The thought process behind my decision to take the 15 hour bus journey from the comfortable and tourist-friendly Lake Inle to remote Hsipaw, North-East of Mandalay in Northern Shan State was simple. It represented a bit of an adventure.
In keeping with my wish for adventure, the bus journey itself was a bit of a challenge, and when the five tourists including myself were dropped off somewhere in Hsipaw at three in the morning, we all looked suitably distressed by the journey and bewildered by the cold. No hotels booked, we divided into our respective nationalities and headed off in opposite directions, exchanging the universal European nod for ‘good luck’.
Fortunately a good night’s sleep at the deserted Emerald Hotel rekindled my excitement the following morning.
Hsipaw is an attractive town and full of the sights and smells that are the making of Myanmar’s unique allure. Striking multiculturalism, remarkable ancient Buddhist sites, dramatic scenery and the ubiquitous Myanmar welcoming smile were all easy to find and to enjoy.
But Hsipaw stood out for its culinary excellence.
The first morning I drank freshly ground Taunggyi coffee and oven warm baked banana bread overlooking the Dokhatawdy River. It was the nicest coffee I had drank all month. Lunch followed, in the form of a spicy Shan noodle hot pot served in a traditional ceramic bowl. The evening’s meal, well deserved after a cycle to a nearby pagoda, was delicious freshly grilled duck with tamarind sauce and yellow bean soup.
The first morning I drank freshly ground Taunggyi coffee and oven warm baked banana bread overlooking the Dokhatawdy River
For the next day’s breakfast I had a roadside pancake. After that, I took a walk around the surrounding area. I was welcomed into a roadside restaurant for lunch. Despite the host’s best efforts I refused the glass of whisky-flavoured alcohol he offered to accompany my noodles with cashews and paprika.
Instead I opted for a fresh Pineapple and sugar cane juice, made before my eyes. Pineapple that was so fresh, its tree gave me shade as I sipped its juice from a glass.
As you can imagine, I was reluctant to leave after only such a short space of time.
As a country Myanmar never stopped surprising me, nowhere more so than Hsipaw. The food went beyond the usual hotchpotch of cultural influences that dominate all Myanmar food. Its proximity to China, its situation in the heartland of Shan State and the fertile farmlands that encircle it, all combine to thrill your palate.
By Jack Goodman