I woke up early with my roommates so that we could see the famous sunrise over Bagan. Nyaung Oo had early signs of life with the many backpackers gearing up as well for a ride to their chosen spot in the sea of temples. We found our temple in the faintest of light and one that had surprisingly few tourists. To climb to the top of the temple, I had to shimmy my shoulders through a narrow and short passageway while turning halfway up along a half-seen staircase that tempted my bare feet with stubbed toes. The standing area was more like a ledge ringed round the apex of the temple but it sufficed while we waited for the lazy star to appear. The sphere crept up over the horizon altering from a purplish and pinkish red to a deep orange as it light up the temples. With the softest of light the temples revealed their true colors as a deep brownish red and the occasional white temple that stood out like a black sheep. Not many words can describe such an experience. The day is young and quite quiet and you are rewarded with a panorama that an owl would struggle to take in. Thousands of temples large and small, some packed together in groups while others drift away from the crowd but together they form an otherworldly image. How could such a place be hidden from me for so long? Not until I began planning this trip to Southeast Asia did I ever hear of such a place. All the talk and chatter revolved around the one wonder: Angkor Wat. Hey big brother, you have a restless sibling that deserves to get his name out there. The sunrise was capped off by the hot air balloons that rose slowly in the distance. For some reason they came up with the not so bright idea to have them colored red and green to blend in with the temples and trees but hey call me crazy. With such a view, you don’t want to leave. It did make me realize how vast a place Bagan truly is. As much time as I have to explore its history during my time here I won’t begin to touch the sheer number of temples that seem so much in reach. Sure I will have seen all the big league players by the time I leave but a fare share will have been left in the dust. After returning for breakfast and some instant coffee (don’t know when I turned into a coffee drinker let alone instant), I went to the Treasure Queen shop to see mama Myanmar and buy my ticket to Mt. Popa for tomorrow. With that taken care of, I got back onto the bike and on the road with a freshly recharged bike during breakfast so as to avoid another inconvenience like yesterday. I began hitting all the small temples along the way just off the road, checking each off on my map. For the most part, the temples lay bare of tourists and hawkers. These less acclaimed temples may not have the beauty and size of the major players but they had a distinct, unique quality to them: for that one moment when I stood in their presence, they were all mine. Ignored and unloved for much of their days, I became their sole audience amazed by the most simple of quirks they might display. If hundreds of tourists had shone up, I would have left those temples thinking they were nothing special but having them to myself in the still early morning heat made them magical. Some of the temples even had incredible frescoes and murals painted on the insides of the walls detailing ancient wars, mainly Buddhas reclined and seated, and demons or serpents sharing their part in the spiritual history of Buddhism. Having been rushed the previous day during my visits to Dhammayangyi and Sulamani Pahto, I went back to view them at my pace. Sulamani Pahto reminded me once again why it was my favorite temple in Bagan. Despite its grandeur, it did not come overcrowded (for the likely reason that it sat in the middle of the Gobi desert-like plains) and had murals of all sizes and situations. Being the large temples that these two are, I had to deal with the usual throng of hawkers. In Myanmar, people ask for money by saying ‘lucky money’ for reasons I haven’t quite pinned down. Either way, when they ask for lucky money, I just tell them straight faced (with an underlying humor to my complexion that cannot be hidden) that ‘no, I only have dirty, unlucky money’ which usually brings out a smirk from them. Being the epicenter for tourism in Myanmar, Bagan has quite a few Westerners/white people walking around but they (including myself of course) are outnumbered by the number of Myanmar and other Asian tourists. Whenever I pass some white people and (whether they are in on it or not) I give them a nod or look as if ‘go Team White People’. For some reason I decided to walk through the Gobi dessert whether to get that perfect angle for a picture, explore some smaller nearby temples, or to simply avoid ending up with dead battery like yesterday. The ground all over Bagan but most definitely in the water deprived plains has prickers and thorns scattered throughout. Those thorns were so sharp, long, and unbreakable that they jabbed themselves through the soles of my sandals and into the unseasoned flesh of my poor feet. With enough of them, I felt like I was walking across a sporadic bed of nails. All was not last as I found a great sunset point for the evening but the next time I would see that temple I will be bringing the e-bike with me. A group of Europeans my age looked lost so I figured why not be the Good Samaritan and right their ship. Since eventually I was planning on going in their chosen direction, I told them to join me for a short detour to a temple that supposedly looked like a miniature version of Sulamani but with access to the top. Since this temple was further afield into the desert I expected no one to be around but a family of poor Myanmar people sort of turned the temple into their home. The family had a couple of cute naked children running around and an older man that quickly brought us over to begin his attempt at a tour. I asked him mime-style if there were stairs up to the top. He nodded his head and gleefully skipped on over to it but sadly it was locked shut (I tried to show him with my hands that he should try to pull it apart like the Hulk which made him laugh). He continued his ‘tour’ while taking a strong liking to the guys in the group by posing with them for pictures near the Buddha images. No one knew what he was saying but that didn’t stop him from talking and laughing hysterically. Eventually we left receiving a show unlike what I planned. I rode on leading them to the Vegetarian Restaurant once more. Normally I like to try different restaurants back home to get some variety and experience something new but here in Southeast Asia, and especially Myanmar, when I find something I like I stick to it. I ate a sweet and spiced pumpkin curry with (drum roll please!) a mound of rice. The meal was more of a snack so I ordered up so guacamole with pappadon? chips. Everyone thanked me for the spot choice of a restaurant. Then they wanted to go to the somewhat disappointing sight of the Ayerwaddy River. It was not worth the time but we did luck into a few of us willing participants playing some juggling chinlon. Two of the Euros and I kicked the hollow bamboo wrapped ball around for quite a while. I held my own surprisingly enough (‘for an American’ as the girls joked) but even still I said ‘my bad’ whenever I made a mistake, which the one Myanmar guy jokingly repeated like a parrot when I occasionally made another mistake. I got so into the game getting as animated as can be with each touch of the ball. We played on the dirt ground with a people standing or sitting around on a bamboo platform watching us play. I had so much fun that I hated that we had to go. Since most everyone wanted to go back to their digs in New Bagan, I decided to explore some more temple but luckily got two of the more shy girls to join me. Before my destined sunset point, I took them to a grey and white temple with many small buddha images etched into the exterior of the stone. One woman somehow convinced me to buy the yellow thanakha suncream after spreading some on our faces (or in the case of one girl, I got into the act and sketched on her face with my well known artistic touch). From there I took them to one of the sunset temples not as populated as a couple of the others. Once there I met one of the rare Midwesterners during my travels (the Americans traveling to SE Asia have tended to be Californians or other west coast states). As for the sunset, the sun died early in the sky but it didn’t take away from what to me is always as remarkable sight of the temples at their most potent. I will admit that the sunrise has so far been better than the two sunsets I have but then again I have the fortune of seeing several more in the coming days. Back in Nyaung Oo (avoiding a battery breakdown, thank the heavens), I hate a some super sweet sweet and sour chicken. Take a deep breath Anthony, it will be okay. One day in the not so distant future, you will have Western food sitting in front of you cooked by your very own crafty hands.
Breaking Burma Day 106: Sunrise to Sunset