Meet the Palaungs

Visiting the hill tribes of Hsipaw

On the morning of the third day, I jumped on a long-distance bus to the remote, mountaineous Shan state, 200 miles northeast of Mandalay. Lizzy, a young, British journalist from my guesthouse, had decided to join me for the next couple of days. After 6 hours of long, winding roads and several coffee breaks, we arrived in Hsipaw, a small village and starting point for most trekking tours to the Palaung ethnic minorities.

Together with a French couple and an Australian, we booked a full-day trek for the next day. ‘TomTom’, our local guide picked us up at 8am sharp. His instructions were clear: ‘Bring sunscreen, a hat, and two liters of water!’ Geared up, we started our trek in the vast plains outside of the village.

workers in rice fields

At this point, we still walked over paved roads, passed workers in the fields and saw local noodle factories. Once in a while, we would see a water buffalo cooling down in a pool of mud. But our guide kept up a fast walking pace. He had quite a unique motivational strategy: he wouldn’t tell us how far we’d have to walk to the end point, but rather just explained the next two phases: ‘So now we walk up for 1.5h and then flat for 30min. Then you can make water stop.’ Also, he would mention that delicious meal waiting for us at the top.

noodle factory in Myanmarwater buffalo cooling down in mudsnake encountered on palaung treklone mountain cabin in corn field

It wasn’t long before I started to regret the trek. The climb was steeper than expected and the midday sun burned its way into my skin. Water stops were spare and numerous blisters made every step a torture. Just before noon, we met two girls from a minority village. They were posing for the camera like there was no tomorrow. At 1pm, we finally reached the Palaung village of Pankam, where the town chief and his wife had prepared lunch for our group. It must have been one of the best meals of my trip. We just threw ourselves at the tasty curries and fresh salads. After lunch, physical exhaustion took over and it was time for a nap and some wound healing. One of my fellow trekkers, who had trekked nearly 3000km in a year, passed me some tape to cover any remaining blisters.

Palaung village near Hsipawpalaung boy playing soccerpalaung village woman drying rice

Home to nearly 600 people, the village was bigger than expected. We visited the local primary school, played soccer with village kids, came across a few pet snakes and got introduced to the art of rice and tea production. However, time was running out as we had to start the descent. Although gravity was in our favor, the group was significantly slowed down by a knee injury. As there were no bikes anywhere close, we had no choice as to continue the descent.

3.5 hours later we reached the bottom of the mountain and paused in front of a nat shrine. ‘So, one more hour from here’, TomTom pointed out. By now, each of us had some kind of ‘injury’: blisters, sunburn, chafing, twisted ankle, insect bites…

views on hsipaw from mountain

Out of nowhere a tuk tuk pulled up next to us.

‘SURPRISE….Our ride!’, shouted TomTom.

Needless to say he made good tips that night…


Next: You wouldn’t believe this place is in Myanmar


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