We cross the circular pebbled driveway that sprouts numerous garden lanes and direct ourselves towards a woman who, hearing our scrunching steps, has come to greet us. She introduces herself in perfect english as ‘Fern’ and invites us to explore the grounds of her home before coming to the house for a talk. A dilapidated wooden structure sits at the end of a flowered garden laneway, vines weaving their way around banisters like scrawny arms. We are told that it in a past life it was a children’ play house! Both M and G eye it intently and ponder what that may have meant for the lucky ones that had such a space.
We are walking the grounds of a Shan Palace once home to the Sawbwas (Prince of Shan state in northern Burma), the last Sawbwa disappeared in 1962 during the period of the military coup. Fern’s husband ‘Donald’ is the grand nephew of the last Sawbwa and she weaves us through the history of Shan royalty from the comfort of the palace’s living room. We are regaled with tales of subterfuge and imprisonment, impossible love and abduction. Most extraordinary of all is the story of the last Shan Prince and the Austrian woman, Inge Sargent, who became the Shan Princess. Inge Sargent’s book ‘Twilight over Burma’ sits proudly on the glass table at our knees and chronicles a story of love, tragedy, grief and resilience all the while underlined by an inspiring humanity. There is much to say about their story that would require pages and pages. If interested a small introduction can be found at http://www.myhero.com/hero.asp?hero=Inge_Sargent.
Under severe pressure and surveillance Fern and Donald did not waiver in the face of government obscurantism. They told their stories to those who came to listen and continue to do so. While both M and G busy themselves with a range of on site toys L and I sink in to soft armchairs taking in the old black and white photographs on the walls whilst listening to our indelible host.
We ponder the fact that before Burma relaxed it’s view on foreign visitors our little gathering would have been deemed illegal and imprisonment would await us. Donald himself spent years in jail merely for detailing his family’s history.
Our heads now filled with the extraordinary we thank Fern and make our way out of the house and out to the laneway that takes us back to a wide road bearing rows of restaurants and shops that straddle the roadside under the shade of huge bodhi trees. Some of the trees have bathroom sinks attached to them for alfresco dining use! Bicycles match trucks in number on the road and many cyclists carry stall full loads of fruit or meats or vegetables to bring to the bustling market at Hsipaw. We walk away from the town and find a wooden Buddhist monastery surrounded by a mix of well kept and crumbling stupas. One ancient stone stupa with a mottled exterior has a tree sprouting from its centre. All around us river dissected meadows are in bloom and a plethora of insects and birds make a frenzy amid the foliage, villages are tucked in to grooves in the hills and appear idyllic. We arrive at a garden restaurant, a collection of wooden tables set under the sun which serves organic and local food from the hosts kitchen. We feel entranced by Hsipaw and the surrounding hills.
In the evening we climb to a vantage at the eastern side of the town to a place known as “Five Buddha Hill”. The hill top monastery affords us panoramic sunset views of the river valley below. With the setting sun playing havoc through silver and cobalt clouds and the fir trees surrounding us accepting the generous colour strokes of infused light, we begin our winding descent to the sleepy town. We pass a young man in a deep set meditation, statue like on a west facing wall, and later, on the coil of the forested road, a woman arranging bundles of wood on to the carrier of her bicycle.
Our remaining days in Hsipaw are as relaxing as they have been in our time in Myanmar. Our morning walks often lead us to the central market via coffee houses astride the lazy myitnge river that meanders westwards through the northern Shan plateau. A leisurely pace of life dictated by natural beauty seems present here and we feel energised to begin our route back to Monywa. We hear that the rains have relented, water levels have dropped and rumour has it that the river ferry from Monywa to Kalymo (part of our intended route to India) may start operating again in the coming days. L has made contact with a Spanish cyclist who also harbours plans to cross in to India. We agree to meet and exchange notes. And so another early morning bus beckons, and with a little bit more hope in our bellies we begin the journey out of Shan state, filled with growing memories of a very welcoming people and place.