At the end of my first day of exploration, instead of returning my electric bike, I arranged for a second day rental which would enable me to wake up early and ride out for the sunrise. Thankfully my stomach problems were behind me, so I had no problem rising early at 4 am and venturing out, I'm a surprisingly affable morning person when sunrises are involved. There are multiple viewpoints in Bagan, but I chose Bulethi, both because it wasn't far from where I was staying and Jojor had recommended it.
I arrived early, in the pitch dark, but doing so secured me a prime spot on the ledge. Bulethi is one of the temples they still allow tourists to climb, although I'm sure that won't last much longer as they realize the damage it can cause. As the skies began to lighten the tourists poured in and the temple began to fill, but still nothing like what I experienced at Angkor. I say I'm a morning person but I prefer quiet, as I believe morning should be, so while I didn't mind the people the girls constant chatter next to me was starting to wear on my nerves.
The previous day had been overcast and rainy which meant the balloons didn't fly and the view was a wash, but I was lucky, this Sunday morning's view was breathtaking. As the sun broke the horizon hot air balloons rose into the sky and floated across the horizon, I could have paid upwards of 300 dollars to be in one of those balloons myself, but I rather enjoyed my [free] view with them included.
After sunrise I took advantage of the early morning and explored some of the surrounding temples, easily avoiding other tourists, most of whom it seems went back to bed. My entire day was filled with temple exploration, delicious food and contemplation of if or how I'd be celebrating the festival that evening. My visit to Bagan had lucky timing, falling during Thadingyut, also known as the Lighting Festival in Myanmar. It's the second largest festival and celebrates Buddha's decent from heaven. There are celebrations all over Myanmar, but I had hopes I'd experience something special in Bagan.
As night approached I rode towards Old Bagan, an area I hadn't yet explored and watched as locals lined the temples with candles. I stopped to watch at one of the smaller temples, taking pictures of the process, when one of the women offered me a candle. I joined the group, placing and lighting candles all over the temple, and this is exactly what I was looking for, a random invitation to take part in a practice, rather than watching from the sidelines like a tourist.
Already satisfied with my simple participation in the festival I was glad that this was just the beginning, a few minutes after leaving this temple and stopping at a few others to see the beauty, Jojor called. "Would you like to come to the festival celebration in my village?" There was no doubt in my mind, but I didn't really want to drive there myself, "No problem, I will come pick you up in five minutes." I quickly returned my bike and rushed back to my guesthouse, where Jojor was waiting with a big smile plastered on his face.
As we approached his village (not far from Old Bagan) he told me there was a small problem, asked for my bag and told me to duck behind him, "There are police ahead'. There's actually a restriction in Bagan of locals taking tourists around on their motorbikes, so if we were caught Jojor would have been slapped with a fine, but thankfully we rode by seamlessly.
When we arrived there was more candle lighting happening and I was once again invited to take part. Jojor showed me how to melt the candle base and stick it to the ledges of the temple, instructing me to make a wish as I did so. We climbed to the top of Manuha Phaya while Jojor told me more about his life, village and family. He told me the people of his village were walking now, but would return soon for the celebration. Sure enough there was soon a parade of people, children and of course the obnoxiously loud music synonymous with SE Asia, entering the village. To conclude the celebration there were fireworks and food, the later being a staple in any and every festival I've ever been to, no matter the country, culture, race or religious, food is really the language of the world.
Although the party was over I could tell Jojor wasn't necessarily ready to say goodbye, he asked if I would be okay to see his home. Having had a similar experience in Cambodia my interest was peaked and I agreed. His home is actually outside the village proper which he explained was due to some problems from his father, but I didn't pry on the details. It was a dark walk during which Jojor asked, "You trust me right?" and I did, but it also helped that he was quite small and I was fairly confident I could take him. When we arrived he explained that his family was at a different village celebrating and so he was alone, this wrapped into multiple apologies of not being able to offer me a meal. He had insisted on buying something to drink and although I wanted to pay I now understood that this was his offering to me as a host.
I was impressed that this young, 19 year old boy, had already learned such respect and etiquette for having a guest to his home. I could also sense some embarrassment or shame as he repeatedly apologized for his [simple, small] home. Ironically though this translated into embarrassment on my part, remembering that he had picked me up from my [fancy] hotel, I tired to explain that I was only staying there because of the cheap dorm room, and that while traveling I much preferred the local style, like his bamboo home. I'm not sure if he believed me, but I hope he sensed my sincerity.
While we spent time together I couldn't help but to think of my old students in Korea, of a similar age they also shared a profound level of respect [for me] and such pride in sharing their lives with me. He showed me pictures of his first English teacher, a foreigner who has since went back to England, along with other details of his life. I have to be honest, I did wonder if he had invited me to his village with a hope of earning money, but those thoughts disappeared as I prepared to leave. I gifted him one of the 'lucky' $2 bills I carry around, for instances such as this one, and he was completely taken aback, "Why are you giving this to me, are you sure?" I told him it was good luck and my hope for him to achieve the dreams he had for his future, I signed and dated it, telling him that if/when I got a Facebook account (his phone was broken so he didn't currently have one) that he must find and friend me. Sure enough, a few months later I got a random friend request from a boy in Myanmar and while it's only an internet friendship it brought a smile to my face knowing that he remembered me.
Opening its doors to tourism in 2012, Myanmar is like a toddler just learning how to walk, but oh is it learning quickly. Where WiFi and ATM's were once non-existent they're now common place. As the country quickly adapts my only hope is that the people do not, maintaining their fresh, friendly demeanor.