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Last update: Sep 11, 2018

The Shan State

Introduction

The Shan state is the most scenic and delightful area to travel through in Myanmar. The climate is very cool with nights that are surprisingly cold, because the average elevation of the Shan Plateau is about 1000 meters. The Shan Plateau, also known as Shan Hills or Shan Yoma is a vast mountainous area which has mountains up to a height of over 2000 meters. Through this high plateau several rivers have cut deep gorges, notably the Myitinge river and the Salween or Thanlwin river.

Shan State  map
Shan State division map.

There are three major divisions in Shan state (though there are many districts and many, many tribes)

  • South Shan state - Inle lake, Kalaw and Nyaung Shwe are major tourism destinations. Loikaw has been accessible since 2013, and the tribal villages in the area can be visited without permits since 2018.
  • North Shan state - Pyin O Lwin, Kyaukme, Hsipaw and Lashio, mainly trekking done here and the Gokteik railway trip.
  • East Shan state - Is mostly off limits, you can only fly to Kengtung which is also accessible from thailand overland through the Mae Sai/Tachilek border crossing.

When the British ruled Burma they allowed the Shan State to be relatively independent; it remained ruled by feudal lords with small kingdoms like Yawnghwe (Nyaung Shwe), Hsipaw, Hsenwi, Lawksawk and Samka; and nowadays it is still a somewhat unruly tribal area which the central government tries to control. Up until today they have not been very successful. Myanmar is actually a country with many different ethnic groups: in the central area the Bamar (the majority of two-thirds of the population of Myanmar), in the east the Shan, in the North the Kachin, the Karen in the South-east and so on. The Bamar or Burmese are the dominant ethnic group in Myanmar. Bamar people live mostly in the Irrawaddy River basin; the central valley through which the Irrawaddy River flows from the high mountain ranges up north to the sea of Bengal.

If you visit Yangon, Bagan and Mandalay you may get a limited view of the country; essentially visiting only the Irrawaddy River basin. Yangon is the old British colonial town in the Irrawaddy Delta; Bagan and Mandalay are in the "Dry zone" and also part of Burma proper. Inle lake, Hsipaw and Pyin-Oo-Lwin are in the Shan hills and are some of the most fascinating and pleasant places to visit. One more reason to travel there: Shan State is a tribal area and Inle lake a tribal hotspot.

Shan State
The road to Hsipaw.

After the Burmese independence the successive Burmese governments (the Bamar rulers) have been acting rather like colonialists towards the tribal states in the north and east of the country. Shan state was one of the tribal states that did not even want to be part of independent Burma. In historic times, some of the Saophas (kings or chieftains) of the Shan state paid tribute to the Burmese king in Mandalay; but other Saophas had closer ties with the rulers of Chiang Mai (Lanna) in northern Thailand.

Whereas the British allowed the Shan State to be relatively independent in colonial times; Burmese governments have been very oppressive, especially the Tatmadaw has been hard-handed. That has resulted in the destruction of entire villages in the Shan state and refugees camps with displaced tribal people in the border regions of Thailand.

When Burma became an independent republic on 4 January 1948; the Shan people only joined because Bogyoke Aung San promised them the option to separate from Myanmar after a decade if they were unhappy with the central government. (www.wikiwand.com - Wikiwand: Timeline and maps of internal conflicts in Myanmar.)

Many parts of Myanmar have sizeable ethnic minorities, such as Shan state, Mon state and Kachin. These "tribal states" don't always like the "Burmanisation" of their home state and the loss of their identity. For example, on the 1st week of July 2018 large numbers of protestors gathered in Loikaw to protest a new statue of General Aung San on horseback; which would be erected on Martyrs Day, which is marked annually on July 19.

 


Gokteik Gorge - Shan Hills Train travel

Mandalay to Pyin U Lwin and over the Gokteik Gorge to Hsipaw.

The best way to travel Back in time in Myanmar is to take the train. The train between Mandalay and Hsipaw/Lashio is the most interesting for scenery. The famous railway line follows about the same route as the highway from Mandalay and ends in Lashio; and its highlight is the 100 meter high trestle bridge over the Gokhteik (Goteik ) gorge. There is one daily Up-train to Lashio and one Down line train to Mandalay. Many people go by taxi to Pyin-Oo-Lwin and take the train to Gokhteik from there; because the train from Mandalay is very slow and leaves at the rather early time of 4AM in the morning. Pyin U Lwin, the Flower City of Myanmar, used to be called Maymyo when it was the summer capital of the former British colonial administration.

The Gokteik Gorge map
Gokteik Viaduct Map - the Mandalay to Hsipaw train route.

 

The Gokteik/Goteik Gorge journey.

The main train stations are (going Up-line) : Mandalay, Pyin Oo Lwin (Maymyo), Nawngkhio, Gokteik, Nawngpeng, Kyaukme, Hsipaw, Lashio. A few possible journeys start from:
  1. Mandalay. The Up-line from Mandalay departs at 04:00AM in the morning. If you really like train travel you can start in Mandalay, but it will take 4 hours to get to Pyin Oo Lwin - the train has to zig-zag up the mountains. By taxi it is only 1,5 hours.

  2. Pyin Oo Lwin. Up-line from Pyin Oo Lwin: 08:15AM departure and 12:00 arrival at Nawngpeng. Take the Down-line train from Nawngpeng at 12:30 back to Mandalay. You only have about 30 minutes at Nawngpeng, so if the Up-line train is running more than 30 minutes later you'll miss the Down line train.

  3. Nawngkhio. Take a taxi to Nawngkhio station which is the closest to the Goktheik threstle bridge, pass the bridge and get of at Nawngpeng where you meet you taxi driver.

  4. Hsipaw. A very nice downhill trip: take a taxi or bus to Hsipaw, and take the 09:40AM train down to Pyin Oo Lwin or Mandalay. Arrival in Pyin Oo Lwin is around 4PM. The tickets are sold from 09:00AM onwards at the station.

Busses to Hsipaw: take 6 hours from Mandalay to Hsipaw, but taxis do it in just 5 hours. The busses start from the easten bus station in Mandalay: Pyi Gyi Myat Shin Bus Station (36th, 37th & 60th). Three Bus Companies are running Mandalay to Hsipaw: Duhtawadi Express, Ye Shin Express, Power5 Express. Power5 leaves 3:00PM, Ye Shin leaves 2:00PM & Duhtawadi leaves 6:00AM & 2:30PM.

Flight to Lashio: Another smart option is to fly from Yangon to Lashio or from Heho to Lashio; and then take the Slow Train down to Mandalay.

 


If you look down from the Gokhteik bridge you can see the small support rail bridge on the bottom of the ravine; which was built underneath the main viaduct to deliver the foundations and steel girders (beams) of the towers of the proper Gokhteik viaduct. The support railway has not been maintained the last few years and is starting to disappear into the jungle.

gotheik support

The viaduct was completed in 1900 by an American company; the Pennsylvania Steel Company. Many sources state that Gokteik viaduct is the world highest rail bridge at 300 meters. Yes, it was the highest 100 years ago, but at 300 meters the towers would be the height of the Eiffel tower. The towers are a maximum of 102 meters high - which is still quite formidable. The Gokteik rail bridge is not the highest anymore, now there are many higher concrete and steel rail viaducts.

 

Hsipaw station.
The train to Pyin U Lwin/Mandalay slowly pulling into Hsipaw station.

 


Train travel quality and safety

Some travellers have described train travel in Myanmar as a bumpy. That is not a fair description. A more accurate assessment of the Mandalay - Lashio railway would be wobbling, lurching, jumping and kangarooing. Most people don't sleep much on an overnight bus because of the movement. Most trains run much smoother than busses; however, the Mandalay - Lashio railway is the exception. As soon as your sleeper train leaves the station a swaying and bumping motion will make you realise that you will not get much sleep.

India's major passenger and freight railway routes use a Broad Gauge of 1,67 meters wide (1676 mm); Thailand's and Myanmar's railway tracks are meter gauge (1000 mm wide). Because the metre gauge is much narrower the Thai trains are more prone to swaying. The narrow rail tracks in Myanmar have not been maintained very well and thus the swaying motion is much stronger than that of the Thai trains. This makes rail travel, shall we say, more adventurous than in India or Thailand.

The railways in Burma were created in colonial times; and most of these old railroad tracks are not properly maintained and nowadays a bit wobbly. The rail lines are just as they were 117 years ago when the Gokhteik bridge was completed (in 1900). As a matter of fact, the rail line was perfectly smooth then and now it is in a worse state. The wobbly rails are the cause of the rocking motion of the wagons and ads to the charm, as long as nothing derails obviously. And even a derailment can be most amusing if not educational, though it will delay the official arrival time even further. (A derailment story here: diytravelhq.com) There are some improvements being made, but new railway lines will take many years to build.

How safe is the trip? Well delays are common but the top speed of trains is so slow that accidents are rare. The full Mandalay to Lashio line is 280 km (175 miles) by train in 14 to 15 hours, giving an average speed of 19 km/hour.

 

Hsipaw station.
Train delays are common.

 

Take care if you sit next to a window as you can be whipped by the bushes and trees that are growing along the trackside. If you are sitting on top of the carriage (like they do in India) you can see the branches coming; but in a window seat a sudden whack by a branch can hit you very hard in the eyes. This is a perfect example of the lousy maintenance of the railways in Burma: why does no-one make the effort to cut some overhanging branches of the trees along the line? That is not a very difficult task; or is it?

Concluding; if you are travelling by train then daytime trips are preferable to nighttime sleeper trains. If you fancy an adventurous daytime trip, like the one from Hsipaw to Pyin Oo Lwin then the train is the best option. The other good train trip through the Shan Hills is the slow train from Thazi to Kalaw, which makes a few switchbacks as it zig-zags up the Shan mountains to Kalaw hill station.

Mawlamyine / Malawmyaing / Moulmein

Another beautiful daytime train trip is from Mawlamyine (Moulmein) to Yangon, it starts in Mawlamyine at 8 am and starts over a long viaduct above Mawlamyine town and then crosses the wide mouth of Thanlwin (Salween) River before descending to ground level. The train moves slowly along the roughly 6-kilometre-long viaduct; so there are great photo opportunities. Unlike Indian railway carriages, the ones in Myanmar do not have steel bars blocking the view, and the trains are diesel trains so there are no electricity poles outside.

The Thanlwin rail/road bridge opened quite recently in April 2006. The train trip between Mawlamyine and Yangon is around 10 hours and there are two trains per day. There are two classes; Upper Class and Ordinary Class; foreigners are usually assumed to want upper class seats. Tip: take a bag of sweets or chewing gum to throw to the children that are waiting for you along the railway in every village in Mon state.

above Mawlamyine town.
View from the railway viaduct above Mawlamyine town.

Train ticket price

Lastly, train travel in Myanmar is very cheap; the government recognized the inferior quality of their trains and reduced the ticket price to the same fee that local Burmese people pay: it is now so cheap that ticket prices aren't even worth mentioning.

Upper class train seat rotated Just to give an example a ticket from Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw costs only 3 dollars upper class, and one and a half dollars lower class (wooden benches). If you want to do the full trip from Mandalay to Lashio is will set you back 6 dollars for upper class. Yep six dollars for a full day of train travel; 15 long hours which you probably wouldn't want to do on a wooden bench ... so I would seriously consider the six dollars investment for the upper class comfy seats.

 


More information on rail travel.

  • wikipedia.org - Wikipedia.: Goteik viaduct.
  • www.seat61.com - The timetable for trains.
  • www.arte.tv - ARTE video report with great drone-shots: Der Mandalay-Lashio-Express (German, 42 min.)
  • inwa-advisers.com - History of the Mandalay-Lashio rail line and viaduct with old photo's.
  • turnipseedtravel.com - A cautionary blog on the overnight train from Bagan to Yangon.
  • www.pyinoolwin.info - Tourism info. Just over an hour's drive from Mandalay, Pyin Oo Lwin is an ideal and refreshing destination.
  • www.unpo.org - Forbidden glimpses of Shan state. The vast majority of Shan State is off limits to foreigners. (PDF, map of historic sites in Shan state)

 

the Gokteik viaduct.
Driving very slowly over the breathtaking Gokteik viaduct.

 


The safety situation in Hsipaw and Kyaukme.

How safe is trekking in Northern Shan state?

The Kalaw to Inle trek can be busy in high season, which is why some people like trekking around Hsipaw. In 2016 there have been a number of reports of landmine victims in the northern Shan State north of Hsipaw and Kyaukme. In april 2016 two tourists were hurt by a landmine in the northern Shan state. There is a negative travel advice from most governments for the area outside of the Mandalay-Lashio highway and railway; and beyond villages like Hsipaw and Kyaukme.

Check your governments travel advice, it is probably negative for trekking there though many people still do it. Travel insurance companies will not cover the cost of hospitals nor flying out to Thailand in an emergency.

Note that the unrest is in villages north of Kyaukme in Kyaukme township; which is a very large area more like a district and which includes for example Hsipaw, Namtu and Namshan. Trouble in Namtu is thus quite far away (100 km) from Kyaukme town. Namshan is "off limits" at the moment.

The safety around Hsipaw is normal at the moment and for a one-day walkabout there should be no problems. For multiple day trekking it is necessary to hire a good, certified guide. The safest town for trekking in Northern Shan state is probably Pyin Oo Lwin; which is the closest to Mandalay and has a large army presence and an army school; students are visible all around town. For some reason Hsipaw has been much more popular for treks than Pyin Oo Lwin.

 

Peace and conflict Monitoring in Myanmar.

Incidents in the northern Shan State.

Two armies have been fighting each other since 2015 in northern Shan State: the TNLA (Ta'ang National Liberation Army) and the SSA-South (Shan State Army-South). Since the spring of 2016 the Burmese Army (Tatmadaw) has also gotten involved. In 2018 sporadic incidents have taken place.

 


Background on the history of the Shan Hills.

Shan book map
Historical books on Shan State.

Here are some good books to read before you visit the Shan Hills:

  1. Pyin Oo Lwin: The great railway bazaar by Paul Theroux. Theroux did a four-month journey by train through Asia; he crossed the Gokteik viaduct in 1973.
  2. Hsipaw: Twilight over Burma by Inge Sargent: My life as a Shan princess.
  3. Nyaung Shwe (Inle lake): The Moon Princess - Memories of the Shan States, by Sao Sanda. Narrated by the eldest daughter of Sao Shwe Thaike, the Prince of Yawnghwe (Nyaung Shwe).
  4. Taunggyi, Inle lake and most of the Shan state: The Trouser People by Andrew Marshall. Marshall follows the trail of the famous Sir George Scott throughout the Shan State. George Scott founded Taunggyi, the capital of Shan State.
  5. Loikaw/Phekon and tribal areas: From the land of green ghosts: a Burmese odyssey by Pascal Khoo Thwe. Khoo Thwe was born in Pekhon and tells about his childhood among the Padaung tribe (the "Longneck women" tribe). The second half of the book is about his escape towards the Thai border and Mae Hong Son, and eventually to the UK.
Other, older writers about Burma and the Shan Hills are for example Maurice Collis and William Somerset Maugham. In the 1920s Somerset Maugham travelled through the Burma and the Shan state and wrote "The Gentleman in the Parlour". In the 1930s Maurice Collis travelled there, and wrote a now rare book, "Lords of the sunset, a tour in the Shan states". Maurice Collis wrote several interesting books about Burma, but I consider Somerset Maugham the better writer.

The Gentleman in the Parlour is the story of a tour through SE-asia. Maugham cruises up the Irrawaddy river to Mandalay, then a trek of 26 days by donkey train from Taunggyi to Keng Tung through the mountains and forests of the Shan States, from where he continued to Bangkok and Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

George Orwell and Somerset Maugham were contemporaries; though Orwell was younger than Maugham. Orwell has said he was influenced by Maugham. Somerset Maugham was an established wealthy author when he published The Gentleman in the Parlour in 1935, Orwell was very poor when he wrote his first novel "Burmese days" in 1934. Maugham travelled like a gentleman through asia; Orwell lived years in Burma and had a totallly different view of the country and of the political systems of the period, colonialism in particular.

 


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copyright © 2016 Rolf Schierbeek. Any comments or improvements? Please mail me at : bytelife AT gmail.com