Set between Pyin Oo Lwin and Hsipaw, Kyaukme is less well-known than Hispaw but just as well worth visiting for a bit of trekking in Shan State's spectacular mountain scenery from a base that lacks the more tourist-orientated scene of Hsipaw.
Kyaukme is considerably larger than Hsipaw, but with a fairly compact "downtown" and just the one hotel that accepts foreigners, you'd barely know it. The sole place to stay has a range of options that cover most budgets. All the local guides congregate here, so there is little point in shopping around for trekking info -- there's nowhere to shop around to!
Aside from the trekking, Kyaukme town has three decent hilltop viewpoints though we only managed to get to one of them. It also has a distinctly interesting cottage industry making noodles, bamboo paper and, oddly, lead paper. Any guide who you engage for trekking will most likely offer a visit to these cottage industries as an add-on (our guide actually refused extra money, till we insisted) and it is worth the few hours it will take to visit them -- they fit in well before a train out of Kyaukme.
The trekking options are quite varied, with one- and two-day treks the most popular, though friends have trekked for five days out of Kyaukme. When you see the trekking map all the guides use, you'll see the options are considerable. There are a couple of well known guides who have built businesses off the back of guidebook mentions and while they may trek from very close to town, in our case we rode by motorbike for an hour to get to the trailhead.
We only had time for a single day trek, to a village that had a temple festival going on. That involved an hour each way by motorbike and then around four hours walking to the village and perhaps three back. The walking, all along a dirt road, was only of moderate difficulty -- anyone with a fair degree of fitness (even us!) could have done it easily -- but there are considerably more challenging treks available and generally speaking the longer you have, the more the opportunities to punish yourself.
As with everything in Burma, information can be variable and subject to change. While in Hsipaw we wanted to do the three-day walk to Kyaukme but we couldn't get enough other people to make it affordable. When we enquired in Kyaukme about walking in the opposite direction, we were told in no uncertain terms that that route was off limits. So if you have some specific trek you are itching to do, we strongly suggest contacting a guide beforehand and firming something up -- and be prepared for the eventuality of it not working out at the last moment.
Scenery wise, we found our single day trek surpassed our expectations and if you've trekked in northern Thailand, especially in Mae Hong Son province, you'll find the scenery -- and the villages -- quite familiar. Don't expect to run into any other travellers -- our guide told us it was only his second visit to our destination village that year, and this was in October.
Back in Kyaukme, the aforementioned cottage industries are well worth a visit -- the primary ones are bamboo paper, lead paper and fresh noodles, though you may also score a rice wine still and a piggery, as we did. It's an interesting diversion and, if nothing else will keep you busy before the train rolls into town.
By Stuart McDonald.