It’s 5am and we’re speeding down the mostly empty road, our electric scooter’s headlight cutting a path through the dark. Intermittently, motor scooters speed by with a polite warning honk. I crouch lower behind Ben, shivering in the wind, while widening my eyes in search of our turnoff.
We found the correct location, scouted out on our wanderings a couple of days before. The temple we had planned on entering was locked, so we scaled a stupa across the way. Sitting on a ledge, we fiddled with our cameras and shivered as the black gave way to grey, illuminating the clouds overhead. The sky turned grey-blue, then patches of pink flared. To our left, hot air balloons appeared from behind one of the larger temples and we excitedly stared as they made our way across the sky, over the temple-spotted fields, in front of us. The chill of the misty air did not diminish the scene in front of us; indeed, it was inseparable from it. I was a witness to something beautiful in a place largely unlike where I came from. The differences pull at the mind, stretching it. Observe.
After breakfasting, we wandered around Nyaung U. We stopped by the market, crowded with everything from purses to spices. I bought more elephant pants (half of them were gifts, okay?) from a young woman who happily told me this was her first sale of the day. Content with my goodies, we scootered back to the hotel. I was still antsy, however, so I decided to wrangle with the electric scooter myself.
Wobbling out onto the road, I got the hang of the accelerating after a few minutes and more calmly sped along the road. The busyness of the town center faded, and then I was alone, moving up a hill surrounded by brown grasses. A snake sped across the road. Every now and then, a scooter would come by in the other direction and its riders seemed surprised and amused to see an obvious foreigner off the common tourist pathways. They waved at me and I attempted to return the gesture without tipping over. Eventually, I turned around and traced my way back to the hotel, where Ben told me he’d be happy to lunch in 90 minutes. Off I was again, then, for 45 minutes out then back.
Feeling more confident on the scooter now, my bangs flipping every which way, I couldn’t help but smile as I again left Nyaung U. I felt adventuresome and free. More people waved as I zipped passed, and I grinned back. The road climbed up a ridge and I could see the mountains across the plain. Eventually, the road came to a toll and I turned around. Having spotted a side road on my way out, I resolved to make my way across its sandy depths (relative to my scootering skills) and see what it led to. It was a temple, of course. Squinting against the sun, I took a short break to look around before riding back.
That afternoon, I scootered around by myself even more, out past New Bagan. When I pulled over to check the time, a concerned guy approached me, motioning to ask if I needed help. I waved him on with a smile. I stopped at a temple complex and, semi-chatting through facial expressions with a woman sitting by one of the entrances, gave her baby a little butterfly brooch that had been tucked away in my pocket before I headed away. The woman grinned back and made her baby wave. I had not expected the amount of smiles per capita that I witnessed in Myanmar. I passed many more as I made my way back to the hotel.
That evening, Ben and I scaled a temple to watch the sun set, marking the final hours of our time in the Bagan area. Soaking it all into my bones, we watched the sky flare from blue to orange to grey to black. We boarded our scooter to head back to Nyaung U for dinner. It was losing its charge and we dismounted, pushing it up over the small hills before coasting down on the descents, the wind blowing on my face. A lightness resonated inside me.