Mandalay to Hsipaw (train from Pyin Oo Lwin)

A 2-hour drive from Mandalay, took us to the hill town of Pyin Oo Lwin. Here we caught the train, from Pyin Oo Lwin railway station, for a 4-hour train journey to Hsipaw. The scenic journey crosses the famous Gokteik Viaduct which spans a 300-meter deep gorge in the Shan mountains. The views from the train are spectacular. The railway line between Pyin u Lwin and Hsipaw is a masterpiece of British engineering, designed primarily to bring trade (and thus control) to the Northern Shan State, an important ally of the British after the conquest of Upper Burma. We got off the train a couple of train hours short of Hsipaw, and completed the journey into Hsipaw by car. Hsipaw is a sleepy small town on the banks of the Dokhtawady River.

One of Burma’s most stunning man-made marvels built by the colonial British, Gokteik Viaduct is a spectacular railway bridge over 100 metres above the ground and nearly 700 metres long. Constructed by the British in 1901, Gokteik was once the longest railway trestle in the world. Located about 100 km north of Mandalay, the bridge was fabricated by Pennsylvania Steel Co. and shipped to Burma, with assembly overseen by Sir Arthur Rendel, engineer for the Burma Railroad Company. Stretching 689 meters from end to end, the viaduct has 14 towers that each span 12 meters along with a double tower 24 meters long. These 15 towers support 10 deck truss spans of 37 meters, along with six steel-plate girder spans 18 meters long and an approach span of 12 meters.

The bridge in 1901

There were numerous attempts by the US to bomb the bridge in 1943 and 1944, but the raids only inflicted minor damage - some 100 US aircraft attempted to bomb the bridge, but none hit it. As the line from Mandalay to Lashio is of strategic value a diversionary route to the valley floor was built in 1976 - 1978, to keep trains running even if the Gokteik viaduct was sabotaged. Its tracks were still visible from the viaduct in 2013, but that line has been left to the tropical vegetation since 2002

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This sleepy market town in the Northern Shan State allows tourists to get well off the beaten track.The Sawbwas of Hsipaw lived in the Shan Palace at the northern end of the town. The last Sawbwa (Sao Kya Seng) disappeared during the military coup in 1962 and the palace is cared for by his nephew and his nephew's wife. 'Mr. Donald' (Sao Oo Kya), the nephew, was in jail, apparently for saying bad things about the military, but was released several years ago during a general amnesty. Since then he has had to be very careful not to give the regime a chance to re-arrest him. For several years after his release he and his wife lived in Taunggyi, the major Shan administrative centre, However recently his wife has returned to the palace in Hsipaw. She is determined (very courageously) to tell the story of the Shan State over the last 50 years, explaining specifically the history of the last sawbwa and their family and welcomes visitors from overseas.


Mr. Charles River View Lodge was our hotel in Hsipaw- on Tripadvisor and on 9.5 Booking . When we arrived there - its a fair distance from Hsipaw - we thought "Why on earth did we chose this hotel". You rattle down unmade roads, and the hotel grounds, though not overgrown, are a bit uncared for. The reception/restaurant area which greets you on arrival, is a bit basic. However the bedrooms are modern and well decorated, and we had a great terrace overlooking the river.

You are probably going to eat dinner in the hotel given that it is a half hour walk into town (though a tuk-tuk is possible) The food is fairly basic, but is well cooked and the service is friendly. And we enjoyed both dinners and breakfasts. A bonus at breakfast is that every morning the eponymous "Mr Charles" has his breakfast here. He owns a hotel in town as well, and various family members run the hotels and a tourism business. One of his daughters runs the River Lodge and is very helpful. Mr Charles was a very interesting man to talk to about setting up and running the hotels in Hsipaw

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We walked along the road towards town to a local village, and there is also a small restaurant/bar called Mr Wok about 500 metres from River Lodge. Given the unlit road, although we stopped there in daylight, we decided not to tackle the journey after dark. We also took a long-tail boat ride from the hotel's jetty, up the river to the "meeting of the water", a beautiful spot where two rivers join, and an enterprising local has set up a refreshment terrace. So after a few days, the River Lodge had grown on us, and I would recommend it to anyone in the area. Its is authentic, friendly and clean, with well decorated modern bedrooms

Mr Wok - We were staying 500 metres away at Mr Charles River Lodge, and came upon Mr Wok by chance as we started to walk towards Hsipaw. The owner, whom TripAdvisor reviewers chatted to was not there, so we missed that experience. The staff were friendly, but communication was difficult. The place is atmospheric, but "rustic", and has views over the river that you can see in photos below. We had some drinks here, which I thought were reasonably priced (remember this is aimed at Western Tourists) and enjoyed relaxing here. Transport does not appear to be a problem for the return trip to Hsipaw- we saw two Australian girls, who had "tubed" down the river, depart clutching their tubes, on the back of a single motorbike driven by a staff member

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We boarded a longtail boat from the hotel jetty for a trip along the Dokhtawady River to Chaung Sone. Set against a timeless backdrop of mountains, valleys and plantations it is a pleasant trip of an hour or so, to a particularly scenic spot where two rivers meet. .Given that there are virtually no tourists (we did not see any others in our two hours on the river) , it was a bit strange to find a local person had set up a "cafe" overlooking this scenic spot. Given its remoteness, there is no electricity, hence no refrigeration, hence no cold drinks. I don't think many western tourists would be buying warm beer in this heat. Anyway we enjoyed a cup of tea here, as well as the view and the peacefulness, before heading back down the river, via a stop for a walk and a simple lunch at a local Shan village (where we just happened to see the train go through) , to our hotel.

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Then it was time to drive back to Pyin Oo Lwin, this time by road. The road from Hsipaw to Pyin Oo Lwin is the main road to China, hence is choc a bloc with lorries. After a brief stop at a temple to stretch our legs, we started the descent of the valley in a vast slow moving queue of lorries, all the way down to the bottom of the valley, and up the other side. The driver had at one point to stop to pour water on his brakes which, in common with many other road users, were overheating under the strain. This is the same valley that the railway sails over on the spectacular bridge which we had crossed on the train. Once up the other side, road conditions improved, and after a stop for a drink, and another temple, we reached Pyin Oo Lwin after nearly 5 hours on the road

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On to Pyin Oo Lwin

Burma Holiday