway in Burma, so much to see.


  9. brian_bkk

    brian_bkk Ol'Timer

    Nice one Mike.

    This pic did give me a chuckle...


    I seem to remember below when we had a burger... LOL
    " We will be sticking to the highway all the way... My friends made me promise "

    Great stuff.

  10. mikehohman

    mikehohman Ol'Timer

    Cha bro, that IS the Highway.... ;) That's what i told them anyway....

    Looking forward to heading back with you and some of the boys,

  11. Oddvar

    Oddvar Ol'Timer

    I sent Zack an e-mail asking about restrictions in the Shan State. Here is the reply:

    HI oddvar,Thanks for the email.
    Currently Shan State is quite restricted on where you can go. Mike and his group were able to get to Namhsan which most of my customers are not allowed to do because of rebel fighting. Mostly you are allowed to go along highway 3 all the way to the chinese border at Muse. there are a few roads off of Highway 3 that you can go on but not too far before you get turned back around. The exception would be a trip toward Mogok and then back down to Pyin oo Lwin. if you wish to visit Inle lake in Southern Shan state then you must arrange a Myanmar driving permit to legally ride there. A permit is $200 per rider and takes 2 weeks to arrange.
    my CRfs are all booked from november- April for guided tours. you can see my rates here:
    Zach Benoy

    I am so going..
  12. phuketrichard

    phuketrichard Ol'Timer

    seems we just missed each other, we were in Hsipaw the 18,19th

    next trip will be to Myitkyina
  13. mikehohman

    mikehohman Ol'Timer

    Yeah, sorry to miss you. Funny that you mention Myitkyina, we were thinking the exact same thing. When are you heading out?
  14. phuketrichard

    phuketrichard Ol'Timer

    i would like to go tomorrow but...
    we are now trying to arrange a trip to Mogok in Nov with permission.
    than if that is good ( its 4 days/3 nights) would than head out to Myitkyina

    I am reading the book, "the Burma road" and it talks about the ledo road which runs out of Myitkyina
    would love to see if we could ride it.

    i am in phuket so......
  15. Philigran

    Philigran Member

    Hi Mike, thanks for the report. Super interesting read and it brought back some memories. I also went up to Hsipaw and stayed at Lilys. Quite a character. We rented a bike in Hsipaw and drove off into the mountains along some pretty bad dirt tracks. We left the bikes with a farmer and then hiked further up where we made it to a remote village. Stayed in the monastery for the night which was one of the most memorable experience I ever had. If you like, you can check some pictures here: http://escapology.eu/2014/01/02/a-memorable-night-in-the-monastery/

    We also wanted to head to Namshan but didn't try because we are told it is closed. How did you guys actually manage to get in? What was written on that note you brought. It must have been amazing there. I really need to come back....especially after reading your report... Thanks again.
  16. phuketrichard

    phuketrichard Ol'Timer

    i got to Myitkyina but not by bikes.
    Zach told me it was possible but u had to return the same road.

    so we did the sleeper train up an than had to fly to Bhamo as that part of the river is not open to Farangs.
    than did the fast boats to Katha where we stopped for 2 nights an than back to Mandalay

    Zach told me that some guy gpt permission to ride up to Mogok, all he had to do was rent a bike for his Burmese guide rather than a car. Its a great road as we rode it last july and amazing scenery.

    Namshan is open one day and closed the next, if ur lucky when u go its open , if not......

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