Hsipaw is an ancient Shan town, the local capital of a Shan principality of the same name which according to its legendary history goes back to year 58 B.C. It is said to have been founded by Sao Hkun Hkam Saw, the fourth son of the Sawbwa of Mong Mao named Sao Hkun Lai.
The Myanmar people pronounce the name as Thibaw and the last king of Myanmar, King Thibaw (1875-85), got his name from this town. King Thibaw, before he became King, was given this town by his father, King Mindon, and he was known as the Thibaw Mintha or the Prince of Thibaw, his mother being a Shan Princess later called Laungshe Mibaya or Queen Laungshe.
Hsipaw or Thibaw has an earlier name, Ong Paung or Ohn Baung and we often see this name in our Myanmar chronicles in connection with the Sawbwa or Chief of Ohn Baung, a staunch ally and tributary Lord of Myanmar kings since the time of the great Myanmar king, King Bayinnaung (1551-81).
Hsipaw can be reached by train or by road. The road itself built during British times became famous as the Burma Road during the Second World War, when it was used extensively by the Allies in sending supplies to China via the back door because the road eventually goes to the Myanmar-China border to end in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province.
Haw or Sawbwa’s Palace and the Baw-gyo Pagoda, five miles to the west of the town, are extremely interesting places to visit and tourists are now making Hsipaw a place to see on their way to Lashio. If you want to see the biggest pagoda festival in Northern Shan State, visitors should go to Hsipaw in March when the Baw-gyo Pagoda has its annual festival; many races of the Shan State in their colorful hill tribe costumes come to venerate and worship as well as to buy and sell, to eat in a multitude of temporary stalls and cafes and to see the many musical theatrical performances.
Hsipaw is only 128 miles from Mandalay and the journey can be made by car or bus in about four hours, climbing the picturesque Shan Plateau to Pyin Oo Lwin (Maymyo) and going through the lovely countryside studded with farms, the hill slopes gleaming with yellow wild sunflowers. From Lashio, Hsipaw is only 91 miles. In recent years, the road has been widened, on the steep climb to the Shan Plateau, another road has been built so that vehicles going up do not meet those coming down. It is now in quite a good condition.
The Haw or Sawbwa’s Palace
The old wooden traditional Haw, Palace of the Sawbwa, was destroyed by bombing during the last World War, but we were able to visit the interesting modern Sawbwa’s residence built during colonial times by Sawbwa Sao Ohn Kya who ruled Hsipaw from 1928 to 1938. It is an architecturally interesting two-story building which looks like an English mansion with bay windows and wide covered verandas, the upper one supported by five attractive pillars, where the family could sit out and enjoy the beautiful scenery of the distant hills and the nearby winding Namtu River known as Myitnge or Dokhtawady in its lower reaches before it joins the main Ayeyarwady at Innwa.
Maurice Collis, the sympathetic writer on Myanmar, has described this same Haw at Hsipaw which he visited in 1937 during his motor journey through the Shan States which resulted in his well-known travelogue Lord of the Sunset.
The town is connected by railway with Mandalay and the elevation is only 1,370 feet and so it feels warmer than in the high country. Haw was the old palace which Sawbwa does not use except on ceremonial occasions. Members of the family live there, but the Sawbwa himself resides in the Grand Haw close by which was laid out with lawns and flower beds, arbors, and a hard tennis court. The palace itself was wholly in keeping with its setting, being in the style of a fair sized English country house. The Sawbwas gave up their traditional feudal titles in 1959. The present incumbent will kindly show the visitors around the house and the large garden.
Going around what is popularly known as the East Haw, the beautiful white brick building with a tiled roof, large French windows and doors, balconies and terraces, surrounded by what must have been at one time well-kept gardens and lawns and seeing the many old photographs on the walls, someone could able to learn something about Hsipaw’s history from the host who talked well and informatively on many aspects of his town and surrounding country.
Hsipaw has a large local market in the center of the town, with cinemas, small guest houses, and restaurants near the bus stands. The Haw is at the northern end of the town and the main pagoda, the Maha Myatmuni Phaya is right at the southern end. The roads are parallel to the Namtu or Dokhtawady River with its clear, cool waters against a backdrop of hill and mountains.
The border trade with China has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years and Hsipaw is now a favorite place for the truckers to stop over for a meal or for some rest. Hsipaw consequently has grown and flourished also.
It is said that the site of this city shifted more than three times since its founding, but all in the same area near the Dokhtawady River, because it was a fertile valley where paddy, fruits (tangerine oranges especially) and vegetables were extensively grown.
The present town of Hsipaw was founded in A.D. 1636 nearly 400 years ago. Sir George Scott wrote that the lines of the old wall and moat, long moldered away into grass undulations and jungle-grown, could easily be traced in his time (late 19th century) between the present town and the hills to the north.
Brief History of Hsipaw
It is said that the first Sawbwa ruled in Ong Paung (Hsipaw) for 35 years and died in B.C. 23. The Hsipaw Chronicle gives a list of 92 Sawbwas who ruled over this town from B.C. 23 to A.D.1962, so the town has a long history of about 2,000 years.
Even during the time of Pyu kings at Thayekhittaya (Sri Ksera), there were close relations with Hsipaw. The 8th Sawbwa of Ong Paung, named Sao Hkun Hkaw Kyaw, sent one hundred of his amat (ministers) with a hundred followers for each minister to the Ayeyarwady valley and they established an outpost which is just outside the latter city of Mandalay. Each amat minister built a hundred houses. It is known today as Madaya which is supposed to be from the original name Amattaya meaning “a Hundred Ministers”.
When Thayekhittaya was attacked by foreign forces, the Ong Paung Sawbwa, Paw Ai Pyao, sent troops to repulse the invaders, and Pyu King Thamoktarit regained his throne.
During the Bagan period Sao Hkun Hso, the 43rd Sawbwa, from 1162-1209 A.D, extended the frontiers of his state to Mong Mit in the northwest, to the Wa states in the northeast and to Hsitsaung-Panna in Yunnan.
Sometimes there were quarrels and fighting between Myanmar kings at Innwa and Hsipaw as in 1400 A.D during the time of King Mingaung the first of Innwa. But on the whole, friendly relations existed with Hsipaw for most of the time.
The Myanmar chronicles and Hsipaw chronicle even say that a Sawbwa of Ong Paung (Hsipaw) became a king at Innwa for about two years until his death in 1545 A.D. Sir Arthur Phayre gives his name as Sao Hkun Mong. It was the time of King Tabinshwehti (1531-50 A.D) when the Myanmar capital had been moved south to Hanthawady Bago (Pegu) and a Shan chief of Mohnyin had seized the Innwa throne. This was Sao Hung Hpa whom the Myanmars call Thohanbwa. He was assassinated because everyone detested his cruel nature and the Ong Paung chief was requested to fill the vacant throne.
From the time of King Bayinnaung who reigned in Hanthawaddy from A.D 1551-81, Ong Paung became a tributary state of the Myanmar kings. Hsipaw also transferred to Myanmar proper, control of Mogok, the ruby mines area, Kyatpyin, and Ka-hse.
Hsipaw and the Shan States, though they were tributary states of the Myanmar kings, still retained local autonomy; so long as they remained loyal they were left in peace. Many marriage alliances took place with the Myanmar Royal families and the Sawbwa families right up to the end of Myanmar dynasty in 1885.
For example, in A.D 1767 the Myanmar King Bodawphya married Nang Thiri Aung Hsung, the daughter of the Hsipaw Sawbwa Sao Myat San Te.
Sons of Shan Sawbwa were sent to the Myanmar Court to be brought up with the Myanmar princes and the Sawbwas became known as Naywin Bayin or “Lords of the Sunset”.
In A.D. 1853, Hsipaw Sawbwa Sao Kya Htun sent his Shan troops to fight on the side of King Mindon when he deposed King Pagan Min and seized the throne.
In A.D. 1866, when some of King Mindon’s sons raised a rebellion, the Hsipaw Sawbwa not only sent a force of 3,000 men to assist Mindon but came down personally to help restore peace and security in Mandalay. He died on his way back to Hsipaw and King Mindon appointed his son, Sao Kya Hseng, to succeed him. This Sawbwa of Hsipaw later changed his title to Sao Hkun Hseng, and after the Annexation, he agreed to acknowledge the suzerainty of the British who confirmed his appointment.
In 1890, he married one of the wives of King Thibaw who had been left behind, when the King was exiled to Ratnagiri in India. When the Sawbwa died in 1902, he was succeeded by his son Sir Sao Hke.
Born in 1872, Sao Hke was brought up in the Royal Palace at Mandalay to acquaint him with the royal administrative system of the Myanmar kings. So when the line of Myanmar kings was abruptly ended many of the Shan Sawbwas, and especially the Sawbwa of Hsipaw carried on the Court Traditions of the Myanmar kings. They encouraged Myanmar musicians of Mandalay to come and reside in their states and gave protection and sponsorship, preserving many of the old Myanmar traditions.
From the time of Sir Sao Hke who had accompanied his father on a trip to England, the later Hsipaw Sawbwas had further education in U.K or U.S.A. At the age of 40 in 1912, he went to England accompanied by his daughter Sao Siri Mala, to get treatment for tuberculosis. He returned to Hsipaw in 1915 and died in May 1928.
He was succeeded by Sao On Kya who was educated at the famous Rugby School and Brasenose College in Oxford. He also studied agriculture at a college at Wye in Kent. He was the Sawbwa of Hsipaw between 1928 and 1938. He had married his first cousin Sao Thu Nanda on 9 November 1922. Sao On Kya died in July 1938. All the Sawbwas of the Shan States gave up their traditional feudal titles in 1959.
Hsipaw is thriving now as a trade center on the old Burma Road. The truckers stop there in town and also many visitors come both from Myanmar side and from China side. Tourists also visit Hsipaw from Mandalay and Yangon.
Hsipaw is really worth visiting because of its natural beauty: surrounded by blue hills with a peaceful river flowing through its fertile valley; also because of its long and interesting history, its historical ties with the Myanmar kings of bygone days.