The 2-day trek from Hsipaw to the remote Palaung hill tribes of Myanmar

2-day trek from Hsipaw to Palaung hill tribes of Myanmar

Off-limits to foreigners until very recently, Hsipaw is now an increasingly popular destination for backpackers and trekkers looking for an off-the-beaten-track experience. The popular 2-day hill-tribes trek takes visitors into the remote Palaung villages of northern Myanmar, which stretches towards the border of China.

This area is still recovering from a civil war, and grim reminders still crop up occasionally. In 2016, a German tourist hiking away from the main trail was injured by a landmine. The bloody fights between drug gangs, militia and soldiers are also still fresh in the minds of the villagers living here.

Don’t let that discourage you from visiting this picturesque place though. Myanmar is fast becoming yet another noisy commercial urban sprawl, and it’s only a matter of time before mass tourism reaches this lush paradise. In this travelogue, you’ll find out how to get here, what to do and see, and what to expect during the hike up.

Hsipaw trek scenery 2 day trek
This amazing scenery unfolds as you climb up the hills

Getting to Hsipaw

The easiest way to reach Hsipaw is by taking the daily train from Mandalay, which slowly chugs uphill over the course of the day. It is advisable to buy your ticket early, as you’ll want to get a reserved seat in the upper class cabin. At 3,950 Kyat, it’s an affordable upgrade for a comfortable, albeit non-air conditioned ride.

The train departs Mandalay at 4am, when much of the city is still asleep. En-route to Hsipaw, the train passes through the town of Pyin Oo Lwin at around 8am. This is a quaint colonial hill station that deserves a visit as well if you have the time.

This journey is also eventful as it crosses the Gokteik Viaduct, a spectacular white bridge that spans a wide valley bounded by deep chasms. Built by the Americans in 1901, this was the highest span of any bridge in the British empire when it was first completed. The train slows down to a crawl when crossing the bridge, so you’ll get a good view of the valley below. Just be aware that the authorities may prevent you from taking photos on the Gokteik bridge as a security measure, although many tourists get away with it these days.

The train rolls into Hsipaw in the afternoon, although delays of a few hours are not uncommon. Hsipaw has a few guesthouses, the most popular one being Mr Charles’ Guesthouse. You’ll also find several restaurants, grocery stores and backpackers milling around the area – a sure sign that change will soon come to this sleepy town.

gokteik bridge to lashio
The Gokteik Bridge can take only one train at a time
Excited schoolkids riding the train to their village
Excited schoolkids riding the train to their village

Where to stay in Hsipaw

There’s limited accommodation options in Hsipaw, although progress is slowly coming into the town. Check out these deals on

Finding a tour guide to hike up the hills

Most backpackers make a beeline for Mr Charles’ Guesthouse to join a tour group for the hike. Tours depart everyday, so you can probably make it if you’re there early before 8am. They also have a place to leave your luggage, so just prepare a small bag with a change of clothes, sunblock, a pair of sunglasses, a camera and at least a large bottle of water. A good pair of hiking shoes will also make the hike a lot more comfortable.

The 2-day hike costs around US$25, including 2 lunches, 1 dinner and 1 breakfast for the next day. The guides are mostly young men from the hill tribes, and they take pride in bringing visitors to their village. As such, part of the revenue from the tour goes to the hill tribes, and contributes to their development and recovery from years of unrest.

Mr Charles Guesthouse in Hsipaw
Mr Charles Guesthouse in Hsipaw

What to expect during the hike

The trail is generally flat, with stretches of steep slopes and a trod through the occasional mud track. It’s strenuous for sure, especially during the initial climb up. In the tropical heat, stay constantly hydrated to prevent heat exhaustion and to keep your spirits up.

There’ll be regular breaks every two to three hours, sometimes at scenic lookouts with a small hut and benches. During mealtimes, you’ll be invited to a local villager’s hut for some warm, authentic Palaung cuisine – almost always locally grown vegetables cooked with fresh spices.

By late afternoon, the group will reach a hill tribe village to rest overnight. After dinner and a quick shower, the group will gather around and trade war stories of travelling around Southeast Asia. Eventually, everyone will start to drift off to sleep, to recover for another full day back the same way.

muddy tracks in hsipaw trek
You may need to take on muddy tracks in the hill tribe trek
maize along the hsipaw hill tribe trek
Maize grows abundantly in plantations along the way

The food of the Palaung people

To feed a group of hungry hikers, the host will whip up a communal meal laden with various vegetables grown nearby. With ingredients like carrots, potatoes, rice and the quiessential tea leaf salad, there’ll be plenty of food for everyone.

If you’re a die-hard carnivore wh must have some meat, you’ll have to take some along yourself. In the hill tribes of Myanmar, meat is a luxury few can afford, and the local Buddhist philosophy discourages the taking of another life.

Lunch at a hill tribe village
Having a filling lunch at a hill tribe village
tea leaf salad myanmar
The tea leaf salad is a popular dish in Burmese cuisine

Spending the night in the village

Breathlessly clambering up into the last village to spend the night, you’ll be greeted with warm smiles. The guide checks the group into a room for the night, basically a large wooden hut on stilts. There is no ensuite toilet though. To do a number 2, or if you really must, a number 1, you’ll need to head out almost 10 meters to a field toilet. It’s far away enough from the hut, but not too far for you to think, ah never mind I’ll just do it under the hut since no one’s watching.

Dinner is served in the same way as lunch, with 4 to 5 dishes to accompany steaming white rice. Comparing each other’s trembling hands and aching feet are the main conversational topic, while everyone digs into the food with gusto. Miles away from the nearest urban settlement, surrounded by a dense jungle just starting to come alive with indistinct chirps, this might be the most satisyfing meal in your life yet.

After dinner and a quick shower in a makeshift open-air cubicle, you’ll want to finally collapse onto a comfortable bed. Alas no. But under individual mosquito nets, on a thin mattress and sleeping alongside snoring backpackers, you’ll drift off to sleep nevertheless.

walking through a hill tribe Palaung village
The slopes may get slippery after rain, so tread carefully!
The Palaung village where the trekkers spend the night in
The Palaung village where the trekkers spend the night in

The hike back to Hsipaw

Waking up to the sound of schoolchildren and the blinding sunlight outside (most assuredly, no one will wake up early), the group takes the same route back to Hsipaw. Even when retracing your footsteps, the path looks different. You’ll discover new viewpoints, even prettier landscapes and distant villages that you didn’t notice yesterday.

As the hike nears the end, the familiar sounds of vehicles and machinery fill the air. You walk past provision shops selling chocolates, and restaurants serving chicken meat. Signboards and electric cables follow you as you head back to the guesthouse.

Hsipaw, a town that you barely knew before. But after 2 days going back to basics in the hills… somehow this feels like home now.

A backpacker’s itinerary for 8 days travelling in Myanmar

Mandalay Palace From Up Top

Fresh off recent democratic elections, Myanmar is slowly freeing itself from the shackles of military rule and opening up to outsiders. Bordering the regional heavyweights China and India up north, and with the booming South East Asia down south, the country is poised to be an exciting country to watch.

With that in mind, now’s a good time to explore Myanmar, before it becomes Macdonaldsified.

Day 1: Yangon

Most international flights arrive and depart from Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city and former national capital. Assuming you land in the morning, make a beeline to the regional bus station to buy your tickets out of Yangon to Bagan on an overnight bus.

From the bus station, hop aboard bus 43 that heads towards the city. There’ll be many taxi drivers and touts loitering around looking for tourists to say, “No bus to city. Taxi only!” Ignore them.

The main sight in Yangon is the Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar’s most sacred Buddhist temple complex built atop a hill. From the nearest bus stop (ask the driver), walk 15 minutes across a park to the pagoda. Head up one of the four entrances and walk clockwise around the stupa. You can easily spend half a day, grab dinner, then return to the bus station in time to catch the 8pm bus.

The grand Shwedagon Pagoda
The grand Shwedagon Pagoda
Bus station in Yangon
Bus station in Yangon

Day 2: Bagan

Overnight buses in Myanmar are surprisingly comfortable, and you’ll reach Bagan at 5am in the morning after a good rest. Book the bus ticket for tonight’s bus ride to Mandalay, and try to find a cheap hostel or guesthouse to grab a shower and safe-keep your backpack for the day.

The bus station in Bagan is 20 minutes away from the main commercial district of New Bagan, and you’ll need a taxi to get there. Prepare yourself for tough negotiations, as taxi drivers will swarm around the busload of tourists demanding to take you to town for double the official fare of 8,000 Kyats.

After settling in New Bagan and enjoying a proper breakfast, start your tour of the ancient stupas and temples that dot the landscape. The best way to explore the place by yourself is with an e-scooter, which does not require a license to operate. But at the very least, you’ll need to be able to balance and ride safely on the main road. Otherwise, follow a tour or hire a taxi to get around.

That's one way to travel in style in Bagan
That’s one way to travel in style in Bagan

You can temple-hop in two ways – with a preplanned itinerary and a map, or just randomly stopping by every other temple and peeking in for a quick selfie. It takes a fair bit of effort to follow a plan, so you’re better off listing several main temples to visit, and just checking them off the list without following a fixed route. In any case, try to your visit to Pyathagyi Hpaya just before sunset, and you’ll be rewarded with one of the best sunset spots in town.

At night, grab dinner at Nyaung-U, a town replete with the chill backpacker vibes of Bali and Siem Reap. From there, return the e-scooter and head back to the hostel to collect your backpack. If you booked a bus, the company will send a van to pick you up and transport you to the bus station directly.

Bicycles are an eco-friendly but slow way to explore the ruins
Bicycles are an eco-friendly but slow way to explore the ruins
Kids playing on the top of ancient temples
Kids playing on the top of ancient temples
Bagan landscape
The view of the Bagan landscape from Pyathagyi Hpaya


If you’re looking for a cheap place to leave your bags for a day, try the Bagan Central Hotel. There’s private rooms that cost less than US$25 per day, and it comes with an ensuite bathroom. They also offer hostels, although you’ll have to lock your stuff up securely if you’re going to explore Bagan for the entire day. Check out the latest prices and room availability.

Additional information

There’s so much more to Bagan than just ancient temples! Check out Our World To Wander’s excellent post on the sunrise and sunset of Bagan.

Day 3: Mandalay

The former royal capital of the Burmese empire needs at least 3 days to fully appreciate the sights, but you’ve got 8 days and you’re already almost halfway through it. The bus from Bagan reaches Mandalay in the dead of the night at around 2am, so try your best to bargain for a cheap 15 minute ride to town. It’s probably a good idea to have a place in mind this time round.

The next day, get an early start to the train station and book tickets on the Gokteik Railway to Hsipaw (4am, USD 16). Book the upper class carriage with reserved seating, you won’t regret it. From the train station, rent a bicycle and cycle towards Mandalay Palace – it’s located on an island almost in the middle of the city, so it’s pretty accessible. The island itself is controlled by the military, so you can only get in from the East Gate, where you need to leave your bicycle and walk in.

Mandalay Palace is a museum that still retains much of its original architecture and interior, albeit without the royal family living within. Spend a few hours checking out the palace grounds, and climb up the watchtower for a good view of Mandalay Hill… because that’s where you’ll be cycling to next.

Mandalay Palace from above
Mandalay Palace from above

Mandalay Hill is located in the north of the city. It’s crowned by a picturesque temple offering an amazing vantage point to catch the sunset (again). You can either take a taxi up, or climb many flights of stairs to the top. As you do so, you’ll pass Buddhist shrines at each turn. I recommend taking the stairs, which is not as physically demanding as it would seem from the start.

At night, visit one of the many classy restaurants in town. Tripadvisor’s your best bet, but BBB restaurant has my vote during my visit. Spend the night at Mandalay (at last!)… you have an early morning train to catch at 4am.

Climbing up the stairs to the top of Mandalay Hill
Climbing up the stairs to the top of Mandalay Hill
Sunset at Mandalay Hill
The sunset at Mandalay Hill offers an unparalleled view of the city at its best


As you’ll be spending a night in Mandalay and leaving in the wee hours, I recommend a private room again. The Mandalay White House Hotel is located somewhat further from the city centre, but you can borrow a bicycle from them for free. It takes about 20 minutes to cycle from the hotel to Mandalay Hill, which is a pretty good way to travel across the city. Check out the latest prices and room availability.

Day 4: The Gokteik Railway

Wake up bright and early at 3am and head over to the train station to catch your ride up into the hills. This train ride trundles towards the Chinese border city of Lashio, and cuts through scenic farmland, lush jungle and eventually, the highlands. You could also do the same journey by bus, which runs almost alongside the tracks… but then you’ll be missing the highlight of the entire journey, this:

Gokteik Viaduct in Myanmar
The Gokteik Viaduct conquers a deep chasm with remarkable human engineering
Riding into the sunset (No Photoshop used!)
Riding into the sunset (No Photoshop used!)

The Gokteik Viaduct was built by an American firm under contract by the British. It had the highest span of any bridge in the British Empire back when it was built. Crossing across dramatic gorge, the train slows to a crawl as it trundles over a narrow line. Heads and hands will stick out of the windows clamouring for a photo. You might be prevented from taking a photo at times though, as the Gokteik Viaduct is considered to be of strategic importance.

From the Gokteik Viaduct, it’s another 3 hours to Hsipaw to the remote hill tribes of the Shan State in Northeastern Myanmar. By time you reach, it’ll be probably nightfall. Give yourself a pat on the back. It’s been a 15 hour ride up. Time to get some rest, a strenuous 2-day trek starts tomorrow.


Hsipaw is a small town, and much of the backpacker scene happens in Mr Charles’ Guesthouse, one of the earliest backpacker hostels to pop up in this remote town. While reviews are mixed, this is a good place to meet other backpackers and find travel companions for the road ahead. Check out the latest prices and room availability.

Day 5: Trek to the hill tribes from Hsipaw

There are two relatively accessible treks to check out the hill tribes of Myanmar. Most tourists would head to Kalaw, but in recent years Hsipaw has been gaining popularity as a less touristy alternative.  Just a decade ago, Hsipaw and the surrounding areas was still restricted to foreigners. Rebels once operated in this thick jungles, but not anymore. Reports of people getting blown up by landmines still happen occasionally though.

If you did not stay at the guesthouse overnight, it’s possible to go over to the guesthouse early in the morning and book a 2-day hill tribe trek out of Hsipaw immediately. It’s advisable though to contact them to reserve a place first. At the same time, book an overnight bus to Nyaung Shwe after the trek. Since you’re already on the 5th day, there’s hardly any time to spare if you get delayed!

Mr Charles Guesthouse
Mr Charles Guesthouse

The trek starts right from the guesthouse, and is done entire on small muddy trails, steep inclines and small mountain roads. Wear a good pair of waterproof hiking boots and carry light. Bring along a change of clothes in a waterproof bag, as there’ll be a chance to bathe at night.

You’ll also stop over at a Palaung village for lunch, hosted by a local villager. It’s a humble meal of vegetables and fruits, but expertly cooked with fresh ingredients.

By twilight, you’ll reach the village to spend the night in a hut. Rest well, since it’s going to be a long trek back to Hsipaw tomorrow.

Palaung hill tribe trekking
Every turn along the trail opens up new jaw-dropping views
Spend a night living in remote villages
Spend a night living in remote villages

Day 6: Trek back to Hsipaw

Wake up bright and early to the laughter of village school-kids outside the hut. You’ll have some time to wash up and eat breakfast before heading out again. The path back takes almost the same route, so expect to reach Hsipaw by early afternoon.

Back at the town, get washed up at the guesthouse, grab a quick bite or buy some snacks, and head over to catch the 4pm bus to Nyaung Shwe, the nearest town to Inle Lake.

Day 7: Inle Lake

The bus arrives at Nyaung Shwe at 7am, just as the town stirs to life. Nyaung Shwe is the largest town near to Inle Lake. There’s plenty of guesthouses, hotels and restaurants catering to an international clientele. If you’re booking a resort-style hotel by the lake, you need to hire a taxi or tuktuk to travel another 30 minutes to the lake. Each resort is largely on its own, so you need a driver and car.

Getting to Inle Lake from Nyaung Shwe is straightforward. Along the river that runs along the town, boatmen and touts seek out tourists for a ride across the lake. A 2-hour ride from town to the Cat Monastery and the Floating Gardens cost 5,000 Kyats for the boat. A full day tour can can go as low as 15,000 Kyats for the whole trip.

The fishermen of Inle Lake
The fishermen of Inle Lake are famed for their very unique fishing techniques

After the Inle Lake experience, grab a bike or hire a taxi and head to the nearby Red Mountain vineyard. A 20-minute drive from town and up the hills, the view opens up to grape vines and a panoramic view. Find an outdoor table at the restaurant, order a bottle of the surprisingly-drinkable wines, and wait for sunset. Most assuredly, you couldn’t possibly find a more magical way to end a whirlwind trip to Myanmar.

At night, ask your guesthouse to help book the 7pm overnight bus back to Yangon for your flight out. You’ll have to rush from the vineyard, so do prepare your backpack beforehand.


Kick back and relax for this last leg of your trip without spending a fortune. Hotel Maine Li is an affordable and central that’s absolutely spotless. You can also borrow bicycles to explore Nyaung Shwe on wheels, and cycle along the trail that borders Inle Lake. Check out the latest prices and room availability.

Day 8: Back to Yangon

The overnight bus reaches the Yangon bus station at 6am, the same place you began your trip 8 days ago. Take a taxi to the airport to catch your flight out, or book your next bus ticket out of Myanmar. There’s still more to explore in this country, so start planning your next adventure soon!