If you spend a reasonable amount of time in any country, visiting that country’s top tourist attraction will never be the most memorable thing you do while there and in many cases, it will actually be quite disappointing. Instead, the best moments are unplanned and generally come when you least expect them. Knowing this, I’ve actually started skipping the main attractions in some places, like the Taj Mahal in India and the Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar. Don’t get me wrong, both are impressive structures and well worth a visit, but I simply couldn’t be bothered. In the end, I left both countries with so many incredible memories, that a visit to either of these two famous sites wouldn’t have even made my top fifty.
In Myanmar, for example, one of my more memorable days was one on which I did virtually nothing. It came in the little town of Hsipaw. This village up in the mountains of Myanmar’s disputed Shan state was the end of the road for foreign tourists at the time; while the government did occasionally allow foreigners to travel one village further, access was restricted for the duration of my stay.
Back then, Hsipaw had three hotels, but two of them seemed to be permanently empty. There really wasn’t much to do in town except visit the morning market (and they do mean morning: it ENDS at 6am) and walk or bike around the village and the surrounding countryside. My main reason for heading to Hsipaw was the cool mountain air—I was in Myanmar during the hot season and jumped at the opportunity to escape the scorching heat of the low-lying plains. It was also nice to leave the relative chaos of Mandalay behind for a few days.
I got exactly what I wanted: Hsipaw was wonderful, even though I didn’t do much of anything, apart from eating Shan style noodle soup and relaxing. That said, I got ambitious on my second day there and decided to head out of town to explore the countryside for a few hours. I followed the main road for a bit then turned onto a dirt road that wound its way past fenced-in homes and farmland.
Since this was Myanmar, I never walked more than a few hundred meters without seeing a stupa, although in Hsipaw, many of them were crumbling and sprouting various kinds of plant life.
As I was walking along the path taking photos of the seemingly ancient—but probably only a few years old (you just can’t get reliable slave labor these days)—stupas, I heard a motorbike approach from behind and actually thought I heard my name. It turned out I did hear my name. It was one of the people I’d met at the town’s main watering hole the night before. He’d apparently had the same idea as I, except he had elected to rent a motorbike, while I was exploring on foot. I only point that out because I’m rarely outlazied and I want to make sure everyone understands that I was walking when I could have been riding.
Anyway, this guy whose name I obviously can’t remember was looking for a temple that housed an apparently famous wooden Buddha statue. I didn’t really care about that one bit, since every temple in Asia seems to house something famous and whatever that thing is, it’s rarely all that impressive. We were heading in the same direction, though, so I tagged along.
When we got to the temple, we found the grounds crawling with children. They swarmed us immediately. Conditioned by my time in certain other parts of Southeast Asia, I fully expected them to stick their hands out, palms up, while repeating the words “money!” “pens!” or “candy!”, but the few that did so were quickly shut down by the rest. Most of them just wanted to practice their English and ask a bunch of barely decipherable questions. And they wanted to pose for photos. Many, many photos. They would push and shove each other as they jostled for position in front of my camera and in doing so they would get so close to the lens that I had a hard time fitting any of them into the frame.
Of course this was only the boys. The girls didn’t seem to care about the camera at all. What they cared about was decorating us. They picked a bunch of different flowers and stuck them in our hair and behind our ears and basically made us look ridiculous. But at least they were having fun.
After about 20 minutes of this, we were exhausted. It wasn’t easy, but we managed to extricate ourselves from the gaggle of kids and their endless energy and get back to the peace and quiet of Hsipaw’s ‘suburbs.’ The guy took off on his motorbike in the direction we had come from, while I headed the other way along the dirt road. Little did I know the danger that lurked ahead.
As I was crossing a little bridge, I saw a bunch of cows wade across the small stream below. I watched as a young farmer in a wide-brimmed straw hat herded them onto the road directly behind me and all of a sudden, the cows were herding me.
They seemed intent on trampling me, as they advanced steadily, their intense glares fixed firmly on my eyes. Did I let them intimidate me? Hell, no! Like those people who take photos of approaching tornadoes, I braved the danger to turn around and snap a few shots before escaping to safety at the very last moment……by stepping to the side.
After that close encounter, it was time to head back to my hotel, but I decided to make little detour down to the river. As I approached, I could see small wooden boats all along the shore, children fishing from the last remnants of a washed-away bridge and a small group of middle aged men and women doing laundry in a shallow inlet. Unfortunately, when I moved in for a closer look, I saw what you always see when you move in for a closer look in Southeast Asia: garbage.
Luckily, I’ve spent enough time in this part of the world to know exactly what to do: you step back until you’re out of range of the stench and fix your eyes on the far shore. Now you can enjoy the unspoiled beauty of nature.
I had more memorable days than this one in Myanmar and I certainly had more eventful ones, but like the day we rented bikes and visited the country’s only vineyard in the hills surrounding Inle Lake, this day spent exploring the outskirts of Hsipaw stands out for its simplicity. The combination of perfect weather, unedited glimpses of everyday life and the overall serenity of the countryside is surprisingly rare when traveling. And I only had to brave a horde of shrieking children, a herd of scary cows and a heap of stinking garbage to get it.
For more information on the area, check out my travel guide for Hsipaw.