It's easy to see how Hsipaw, midway along the Mandalay to Lashio road, must once have been a charming little backwater of a village, but much of that charm has faded somewhat as the town has developed into an important through-point on the road to China. Throughout the day and night heavily laden Chinese trucks roar through the edge of town on the Mandalay to Lashio road, along with smaller trucks, buses and minibuses. The noise and dust is considerable -- and it goes 24 hours a day. How do we know this? Our guesthouse backed right onto the road -- as well might yours, as many are within earshot of the road.
Adding to this, in anticipation of the tourism explosion the pundits keep promising, the town is undergoing a building boom, with, we were told, five new hotels under construction in late 2013. This construction brings with it more racket and more dust plus piles of refuse and building materials dotted across the centre of town. The town is riverside but sadly, the riverside setting is under utilised in Hsipaw.
All of this probably isn't going to have you itching to pack your bags, but that's okay, because the real attraction here is not the town so much as its surrounds. As with Kalaw further south on the Shan Plateau, Hsipaw is a developing trekking centre, with travellers coming to do one-day, two-day or three-day treks into the surrounds. Some minor points of interest include temples and stupas to the south of town and the Shan Palace -- the one "must-see" in downtown Hsipaw. And it should be said that while we were not overly taken with Hsipaw itself, we talked to a lot of travellers who really loved it.
Most guesthouses can assist with organising a guided trek, through Lily Home and Mr Charles (the owners are siblings) lead the pack in this regard. Due to time constraints (and a lack of people silly enough to want to do a three-day trek) we were unable to do a trek in Hsipaw, but we talked to travellers who had trekked in Hsipaw and done the Kalaw to Inle trek and opinions were that Hsipaw offered a similar level of difficulty but a more "untouched" experience.
Overall Hsipaw has a reasonable range and supply of accommodation, though if you're travelling in peak season, giving a place a call beforehand to check availability would be prudent. Reservations are strongly recommended for both Lily the Home and particularly Mr Charles as these are the two most popular spots. Both accept tour groups, meaning they can fill up fast. As the extra hotels open, the need to book ahead should become less of an issue.
For a town of its size, Hsipaw has a good selection of eateries. Most guesthouses offer breakfast, but you'll get Shan noodles on the street for next to nothing. Lunch and dinner are catered for mainly by a string of restaurants along the main road, where you'll find either English menus or a staffer who can speak the basics. Notably, Hsipaw has some very good fresh juice shake places, with Yuan Yuan especially noteworthy -- their rum concoctions pack a very serious punch. Pontoon, a coffee shop boasting "real espresso" on the river road by the oval, was unfortunately closed when we passed through, but seek it out when you're there.
Mr Charles, Lily the Home and Nam Khae Mao Guesthouse all advertise free WiFi, but in practice the connection can be close to unusable so pack your patience.
By Stuart McDonald.