Thursday, August 29, 2013


                                                        by Jim Goodman

    Visitors to Mandalay arrange their itineraries around visits to Myanmar’s former royal cities.  They tour the temples and historic ruins of Inwa, Amarapura, Sagaing and Mandalay itself, the last of the nation’s royal capitals before the British terminated the institution.  Yet not far away, around six hours by car to the northeast, lies another former royal capital, Shan not Burmese, known as Hsipaw by its Shan inhabitants and Thibaw by the Burmese.  It was once an autonomous state of its own, ruled by its own saopha, one of many such little princely realms that were eventually consolidated into the single political unit now known as Shan State.
Hsipaw lies on the banks of the Dokhtawaddy River
    Hsipaw has been drawing an increasing number of visitors in the past few years.  They come to enjoy a very different kind of royal city adventure than the one experienced around Mandalay.  The town is not very big, nor plagued by any traffic noise, and easy enough to explore on foot.  It lies along a picturesque river, bounded by hills on all sides, and close to a typically old-fashioned rural environment.  Though ancient monuments and important temples are among its features, most travelers spend little time checking them out and are more interested in tours by boat to Shan villages to visit traditional stilted houses and observe Shan farmers in the fields.  Second choice is usually a trek to a Palaung village, passing by a particularly striking waterfall.  Rather than a succession of temples and urban neighborhoods, Hsipaw’s guests opt instead for the pleasures of rural outings.
    The town itself feels like a true farmers’ city.  Other than an old cinema, there are no entertainment venues and the streets are nearly empty by nine p.m.  Farmers fill the morning market along the Dokhtawaddy River long before dawn, while activity in the town’s central market starts tapering off by eight a.m.  Bullock carts ramble through the streets as often as cars.  No one appears to be in any kind of hurry.  And all the women seem to carry their goods on their heads.
a common sight on the streets of Hsipaw
    Yet for all its relaxed atmosphere and relative isolation from the main currents of commerce and communication in the country, Hsipaw has in the past played important roles in Myanmar’s long history.  As the Shan state nearest to the new Burmese state of Bagan, it was the first ally the Bagan king sought when facing war with the Pyu and Kayan.  Paw Pan, the younger brother of Hsipaw’s ruling saopha, led the first-ever Shan delegation to a Burmese state.  Impressed with the treaty terms offered by Bagan, Paw Pan’s favorable report persuaded the saopha to dispatch troops, elephants and cavalry to Bagan, turning the tide against the Pyu and Kayan. 
    Some years later a succession struggle broke out in Hsipaw and Paw Pan usurped the throne without securing the customary approval of the Mong Mao saopha.  The latter’s son subsequently led an army against Hsipaw and Paw Pan capitulated at once.  The victor then had Paw Pan, his family, followers, horses and elephants all massacred together at a site called Tong Suat.  A temple and shrine then went up over the spot, now about two kilometers northwest of the town, and Paw Pan was declared Hsipaw’s official guardian spirit.  Whether Paw Pan was informed of his ultimate post-mortem role before he was killed is not known.
    Centuries later, with the rise to power of Bayinnaung, Burma once again had a strong and ambitious king.  After uniting the vassal states along the Ayeyarwadi River, Bayinnaung then launched a campaign against Siam.  The state of Hsipaw supplied the elephants and the cavalry for the invasion force.  In 1569 Ayutthya fell and among the treasures seized in the conquest were a number of ancient Khmer bronzes, which Thai armies had looted from Angkor when they sacked that city in 1431.  When he returned to his own capital Bayinnaung passed through Hsipaw.  In a farewell ceremony at Bagyo Paya, the king donated three of the bronzes to his Shan ally, which the saopha had installed in a separate shrine still standing in the pagoda’s courtyard.
Bagyo Paya temple
    Bagyo Paya, just 8 km southwest of Hsipaw, is the most important Shan pagoda in the northern Shan States.  Its annual festival, staged the week running up through the full moon of the Burmese month of Tabaung (Feb-Mar) attracts masses of Shan and Palaung pilgrims, with Buddhist Jataka stories staged every night.  Local people claim the site has been sacred for 2000 years and that the original chedi, complete with its own umbrella, is encased within the large and ornate one visible today.  Over the centuries devotees have added more elaborate elements to the building, culminating in the 1995 restoration, which re-gilded the spires and added intricate glass decorations to the supporting columns.  The top of the sagawa tree beside the pagoda bends over towards the spire, paying obeisance, say the Shan, to the relics housed within,
    Despite its antiquity, though, its beautiful modern embellishments tend to impinge upon its historical atmosphere.  But for authentic ruins and relics of Hsipaw’s past glory, one needs to go outside the northern end of the town, turning west past the shrine to Paw Pan, to the quiet and evocative site known locally as Little Bagan.  This is an area around the 150 year-old stilted wooden monastery of Mahananda Kantha, comprising several groups of even older chedis, some whitewashed, some plain brick, that date back to the time Hsipaw was located here, 4 km northwest of the town center today.
stupas in "Little Bagan"
    In the 1860’s King Mindon, Burma’s penultimate monarch, adopted the Hsipaw saopah’s son and raised him in the Mandalay palace.  In 1876, when it was time for him to return to Hsipaw and take on duties as the new saopha, this foster son asked King Mindon for permission to rebuild Hsipaw next to the Dokhtawaddy River, with a grid copying that of Mandalay, with its regular blocks and right-angle turns and intersections.  The king granted it and Hsipaw’s residents relocated the entire city from Little Bagan to the land along the river, laying it out just like Mandalay.  The saopha even had a temple built on a hillock approaching the city that included a standing Buddha image with its arm extended, pointing towards the town center, replicating the image on Mandalay Hill that points to the old royal palace.  He also renovated and expanded the grounds of the town’s main Buddhist temple, the Mahamatyamuni Paya, modeled on the Mahamuni Paya of Mandalay.
pillar at Mahamatyamuni Temple
    The saopha did not, however, copy the Mandalay Palace, but instead lived in a grand, Shan-style mansion outside the town.  When he died his ashes were interred in an elegant mausoleum on a hill just southwest of the town.  It still stands, though weeds and shrubs seem about to take it over.  Bombs destroyed his old palace in World War II and its replacement, just north of the town, looks more like a modest English country house, all but bereft of indigenous architectural motifs.  British influence was paramount by then, for just over a decade after Hsipaw’s relocation the British came to occupy Upper Burma. 
    Until they left after 1948, the British brought the accoutrements of colonialism to Hsipaw, elements which have now become absorbed into the town’s contemporary character.  Thus, Hsipaw, like so many other Burmese towns and cities, also has a clock tower, symbolizing the British attempt to make their subjects aware of the passage of time, when prior to their arrival it did not matter so much.  Besides the magnificent Mahamatyamuni Temple the town has several other Buddhist pagodas, both within the town, on its outskirts, and on the hills around it.  But now it also has a big mosque, Hindu temples, Christian churches and a Chinese Mahayana temple, all of which still serve the religions of the communities brought in by imperialism. 
colonial era buildings
Hsipaw's clock tower
    Besides adding a bit of variety to Hsipaw’s architecture, this outsider legacy of colonialism means visitors can enjoy different kinds of food during their stay—Shan, Chinese, Indian and Burmese.   Shan cuisine resembles that found in northern Thailand, with its sundry noodle dishes, grilled items and fish or meat steamed in leaves.  A Burmese meal revolves around a selected curry, served with rice, soup, and several side dishes of vegetables that are steamed, grilled, boiled, raw, or pickled.  Even washed down with a big bottle of good Myanmar beer the set meal costs less than three dollars.
    As a typical small city in a very underdeveloped country, Hsipaw also boasts the unusual attraction of old-fashioned small factories that provide a few more interesting distractions for those coming from the advanced countries of the West (and for that matter most of Southeast Asia).  Visitors can watch the production of noodles, popcorn, sandals and cheroots.  With boat trips and day-treks available, hilltop temples with great views of the city and its surroundings constantly beckoning, fine-looking buildings, good food and a friendly local population, it’s no wonder that nearly every visitor to Hsipaw adds another day or two to the original amount of time intended to explore this fascinating Shan destination.
the ruins of "Little Bagan" on Hsipaw's original site

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