A check on my flimsy watch told me that it was close to 5AM. The roads were pitch dark but I needed to hurry if I wanted a glimpse of the magnificent Bagan stupas at sunrise.
Except, after riding off on the e-bike I had rented from my hostel, I realised I had no idea where to go.
I got the simple instructions to keep going straight, and in my haste, did not even ask for a map from the hostel. I had long overtaken the cyclists who have set off from the same hostel, and found myself alone on the road.
“You going Buledi?” A young Burmese man who looked about my age shouted as I rode passed. I slowed to a stop, vaguely remembering it as a famous stupa I had read on the guidebook that Jane, from the Kalaw trek, had gifted me.
“Buledi here, you follow!” he continued, pointing towards a deviated road on the right. He had his own bike, and seemed ready to lead the way.
I contemplated briefly – I did not know where go; heading back to the hostel was not an option if I wanted to catch the sunrise – and decided to follow him. I had read about locals asking for small guide fee, and assumed that he was one of them.
We found ourselves on sand soon after, a marked difference from the paved road I was riding on moments ago. The soft sand made it hard to maneuver the bike, and I swerved violently from left to right, unable to move forward.
“I drive, you go back” The man, perhaps frustrated at having to stop several times, parked his own bike at the side, and gestured for me to move behind.
I hesitated, well aware that I would be riding with a stranger. Yet, at the same time, he was stronger on the bike, and I was conscious of the time ticking away to my precious sunrise. “Unreasonable haste is the direct road to error,” and indeed, in my desperation to see the sunrise, I made the mistake of being a passenger.
For a short moment, things seemed to go smoothly, and we exchanged small talks. Until he stopped abruptly in front of a pagoda no taller than the average bungalow. “We go small pagoda?”
I was confused. While I had little knowledge about the stupas in Bagan, I was sure that I needed to ascend the bigger pagodas in order to see the sunrise. I beckoned him to ride towards the big pagodas.
He rode on, and stopped moments later at yet another small pagoda. “Good sunrise!”
If I was confused earlier, I was now bordering on uncomfortable.
Despite not having been into one, I know that these pagodas were narrow, dark, and certainly devoid of people. I was increasingly aware of how deserted the area was, and sunrise aside, I needed to get to somewhere where there were other travellers in sight.
“No, I don’t want small pagoda. We go there!” I pointed randomly to a tall stupa I could see, not too far from us, hoping that it will one of the popular stupas filled with tourists.
We rode passed the big pagoda, and he did not stop.
“Wait! I want to go there, big pagoda!” I shouted, in vain as he continued riding forward.
“HEY! STOP, WE GO BACK!” I shook him on the shoulders, finally getting his attention to stop the bike. I alighted quickly, and he followed suit.
“Why no small pagoda? They good… Myanmar boy, you Singapore girl…” He pointed to me, this time with a smirk.
“I don’t understand what you mean,” I feigned ignorance, silently hoping that he was not implying what I was thinking. “I just want to go to the big pagoda!”
“But Myanmar boy, good…,” He trailed, forming a V with one of his hands, and stuck his tongue in between, while nodding this head towards the direction of the small pagoda. “Ok? We go?”
The cultural architecture of Bagan suddenly took on a whole new dark meaning that morning.
I glanced around, confirming my earlier suspicion of being the only ones here. I took a deep breathe, and mustered the most forceful voice I could. “No. Just go now, I will go to the pagoda myself!”
“But why? It will be good!” He refused to budge.
I told him once again to back off, this time with more venom.
“Ok, money!” He replied grudgingly, seemingly determined to get something out of his “morning work”.
“No. I am not giving you money. Please go now!”
I was so frustrated with the back-and-forth, and was determined not to give in to any of his requests. Thinking back, with my refusal, things could have easily went south. I do count my lucky stars that he was at least mild tempered, and did not force his agenda, once I flared up.
I grabbed the keys, and rode back towards the big pagoda, leaving him standing where we were.
I thought about riding all the way back to the hostel, but was afraid that it would leave him too much time to get to his bike, and to catch up with me.
I hurriedly parked my bike at the stupa, making sure to pocket the keys, and made my way up, finally breathing a sigh of relief when I spotted other travellers.
I cautiously made my way to a couple sitting at the edge of the pagoda, and asked if they could be my companions for the next few minutes, just in case someone came looking.
The German couple was baffled when I recounted my earlier conversation.
Like me, thought the worst that could happen was someone asking for money, and could not believe my encounter. The man was so different from all the Burmese people we had met while on the road.
The sun had fully risen by now. In the company of fellow travellers, for the first time since riding into the Bagan Archaeological Zone, I felt safe to enjoy the sight of the stupas in front of me.
We stayed on the pagoda for more than 30 minutes, before deciding to head back to our respective hostels. The German couple was worried that I might run into the man again, and was reluctant to leave me by myself. I thanked them for the company, and reassured that I would ride to the main road as fast as I could.
But it seemed my early morning companion was determined to leave me with a deeper impression of him.
Just after separating with the couple, I spotted the distinct green polo tee behind a tree, his bike parked nearby.
What luck. He was by the tracks I had to take to make it back to the main road.
I gripped my handlebars tightly as I turned up the gear, stepping hard on the imaginary pedals of the e-bike.
He turned as I zoomed past, taking his time to shout a string of indiscernible words, and pointed towards his crotch, where his other hand was busy working.
I was beyond exhausted when I arrived at my hostel. It was only time for breakfast, but I seemed to have gone through enough adventure for my time in Bagan.