people and cultures – inspiring journeys
sharing meaningful discoveries in Asia

Twilight over Burma: A Journey to Hsipaw

February 2016
Journey into Myanmar: 
Hsipaw in Shan State

You may not know what awaits you in a town called Hsipaw. And neither did Austrian Inge Sargent who once became a Shan princess. Inge fell in love and married a fellow student from Burma while at University in Colorado during the 1950s. But it wasn’t until she arrived into his country, did she find out that he was actually the ruling Shan prince of Hsipaw, Sao Kya Seng.

Inge Sargent wrote about her life in Twilight over Burma: My Life as a Shan Princess- a magical time which unfolded into tragedy with the disappearance of Sao Kya Seng during the 1962 coup.

Photos of Sao Kya Seng and his wife became Sao Thusandi are seen on the walls and in shrines of local homes and businesses today. They were a very popular royal couple. Sao Kya Seng had a vision to improve livelihoods of his people with the wealth of natural resources found in Shan State. He had graduated with a degree in mining engineering.
His new princess quickly learned Shan language and customs and focused on health and education programs. She was loved very much. They had two daughters, Sao Kennari and Sao Mayari.

Thusandi and her daughters managed to dramatically escape from Burma in 1964-two years after the disappearance of Sao Kya Seng.  He has not been heard from since.

The former home of Sao Kya Seng and Thusandi has over the decades been looked after by Sao Kya Seng’s niece called Fern. In its crumbling state, visitors have now been allowed into the home and to hear the story.

Unfortunately during this last visit, Fern had become ill and went to seek medical treatment in Mandalay. Hopefully she will recover soon and may this home continue to be looked after as an important treasure of history.

Hsipaw has certainly been included on more of the tourist trail as Myanmar continues to open up. Located along the Burma/China road there is heavy truck traffic these days but the best way to journey to Hsipaw is by the old railway line from Mandalay to Lashio. This means crossing the famous Gokteik viaduct built by the Americans for the British back in 1900. Damaged during World War II, the viaduct was repaired in the 1950s and the train has been making the daily run since.

Approaching the viaduct which pre-World War II, was the second longest and highest in the world. 689 meters (2260 Feet) long supported by 15 towers at a height of 250 meters ( 820 feet). The bridge was mentioned in Paul Theroux’s travelogue  The Great Railway Bazaar. He described the viaduct as “a monster of silver geometry in all the ragged rock and jungle, its presence was bizarre.”

I am usually not one for such heights but the crossing was fine as the train slowly made its way across the bridge without the rocking and rolling prior. Looking out one way is okay, but standing in the middle glancing to both sides of the train can feel a bit nervy as passengers scramble from one side to the other getting pictures…

Watch your step!…. no selfies here please !!

On the way to Hsipaw, the train passes through Pwin Oo Lwin, the former British Hill station known as Maymyo. This portion takes up to four hours by train departing Mandalay at 0400am so it is better to make the trip as far as Pwin Oo Lwin by car in less than two hours on a good road now.

Breaking up the trip is very pleasant exploring the beautiful botanical gardens and the old buildings the British left behind.  The British may have left British Burma in a mess, but they sure knew how to introduce gardens. And it is so nice to enjoy the cooler temperatures of the hills.

The Royal Parkview Hotel is charming with horsecarts waiting at the gate to take you around. Pwin Oo Lwin is an interesting multi-cultural community including Indians and Nepali Gurkha descendants who fought for the British. Buddhist pagodas, Christian churches, Hindu temples and Islamic mosques have remained in harmony here and may it continue this way:  More on:

The train departs Pwin Oo Lwin around 0830am and a short distance away, you enter Shan State. The Shan are ethnic Tai people who are culturally similar to their cousins of Chiang Mai and Lao. 
In Chiang Mai, the Shan are referred to as Tai Yai. Many have migrated here legally and also illegally escaping persecution of the Burmese military.  They share a pride in their identity and it is always nice to see their local festivals at the Tai Yai temples in Chiang Mai and up in Mae Hong Son.

Locals in Hsipaw are very happy to welcome visitors to their land. Shan State is also home to a whole range of other ethnic groups including Akha, Lahu, Palaung.  The Intha and Pa-O live around beautiful Inle Lake. However it is best to keep distance from the infamous remoter Wa territory- ( another story!)

Although Hsipaw can feel dusty from the China road traffic, the town has become quite a base for local trekking. We set off into the countryside with a lovely local guide, Nang Noon.

Noon from the Shan Youth Network has learned excellent English. The Shan Youth Network is doing great work in education and community outreach.
Also, creating awareness for Shan identity and the continued sad persecution of remote communites in northern Shan State.

There is so much to tackle for the new government but there is definitely a fresh optimism in the air.  It is amazing to see an explosion of mobile phones, Wifi and Facebook. Just a few  years ago, a local SIM Card would cost over USD 1000!   Yes, one thousand dollars.

A delightful place to stay in Hsipaw is the Tai House Resort.  Truly an example of what is possible in hospitality coming from the heart. This family manages all the nice touches with a sincere welcome and great food in their little garden oasis.

After a walk in the countryside and exploring markets:

…nice to relax by the Dokehthawady River for sunset.

In another old neighborhood nearby is an ancient site of chedis called Little Bagan:

A peaceful walk brings you to this amazing tree growing out of the chedi!

The Bamboo Buddha at the Madahya Monastery:

This 150 year-old Buddha is made of lacquered bamboo strips hidden behind layers of gold.

Another nice place close by to relax under the trees is Mrs. Popcorn’s Organic Garden!

Mrs. Popcorn ( not Mr.) also makes good Shan-bean coffee and cooks up some good food. We found out Mrs. Popcorn has been on Swiss TV!  So soon to be more discovered, for sure.

… and here is the driver we nearly went with when our car did not  turn up!

Our hotel in Pwin Oo Lwin suggested we get off the train right after the viaduct to save time as the train could end up being much slower than a last one hour drive.

Well, the car the hotel ordered to meet us did not turn up so there we were at Nawnpeng station with the train gone and the station master’s office empty…

As Pico Iyer once said:  ‘we travel, in essence, to become young fools again- to slow time down…” 

We did eventually get taken in by a local mini-truck and arrived in Hsipaw just ahead of the train.  Next time, I would opt to stay snug on the slow train!

Twilight over Burma: My Life as a Shan Princess is available on

A film has also been made- it was actually filmed in Chiang Mai. Hopefully this film will be available to watch soon. 
See more on:

Inge Sargent, retired from teaching and passed away at the age of 90 in Boulder, Colorado in Feb. 2023.
She left behind her two daughters who were born in Burma, several grandchildren and many Shan people who held their princess in their hearts.
from the Boulder Daily Camera, read a beautiful Obituary

Shan Youth Network on Facebook:

Follow current Myanmar News and

Copyright 2006 by all rights reserved.