FEB 14,2012 - MAR 15,2012 (31 DAYS)
I decided to take a one month vacation from work and visit Burma ( also known as Myanmar). I heard the country is changing rapidly these days, and wanted to feel a bit of its atmosphere before it would be too late.
Burma is going through big reforms since 2010. From 1962 the country was under military control, but in 2010 the regime announced a new road map to democracy with a new constitution.
Before my visit to Burma (Myanmar) I heard that the Burmese people are extremely welcoming. Usually I don't tend to pay much attention to these observations; I'm accustomed to meeting nice people in touristic places -The receptionist in the hotel is always nice.. But after visiting the country I can honestly say that the Burmese people made my trip.
The mood, the atmosphere, the adventures I've taken part in are all thanks to the culture and nature of the Burmese people. Although they are very poor, they are happy, open, welcoming and very interesting. I felt like 'Alice in wonderland'. Every day brought with it new adventures - I knew how the day will start, but didn't know how it will end...
The Burmese people's hospitality and willing to share will surly make your trip as well, and bring with it positive surprises all through the visit.
Internet: When I was in Burma the Internet was still VERY slow and it was hard to find a decent place to log in, mainly because of government censorship. Most top and mid range hotels do offer WiFi access, and there are cyber cafes in most of the touristic areas (charging per hour), but most of the time the connection is extremely slow. Waiting for a single page to load might take up to 5 minutes, so you might get frustrated when trying to send a simple email.
ATMs, credit and cash: there are no ATMs in Myanmar, and Credit cards and travelers checks are useless as well. I had to withdraw cash (dollars) before I arrived to the country. Most hotels publish their rates in dollars, and sometimes even accept dollars.
You can exchange dollars to local currency (Kyats) in the local banks, or in the main markets and streets or with local travel agents (but its more risky). The banks offer very similar rates to the rates you'll get in the black market, so during my trip I exchanged money only in the banks.
I took a flight from Bangkok to Yangon through MAI International (Myanmar Airways). Since I wasn't able to book any hotels or place to sleep before the trip, I thought I'll try to meet some travelers on the the flight, and together we will try to find a place to stay after the nightly flight. Surprisingly, I was the only traveler on the flight. No backpackers or tourists of any kind.
I sat next to a guy from Thailand who works as a yacht technical expert. He came to Myanmar for business. Someone was supposed to pick him up from the airport, and He was planning to to go to a mid-range hotel that was already booked for him. I didn't want to spend my first night in Myanmar looking for a place to sleep, knowing that most of the places are fully booked, so I decided to join him.
So my first night in Burma was pretty expensive, at least in backpackers terms. It cost me 20$.
I woke up early, on a bright sunny morning, and took a taxi to central downtown Yangon, finally starting my trip.
After wondering in the center of town, looking for a descent guest house, I discovered that almost every place were full. Okinawa Guest House, which is located close to the Sule Paya (2 minutes walk), was also jam packed, but they managed to find me a bed in a small dormitorio between 2 other rooms. I woke up twice during the night when a couple of American girls rushed out to catch their flight.
I paid 7$ per night. the place was pretty clean, and except for the lack of hot water, and few rats showing their faces in the showers, I enjoyed my stay there. The place had a "backpacker atmosphere", and on the front yard, sitting on the bench, you could get some valuable information from people who were in the last days of their trip, and meet other people, who like you are only starting the journey in the Burmese wonderland.
There aren't many touristic restaurants in Yangon. Stopping by in a nice local tea house is a very nice experience, and a cheap one as well. Just walk around in the city center and you are bound to find a nice place you would like. Aside from drinking some tea and getting a plate to ease your stomach, visiting a tea house gives you a good opportunity to watch and observe how local urban Burmese live their lives.
Walking down a typical street in Yangon you absorb the atmosphere of the old Burmese capital (formerly known as Rangoon). Men with skirts (known as Longyi) are walking barefoot, and the parallel streets in downtown Yangon are full of life. It's a fascinating combination of Buddhist and Muslim culture, with local monks and imams, different clothing and garments, and a lot of street signs written in the local alphabet.
Walking in the streets of Yangon is an uplifting experience. If you are there, like I was, in the very hot March, you can fill your bottles with local filtered water available in the street stalls (usually free of charge).
The people of Yangon, like elsewhere in Burma, are extremely friendly and kind. Whenever you need assistance, guidance or anything else, they'll try to help you with a big and honest smile. I remember, while walking in the street market, I dropped my camera battery... a local old man ran with it for a few blocks to catch me, and asked if I lost it. I believe he would have acted the same even it was a money note :)
While walking on Anawratha Rd I saw two locals playing chess in a local shaded yard - one old man and one young tall guy. I watched them for a few minutes, and eventually the young guy lost the game. He then invited me with hand gestures to play against the winner. Even though I haven't played for few years, I couldn't refuse the invitation...
I played against the old man for about 45 mins. We didn't quite finish the game - he had to catch a train back home... We declared it a draw (although he was probably going to win the game), and the small local crowd (10-15 locals who stood aside) was pretty satisfied. So was I. (-:
Located just across from Aung San Rd you'll find the Bogyoke San Market, which is formerly known as Scott market. In the market you'll find thousands of shops, and you can also try out all sorts of traditional Burmese dishes in the local restaurants and food carts.
I stopped at a local tea shop in one of the internal streets and had a good meal while sitting on a small kids chair...
In the local shops you'll find a lot of handicrafts, gems, jewelry, bags, fabrics and a lot of souvenirs to bring back home.
Moseah Yeshua Synagogue (located at 85 26th St) was founded more than 100 years ago. It has a Sephardic Jewish traditional style. Nowadays there are less than 25 members in the local Burmese-Jewish community as most of the Jews had left the country.
The Synagogue is well maintained by a man called Simon Samuel. Sometimes you need to call and ask him to open the synagogue as the gate is locked. Samuel will show you the guest book, some old historical photos, and might tell you a few stories about the history of the Jewish community in Yangon.
Considered to be one of the most popular attractions in Burma, and one of the most known pagodas (or Stupas) in the world, the Shwedagon Paya is a site you won't want to miss.
The golden Stupa rises to the impressive height of 100 meters, and is probably the most dominant feature of the city's skyline.
It's recommended to visit in the evening, after sunset. There is an entry fee, but it is worth it. The pagoda is an amazing monument with a lots of gold, virtually everywhere you look. The main stupa is surrounded by a lot of small pagodas, creating a very impressive spectecal & monumental appearance. You can spend a few hours walking around the Stupa and watching the Buddhist people and monks pray and sing. Each pagoda is completely different from its neighboring pagoda, and aside from the colorful lights they put everywhere, the golden reflection is quite astonishing.
I met one British traveler who took the central train in Yangon. It's a city railway that allows you to see various regions in Yangon including the rivers and hills from different angles. I didn't have time to try it for myself but the guy I met said it was a really nice to have a 'local' perspective of Yangon. His only reservation was that you shouldn't do it if you don't fancy crowded trains.
After spending three days in Rangoon, I decided to head north to Mandalay. I met a Finnish guy in Okinawa hotel and we went together to the stadium area (close to the Sule Paya) to buy bus tickets.
Around the stadium (located north to the rail station) there are many agencies that sell bus tickets to all central destinations. We paid 13000 Kyats (per each) for a daily bus from Yangon to Mandalay (takes around 15 hours).
It's also possible to book a bus ticket in most of the guest houses. Usually they'll have a truck that will pick you up from your guesthouse to the central bus station (expect a very crowded and possible risky ride) and from there you'll continue with a bus to the central bus station in Mandalay. The bus was pretty clean and comfortable. The people running the bus provided us with water and some local refreshments. Overall, we had stopped twice for a break during this long haul.
We arrived in Mandalay (the Finnish guy and I) at 4 am. It was surprising to see the streets at the entrance to Mandalay full by locals who carry things, make tea, or just sitting in their shops. A crowd of taxi drivers and refreshments sellers swarmed on us in the central bus station as we arrived. We managed to take our backpacks from the hands of potential taxi drivers and tunneled our way out of the station. We found two motorbike drivers who took us with our backpacks to the city center, where we continued to look for a decent bed for the night.
We stayed at the E.T hotel on the top floor, which was actually a roof with a very spacious balcony. We had a view of the entire Mandalay center, including its uninspiring cultural buildings.
The hotel has 5 floors with very simple rooms, nothing more than a bed. The breakfast was great, and you can get a lot of information as well as transportation bookings and advice on other attractions from the friendly guys in the reception.
Next to our hotel on the 83rd street, there was a nice local modest bar called Nylon Ice-cream Bar, where you have a chance to eat some special home-made ice cream.
It's also a good place to chill down and have a cold beer. local beer brands include Myanmar, Mandalay beer, Dagon and Tiger beer. I favored Tiger.
Next to the Nylon bar there is a more touristic-oriented restaurant called the Mann restaurant that serves a variety of Chinese dishes.
There's also a small place, right to the Nylon bar, which serves Indian cuisines. It's definitely not a fancy place, but the Chapatti there was just great.
There are some options for entertainment in Mandalay:
The Moustache Brothers - this family is famous for being sentenced to 7 years in jail after performing a comedy that included criticism against the Burmese government (mainly jokes about the authorities). After negotiations with the NLD (some say that Aung San Suu Kyi was involved as well) they were released and allowed to perform their show only in front of foreigners. Nowadays, they perform the show in Mandalay at their house's garage.
Some people go to the show because of the family itself and story behind it, but the comedy itself isn't especially entertaining .If you are interested, check this nice article about the brothers from Jan 2013: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-20528893
MINTHA Theater - on the corner of 27th and 66th streets you can find a nice show with local performers. It's cheaper than the traditional Burmese puppet show, and includes "The Dance of the Spirit", Zaw-Gyi dance, Cane ball playing performances, as well as Tonaya and Bagan dances, a young Harpist and much more with a varied showcase every evening.
English premier league - The Burmese men are big fans of the premier league in the United Kingdom. Many of ther tea houses and restaurants will have an loud TV broadcasting the English league games. Even in a deserted town in Northern Burma, you'll always be able to hear about the latest gossip regarding Wayne Rooney or Arsene Wenger.
The next morning we went for a walk in the streets of Mandalay. I have to say that it's not always easy to explore Mandalay by foot. We went to Shwekyimyint Paya, Setkyathiha Paya, and Eindawya Paya.
Stopping in the central market of Mandalay (Zeigyo market), I noticed two people playing Badminton. Having spent my high school years playing Badminton (I was even ranked 5th in Israel for my age group, but there were only 6 players registered at that time), I asked to join them. They were impressed by some of my tricks and I left the place with a big smile :)
Monks action in the streets of Mandalay
In the afternoon we headed to Mandalay hill. We took a trishaw, as the hill is located a few Kilometers northeast to the center. At some point, a few hours after I demonstrated my skills in Badminton, I asked the driver to 'switch parts' and replace him as the driver the trishaw. The was a lot of honks from passing cars, and people smiling all over. Even though I managed to bring an entire street's traffic to a complete stop - I still had a lot of fun.
A staged photo :)
Mandalay Hill: We arrived at Mandalay hill an hour before sunset. Most of the tourists chose to watch the the views from the hill during the sunset. The sight from the top is indeed breath taking: The Ayeyarwady river to the west, the Mandalay palace to the south and the hills and Pagodas around - all are mixed together as the sun goes down, wrapped in mist.
The lions at the entrance to the Mandalay hill
It takes about 40 minutes to climb the hill, with lots of stone steps to climb up, but statues and small Pagodas on the way make it a worthwhile experience. A lot of monks (students) are coming to the top of the hill during the evenings to practice their English with tourists. Since I wanted to practice mine as well, I had a chat with many of them. Two monks accompanied us down, describing the prohibitions and limitations they face living as monks.
The following day, we decided to head south of Mandalay to see the U Bein Bridge as well as Inwa and Sagaing. It's possible to get there by bus or taxi, or to rent a bicycle/motorcycle. We decided to rent bicycles even though it was pretty hot (around 33 c).
We rented the bicycles at Machmud's place in 83th street (it cost 2000 Kyats each). It's important to check the breaks before you choose a bicycle because some of them are not exactly in mint condition. A lock (usually built in) is also very helpful if you plan to leave your bike and go across the bridge on foot.
Mandalay, like many other cities, has a rush hour too. The traffic out of the city is very heavy during the mornings, and It takes about 15 minutes to exit the city, so be prepared to bike alongside a lot of cars, trucks and motorbikes.
After you leave the city, you pass through small poor villages. There aren't any road signs to instruct you how to get to the U Bein bridge. The general direction is Sagaing, but we stopped a few times along the road to ask locals how to get to the bridge. It takes around an hour to get from Mandalay to the bridge if you're in a good shape.
U Bein Bridge: The bridge is one of the most beautiful sights I saw in Burma. It was built 200 years ago, and it's length is 1.2 Km. Actually, It's the oldest and longest teak-wood bridge in the world.
During the morning the bridge is covered with fog, and the place has its own kind of magic. It's recommended to visit during sunrise or sunset. We arrived around 9:00 am, and there were not a lot of people in the bridge. The atmosphere was still astonishing.
A fisherman in the Taungthaman Lake below the bridge
The other side of the bridge in Taungthaman Village
On the other side of the bridge you'll find Taungthaman village. The village is shaded and relaxed, and the bridge remains the main passage between it and the "mainland".
There are few Pagodas in the village, and you can try to find the Maha Ganayon Kyaung Monastery. These monastery and school are home to a lot of young monks and monks-in-training. Many tourists take advantage of photo-ops during the daily ceremony that is held at 10:00 am. This monastery also serves as a meditation center.
From Amarapura and the U Beins Bridge area we continued to Sagaing for lunch. To reach Sagaing we biked on a paved road and crossed 2 big bridges (In Myanmar terms) - The Ava bridge and the Sagaing Bridge. Sagaing is the capital of Sagaing region, and both bridges, located on the Ayeyarwady river, offer an amazing view of the old monasteries and ancient pagodas of Sagaing.
A picture taken from Ava bridge over the hills of Sagaing
A lot of pagodas dot the green landscape of Sagaing. Since it was hot around noon, and we had bicycles, we didn't climb the hills and just stayed there. We had lunch and went to see a few pagodas in the town entrance. After lunch (Very tasty chicken noodle) we peddled on to ancient Inwa.
Inwa is the ancient capital of the Burmese kingdom. it was the capital of the country for over 360 years, much more than any other capital. The city sits on an artificial island that was constructed on the 14th century, when a canal was dug from the Ayeyarwady river to the Myitnge river.
The old city of Inwa was once surrounded by a great impressing wall, but today what's left from the great ancient capital is spread over the island. We didn't plan in advance to visit Inwa on our bicycle trip, but I must say it was an excellent decision. The city was beyond any expectation; the ancient palace, teak-wood monastery, open fields, and the schools we saw were very impressing and unique. Almost every attraction in Inwa was more impressive than the other attractions in that area, including Mandalay.
Since it is an island, Inwa can be reached by small boats or ferry. The small boats go to Inwa every 20 minutes and are very cheap. We put our bicycles on one boat although we saw the "captain" is not very pleased... I guess not a lot of tourists take their bikes on the boat, and we had to hold them all way long.
We traveled the sights with our bicycles on a the hot hours of the day - not a very wise decision, since the distances between one place to another were not so short, and the roads were not suitable for a bicycle ride. I think we would have been better off leaving the bicycles in the Entrance to Inwa (where we boarded the small boat), and use one of the many horse-drawn carriages waiting to take tourists around the island. a horse-carriage should cost around 3500 Kyats for a few hours, and almost all the tourists travel the island that way.
On the island entrances, close to the horse-carriages port, there's a nice restaurant on the left side. It's very shaded and has a pastoral atmosphere. The food is very good, but might be a bit expensive compared to other Myanmar restaurants.
Our first destination in Inwa was the Bagaya monastery, built completely out of teak-wood.
It stretches to a height of almost 18 meters, with a refined design and beautiful carvings that runs through the wood. It function as an active school and like any other monasteries in Burma you are required to remove your shoes upon entry.Usually it's not a problem, but in this case the sun tends to heat the wood, and every step can scorch your feet. So moving between different parts of the monastery was a bit tricky and required some jumping and runnind... It is defiantly worth it though: Bagaya Kyaung Monestray was probably built in the 18th century and is still an amazing building.
We continued with our bicycles on the roads of Inwa. Passing rice farms and coriander fields, it was still very hot and the sun burned our skin. From time to time we saw some horse carts crossing next to us, and the admiring glances of older tourists gave us some motivation to continue paddling.
Our next destination in Inwa was the Me Nu Ok also known as the Maha Aumgmye Bonzan. This is a brick monastery and certainly the most photographed site in Inwa.
This well-preserved monastery was built in 1823 by the Queen of the kingdom for her royal abbot. It's made of stone and bricks, and in the its yards you will find some interesting statues and ancient small buildings.
On our way back to Inwa we stopped by a small school. I wanted to see a how a Burmese class looks like, especially in an old ancient city, where the population is very sparse.
The teacher was surprised but welcoming. After we interrupted the class (The teacher had to stop and let us play a bit with the kids), the treacher continued with the lesson and we stood on the side, watching the kids writing and learning.
After a long day that started in the U Beins bridge and ended in Inwa, we decided to ride back to Mandalay. We took another small boat back from Inwa, and it took us more than hour to get back to the E.T. hotel in Mandalay from the Ava Bridge
After a few days in Mandalay we decided we want to see some more nature, maybe a in a place with quite backpackers atmosphere. We decided to go to Hsipaw and try to organize a trek.
You can catch a pickup every morning from Mandalay to Hsipaw. The trip is 6 hours and it cost ~600 Kyats.
It's also possible to go by train but it's slower. I took a trainon the way back and the view was gorgeous!! It even appears as a "Must Do" railway journeys
Hsipaw is a charming small town located on the west bank of Dotthwaddy river, in the Shan plateau about 1500 feet above the sea level. Sprawling rain trees provide a canopy of shade along the busy main streets, with family owned shops, lively markets and local restaurants. Here you can the finest tea in Burma.
If you're looking for a backpackers scene, Hsipaw is the closest you'll get. It's a great place to chill for a few days, and reload you batteries for a trekking activity. We decided to do a 3-4 days trek in the area, and my Finnish partner wanted to combine it with a motorbike tour.
Everything in this town is owned by "Mr. something". There is a Mr. Kid and Mr. Charles guest houses, a Mr. Book book store and source of information, and if you want to eat something, you'll find it in Mr. Food.
We spent the first night at Lily's Guesthouse, a very nice and clean place located at the east part of Lanmataw St, between main street and the morning market. The place is very close to the bus station (and the big Antenta in the middle of town). It's a relatively new, and the owner is very friendly. The breakfast is really great, and they go out of their way to make you feel comfortable. They had a free bed only for one night, so I had to move the next day to Mr. Charles guesthouse.
Mr. Charles. is the biggest and most famous guest house in Hsipaw. There are rumors about the owner's relations with the military Junta, so some people prefer not to stay there for political reasons.
The guest house offers a variety of rooms in different classes and prices, including laundry services. There are some really fancy rooms compared to other guest houses in the town, and they offer free guidance and information about the area and things to do. A few guides visit the place every day, and answer travelers questions in the big yard.
Mr. Charles arranges excursions to the nearby villages, boat trips down the Dotthawaddy river. It offers half day trips (round trip and 4hrs walking) to the farmer's villages, where you can see seasonal crops and living style of Shan villages. You can also take boat trips to SHAN monastery, plantations of pineapple, papaya, orange, and overnight trips to the shan villages, water falls, the tea mountain and Palaung villages.
The area around Hsipaw is full of small valleys and hills, and is an ideal location for treks, hikes, and cycling excursions. Don't miss the panoramic view of Hsipaw town from the Nine Buddha hill.
A traditional ceremony in Hsipaw streets
Monks collect food
Although Mr. Charles offer organized tours with a guide, and although they told us you must have a guide to trek this area (the government established some regulations in the last decade) we decided to make an independent trek from Namshan back to Hsipaw.
Namshan is a Palaung village north of Hsipaw. It's located in the height of around 2100 meters, and is surrounded by green hills covered with tea plantations.
My partner decided to go there with a motorbike (5 hours drive on a very bumpy road). I wanted to do a 3-4 days trek from Namshan back to Hsipaw, so we decided to split for few days. (Later I learned that he had a motorcycle accident and went to some local hospital). I met two girls who wanted to come along on the trek, and we met another person in Namshan who joined us.
The way to Namshan took us about 7 hours with a local pickup. We arrived before the sunset to a nice village with very friendly people. It had one main road, and at the end of it you can climb to a promenade that offers a great view of the area.
We tried to get a local map and information about the trek we were planning. In Namshan there's only one guest house, and the owner tried to convince us to take a local guide. When he realized that we're going to make the trek on our own, he agreed to give us some maps with local information about the path back to Hsipaw. He told us about the distances from one village to another, and recommended us where to look for a place to sleep and how to pronounce the local villages names.
You can download the map below to have a better resolution of the path details and location names.
Our basic plan, based in the instructions we got from the guest house owner, was as follows:
First Day (a 7 hours walk):
Second Day (a 7.5 hours walk):
Third Day (a 9.5 hours walk - mostly climbing a hill):
Well, this was our plan. But as usual in Burma (did I say Alice in wonderland?) what really happened was a little different...
Actual First Day:
We ate breakfast and left Namshan through a local tea workshop.
People saying goobye :)
We continued walking according to the original plan.
A lot of kids everywhere welcomed us with the local hello - "Migalaba!!"
Around noon we arrived to a lonely house in the middle of nowhere, and some kids saw us from the window and started to shout "Mingalaba". Their father heard the noise and invited us to inside to drink some tea. The house was completely made of wood. It was almost empty, and you could see the family was really poor. We gave them some avocados we had and they taught us some local words.
After the short visit we headed south, walking in a very green area, going down the hill and bypassing a relatively big village.
We continued to the next small town, but it there were almost nobody there... We thought it's completely deserted, But than we discovered the real reason: There was a big wedding inside one of the houses.
The men were sitting on one side, smoking and talking, and the women on the other side. There was a local orchestra playing outside. They were extremely welcoming, and invited us to join the party. The most surprising thing was that they were even more excited than we were to host us in their celebrations.
The ladies on one side of the local wedding
The men on the other side (of course, me, on both sides..)
They served us special dishes and once again demonstrated the Burmese kindness I mentioned before. It was a real uplifting experience.
We had a chance to talk with the locals about the area. One of them even invited us to stay in his small village with his family for the night. Since we had our plans we declined the offer, but he really insisted so we decided to be spontaneous and make a change of plans. We gave the young groom and bride a nice present and continued our journey with our new friend, who didn't speak English (we relied a lot on hand gestures and signs).
Our new friend
Our new friend took us to his village, and we knew that we won't complete the distance we planned to walk. Well, that's the price of being spontaneous.
Our friends village was pretty small (very few houses), and it appeared that he owns some of the tea fields in his village area. He placed the other guy and myself at his house on the top empty floor, and the girls went to another house with his daughter and his grandchildren.
The family was extremely welcoming and friendly. They gave us longyis (the traditional skirt) and offered us food, tea and local home-made cigarettes (they have something local made of banana leafs).
They invited us go downstairs and sit with them for a dinner
Me and my new 'Longyi' during dinner
Actual Second-Third days
We woke up early and had to leave this wonderful family. The father walked with us for a few hours before he went back to the village, and we continued our journey...
Few hours later we stopped at a tea factory where tea is produced from the local fields leafs. The manager was around my age, and unlike other Burmese people we met in the area, he was an engineer and graduated from a university in Yangon. He was a very funny guy, and gave us a complete tour in the tea factory, explaining about every machine and the trucks that were imported from China. He also invited us to a very good meal, and offered us some tea souvenirs.
Again, we didn't walk that much. We stopped a lot, because it was very sunny and hot... We arrived at a local village after dark, and couldn't find a place to sleep. Eventually we found a monastery where a few monks gave us blankets and allowed us to stay for the night.
The day after we woke up a bit late... We realized our 3 days trip is probably going to extend to at least 4 days, and went to some local school to watch the kids lessons.
We continued on our way, arrived to a small village, and guess what? another wedding! We didn't want to "crush" another wedding but they invited us to join their celebration, and we spent two hours eating, dancing and celebrating with the newly weds...
Our second wedding in the trek
On the 3rd night we stayed in Kunhok, where we were supposed to be on the second night. There's only one place in Kunhok that can act as a guest house, and we stayed there knowing that the last day is going to be the hardest one in this trek . Until then we were very "tranquilo", but had a 9.5 hours climb planned for the next day.
Actual Fourth day:
We woke up very early (around 5:00am) and started our way back to Hsipaw. We didn't make any stops, and kept a good pace, climbing the hills with no problems at all. By 3:30pm we were back in the lovely Hsipaw, tired but happy. We made it in 4 days :)
There are a few trains a day from Hsipaw to Mandalay. The trains usually come from Lashio, and they will try to sell you a tourist seat.. I recommend you to take a normal seat for the real experience.
The view alongside the railway is breathtaking. The road from Hsipaw to the Gokteik bridge has fantastic views, and passing the bridge itself over the canyon is really something special!!
I uploaded a short video of crossing that bridge to:
The train is very slow and very shaky, but the view is awesome.. you actually feel you are in an old Indiana Jones movie.