A Bittersweet Sunrise in Bagan

It’s 4AM, a couple of hours after the hostel party wrapped up and a couple of hours before their hangovers kick in. I’m one of the few who skipped the previous night’s festivities, choosing to sleep early for an early wakeup call. I tiptoe down from the upper bunk bed, grabbing my button down and flipflops on my way out of the dorm room.

The dreadlocked hostel manager throws me a curious glance, something I’ve been getting from him and the other guests. I’ve been feeling extra self-conscious, like a stranger in my own skin. Being alone never really bothered me before, but I haven’t been that alone for that much of time. I found myself feeling extremely lonely, something that caught me off guard and I ended up making a spontaneous decision: I was heading out of Bagan that afternoon, a day and a half earlier than I planned.

I wasn’t leaving without catching a Bagan sunrise though. It was why I was crossing the street to the bike shop across my hostel, where I am greeted by Mingalaba! Bike, you want?

“Don’t worry, my son will drive you,” the matriarch tells me.

sunrise in bagan

One of the things that made me extremely uncomfortable was that exact statement: that I needed someone to shuffle me around Bagan. There are three ways to explore the ancient city:

  • You rent a bike or an electric bike for a day
  • You hire a driver and a car
  • You ride a horse carriage

I am out of my element. I don’t know how to bike, despite a couple of attempts trying to learn how to before I left. I was on a backpacking budget, and I didn’t have enough money to rent a car or a horse carriage. I don’t mind walking or taking public transportation, but these were options I didn’t have in Bagan.

And so I wait for someone to attend to me, watching two girls and a guy strike a new friendship. My frustration and loneliness creeps in in the cold twilight, and I’m close to crying. The woman, probably feeling the onset of a breakdown, hands me a free bottle of water.

The group finally goes on their way, the light of their electric bikes faintly leading the way. A boy, maybe ten years younger than me, pushes a motorcycle near me. The woman and I discuss the payment and the route, then she talks to her son in Burmese. I hop on behind the boy, my legs tensed and folded above the wheels.

I know the route by now. I’m tempted to tell the boy to drop me off somewhere and I’ll walk instead, but the roads are unlit and I’m not sure if it’s safe. We zip by the shadowed temples, the sleeping houses, and the clunky, tour buses, heading to the famous Shwesandaw, Bagan’s sunrise temple.

— — —

We arrive before 5AM, good enough for me to make it ahead of all the hundred or so people who will be climbing the temple for the sunrise. The caretaker, too cheerful for the ungodly hour, tells me I’m in the top 10.

“Top 10?”

“The first ten people of the day!” He shines the flashlight to the top of the temple, a faint dim that can barely be seen from where we were standing.

With a tiny flashlight on my right hand and my left hand grasping the higher step, I slowly scale the Shwesandaw. There’s a voice at the back of my head warning of broken bones and fallen bodies and I find myself actually chanting a Catholic prayer in a Buddhist pagoda. I’m struggling because it’s too dark and let’s be honest, I’m way out of shape. For a moment I ask myself if this sunrise is even worth it. But I’m too competitive to back down now, so I keep going.

It’s lightly drizzling by the time I finally reach the top of the temple, the heavy, gray clouds barely parting. I gingerly pat the ancient rocks and sit on top of them, waiting for the sunrise. Blocking out the noise of other tourists as they make their way to the top, while they clamored for picture perfect spots. Tempting danger as I dangle my dusty, calloused feet.

sunrise in bagan

— — —

I wonder about the thousands of footsteps that walked the same path, the people who stood or sat where I am, and the way their eyes ran over the same view I am seeing. I think about my own footsteps, the ones that I took to get to Myanmar. The act of moving forward, each day and each step, pushing me to this moment.

I’ve seen enough photos of the Bagan sunrise, that I can almost tell where the sun will be hitting the temples in the best way possible. I already know how the warm glow will paint the land red, how a bunch of hot air balloons will go up by 7AM, how everybody else will be going down the temple once the sun has risen.

The sun rises at past six, but I don’t see what I came for. It’s too cloudy for the perfect sunrise and the hot air balloons don’t bother. A lightning goes off, several rain drops fall from the skies, and everyone scrambles to go down Shwesandaw.

sunrise in bagan

In a few hours, I’ll be on an old airconditioned bus crossing from Bagan to Mandalay. I choose to say goodbye to Bagan this way: on a bittersweet note, on a day that matched the way I felt. The glum fog was finally lifting and I’m looking forward to better days.


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