The Man Who Changed How I Travel
Updated: Aug 16, 2022
In 2019, I visited Myanmar. The trip fundamentally changed the way I travel, and it started with a man from Hsipaw named Mr Book.
Arriving in Hsipaw
Hsipaw is a small town in northeast Myanmar known for trekking. It's set in a landscape of farmland and mountains and, like much of the country, has a sleepy, laid-back feel. I arrived in the afternoon after a 15-hour train ride from Mandalay and checked into the Mr Charles Hotel.
To find something to fill my evening, I opened up Wikitravel, a best-kept secret among backpackers. The site works like Wikipedia, with users submitting travel advice for each location. The entries are more personal than what you find in guidebooks, often featuring colourful descriptions of local characters. Here I discovered Mr Book and his bookshop and decided to search them out.
After walking to the shop's address and pacing the street several times, I began to wonder if he was still in business. This is the disadvantage of Wikitravel: it's not always up to date. I asked an old Burmese lady for help, and whilst she spoke no English, she seemed to understand. I was taken through an unfurnished building to a short man wearing a red baseball cap and a facemask. “I’m looking for Mr Book”, I said, assuming I'd been brought to an English speaker. “Yes!” the little man said with enthusiasm.
You should be wary when a local answers with “Yes”. I’ve learned the hard way that the Burmese always answer in the positive when they don’t understand you. For example:
“Hello, do you know where the station is?”
“Great, can you tell me where?”
This can go on for some time before the penny drops. I heard of a traveller who got stuck in a shoe shop for half an hour because he thought they had his size but couldn’t work out why they wouldn’t bring them to him.
Meeting Mr Book
I was relieved when the man introduced himself as Mr Book. He took me out to the pavement and lifted a dust sheet off a small bookshelf. “For the sun,” he said, “It fades the books'' then he gestured to the empty building behind us and added, “When this shop is finished, I will have many, many books on my shelves!”
The modest shelf had an impressive selection of books about Myanmar. There was genuine excitement in Mr Book's voice as he talked me through each one. "This one will make you a brave explorer," he said as he handed me a copy of "The Trouser People" by Andrew Marshall. (And he was right. Best 10,000 Kyat I ever spent.)
When I'd finished shopping, Mr Book asked if I could wait five minutes, as he had a gift for me. I took a seat by the roadside and flicked through "The Trouser People" whilst he went back indoors. When he returned, he was holding a small bamboo box.
The Bamboo Box
Mr Book sat down beside me and began taking items out of the box. Each came with a story from Myanmar's strange and complex past. We sat for a long time in the evening light as I listened to tales of superstitious military tyrants, fallen heroes, and opportunistic Chinese businessmen.
One gift was a 50 Pyas note, which naturally came with a backstory. When the military government issued a set of 50, 100, 200, and 500 Kyat banknotes, there was a problem: The notes added up to 850. Doesn't sound like an issue? It was for Myanmar's despot leader, General Ne Win, whose obsession with numerology led him to reject the currency, as the total wasn't divisible by nine, his lucky number.
Thankfully, the General's astrologers came up with a solution. They advised the government to release a new banknote worth 50 Pyas (~0.02 GBP). The near-worthless tender brought the total up to 900, satisfying the superstitious dictator.
Every item had a story like this. For each question Mr Book answered, he left another unanswered. “Ask a local about lion on the banknotes," he'd say, or: “Ask a local why the NLD peacock is yellow and not green as it should be”. I began to realise that his gift was more than just the items in the bamboo box.
What Mr Book had given me was a key to unlocking the cultural heritage of Myanmar. Questions I could ask locals that would open up the right kind of discussions. And furthermore, a desire to know the answers. Like all the best teachers, Mr Book knew how to inspire curiosity and wonder.
As a result, I saw parts of Myanmar that few others see. I stayed by great lakes in the north and empty cities in the south. I visited refugee camps in Shan state and met the militias who caused them. I spoke to teachers in remote villages and researchers at remote stations. And through many stories, I was able to build an image of the country they lived in.
Countries like Myanmar often struggle to represent themselves to tourists, and it's not because they don't have something to offer. In such places, people like Mr Book do a job that no tourist board could. I'm incredibly grateful for his time spent educating me on his country.