During my last trip to Burma in June, I went up to Lashio, northern Shan State, and decided to stop in en route at Hsipaw to visit the residence of famed Shan Prince Sao Kya Seng. Otherwise known as East Haw, the house is surrounded by a large compound and guarded by tall tamarind trees. Yet when we arrived the place seemed deserted – the gate was locked and all was quiet.
After bellowing for a short time, a young man wearing the region’s traditional loose trousers emerged and met us at the gate. He was flanked by a dozen canine bodyguards and carried a Shan sword. At first, he was reluctant to allow us in and I appreciated the sensitivity of the situation. As ethnic Bamar, or Burman, we were guests in Shan State. The young boy was polite and smart yet I could feel his innate mistrust of these “foreign” visitors.
He explained that his great uncle was arrested for “tourism charges” and only recently released. I showed him our business cards and was glad to learn that he was familiar with The Irrawaddy and the famous Shan cartoonist Harn Lay who has contributed fantastic work. But even with our credentials confirmed, he steadfastly refused to open the gate. My driver went back to the car and started the engine so gave one final plea of, “Can we come back tomorrow on our way back from Lashio?” Then he smiled and I felt the mood change. I dropped the names of a few prominent Shan people I know living in northern Thailand. “Do you want to come in now?” he relented. The gate finally opened.
History Beyond Official Schoolbooks
Sao Kya Seng’s palace is in a sad state but, with a little careful restoration, could be a great place to learn about the history of Hsipaw and tragic tale of its royal family. I had read Twilight Over Burma by Sao Kya Hseng’s wife, Inge Eberhard, and so had wanted to visit Hsipaw Palace for a long time.
Sao Kya Hseng was last seen in March 1962 being arrested in the state capital Taunggyi while visiting his ailing sister. He was blissfully unaware of what had taken place in Rangoon at the time. Gen Ne Win had staged a coup that placed the military at the head of state power. The prince was arrested on his way to Heho Airport to catch a flight to Hsipaw. He was last seen being taken to an unknown place of detention by armed soldiers.
Born in 1924, Sao Kya Hseng was educated at schools at Darjeeling, India, and went to study engineering at the Colorado School of Mines in Denver, the United States, where he married his Austrian bride. Eberhard decided to follow her husband to live in Burma – a country she had never visited. It was a fairytale trip as she had no idea that Sao Kya Hseng was a Shan saopha or prince (some Shan spell it chofa while it is sawbwa in Burmese) and the ruler of Hsipaw.
Only when their ship arrived Rangoon did Eberhard see the hundreds of people playing music and carrying flowers to welcome their illustrious guests. She wondered who the important passengers on aboard were until her husband then explained about his royal blood. It quickly became apparently that she had married a Shan prince. Eberhard subsequently took the name Sao Nang Thusandi and became Mahadevi (celestial princess) of Hsipaw.
These days, however, the luster has dimmed a little on the royal household. Our young guide took us inside East Haw where Sao Kya Hseng and Sao Thusandi lived with their children and servants. We saw the family tree and living room as well as photos of the prince and his family.
East Haw is in a sorry state of disrepair. Burma is blessed with many historic buildings but too many are neglected and forgotten – indeed, Hsipaw Palace has been left overgrown by bushes seemingly for political reasons. While it would be valuable to restore the palace to reveal the real story of Sao Kya Hseng, and it would certainly receive some tourists, the authorities would no doubt constantly harass the occupants.