I collect vintage expedition books from around the turn of the century (1850s to 1930s)—the kind of dusty travel books featuring real adventure. When I read the stories, I become envious of the writers ability to set off into the unexplored, discovering something previously unknown to the western world. And while most of the world’s historical sights have already been explored, the feeling of discovering something for the first time still gives me a rush of excitement.
I arrived in Mandalay around sunset, checked into my guesthouse, grabbed a quick dinner at the street stall next door and ventured out on foot around town. It was much cooler in northern Burma, providing a nice respite from the sweltering heat of the rest of the country. The city has over a million residents, but it feels like a dusty village—quiet and peaceful.At the time when I visited in 2004 most of the city’s electrical grid was powered by diesel generators, meaning that it was somewhat unreliable and a lot of the city’s power went out in the evening. I felt safe despite the dark alleys and sidewalks. Most of the local population just stared in curiosity to the westerner wandering around wearing their traditional longyi (translation: a male skirt).
As I was walking down the street I was greeted by a young tuk-tuk driver finishing up his work for the day. We chatted for a bit on the street before he invited me to join him and another friend (a cyclo driver) for a drink and ice cream at the local hangout, which was one of the only places on the street that had it’s own power generator. We talked, shared stories, drank Burmese whiskey (moonshine) and became fast friends. I even helped my new friend translate the nuances of a love letter he received from a Japanese woman he recently met and forged a relationship with.
We parted ways that night with the plan to meet up in the morning. My new cyclo-driving friend offered to take me around and introduce me to some of the local culture and be my guide. I offered to pay him for his service, but he declined. I believe our agreement ended up being the equivalent of “buy me a beer” and we’ll call it even.We set out with a plan to venture up the Irrawaddy River to visit the temples of Mingun. The entire village is completely cut off from roads so the only way to get there is via ferry boat. The regular ferry boat departed once a day in the morning and returned in the early afternoon. I wasn’t a big fan of being beholden to the schedule of the regular boat so I asked about chartering a boat of my own. For $8 I hired a boat and driver to take me and my friend up the river and across to Mingun.
I have no doubt that this is how the first explorers traveled. I only wish that I could have stocked up on supplies or arranged some form of porters. That would have made the travel fantasy complete! Being that it was only a day trip, those additions seemed a little excessive and unnecessary. It was bad enough that I would later find out I would be referred to as “the rich American tourist” by my new friend Mani—which is another story.