It was my second day renting a scooter. I felt more confident and chose to venture out on my own. It was past the hottest time in the afternoon, about 3:00pm and the Myanmar sun was making its slow descent, casting longer shadows on the ground below. Today’s scooter was blue. I decided to go left as yesterday my hostel mate and I turned right. Starting out slowly I headed toward the main street opting to go where any whim would steer me. Still a bit nervous I meandered along at 20km/hour, often hearing the honk of others on scooters or the occasional car, alerting me to their intention to pass. I kept closely to the right of the paved road. With care I turned right onto the main street of Bagan-Chauk Road, feeling more and more confident. “A bit faster”, I told myself while slowly increasing the accelerator. The wind on my face felt good. I felt secure. 25km…30km…35km. “I’m really going fast.”, I thought, well as fast as an electric scooter can. This was so much fun!! Now I began honking my horn and passing others. Pagodas dotted the landscape, rising above the yellow, dry grass. All sizes they came in. Some small, almost personal. Others grand enough that if you climbed to the top it would seem you could see forever. Some white, some gilded, yet most red brick. Numerous stupas were covered with scaffolding – a dispirited reminder of the earthquake that damaged so much of the region. I spot a collection of pagodas on my right and turn gently onto the packed sand path. The going is a bit tougher with fine sand yet my scooter keeps up. Grass and bushes almost a foot high gently graze my bare legs. “Oh no! – I’m wearing shorts”. How could I forget? I can not enter any pagoda while wearing shorts. I did not bring a scarf with me to cover up. “Well then”, I decide, “I will admire from outside and refrain from entering so as to respect the wishes of the locals”. As I go along I take in the beauty of the area. I see no other tourists or locals making their way through this particular section. Pulling into a spot filled with 5 small pagodas I slow down to a stop. The air is still and dry. The hum of cars is in the distance yet I feel as though I am in a world of my own. Just me and the Buddha staring at me from the small pagoda to my left. A lone tree stands to the east of these small buildings. I take in the view before me. This moment is almost magical. I sigh, a sigh of gratitude at seeing all this for the first time, a newness in my eyes and my being. Bagan is filling with tourists as Myanmar’s doors open wider and wider. It is already host to more people, shops, restaurants, bars and locals constantly trying to sell items than I had anticipated. Much has changed in the past few years. I think of the stories I was told by friends who had been here only 3 to 4 years ago and what I saw today. Travel here was easier than I expected. Yet this moment was just me and the pagodas. A stillness surrounded me. I wondered what more could I see. I return to the path ahead of me and proceed on my afternoon journey. The land is covered with high grasses, bushes and a few trees with bright fuchsia flowers. And pagodas, always pagodas. The bumpy, curved path takes me to a moderate size shrine. As I slow and take the turn I see a brick fence and trees before it providing some shade. I follow the entry between the fence and turn back to see behind me. The yellow sun lowering itself behind this ample building gives it a glow and takes my breath away. Absolutely stunning. I consider stopping to take photos upon photos yet I am compelled to keep moving, to continue, to see. I move forward and soon encounter monks and what appears to be their dwelling. I slow to turn around yet one waves to me and points to the path right through their community. I make my way through slowly. A sleeping black dog raises his head, considers me, then decides I am not worth any effort as he returns to his slumber. I pass another monk who is on his cell phone – a quick reminder that I am still in the twenty-first century. Soon I am back on the main road. I decide to see how far I can go, to keep following this stretch of paved road. I long to stop at every spot yet know I will not make it far as there are far too many pagodas to be able to see them all. And I am not dressed to be allowed in. Nonetheless I take in all that is around me. Scenery so new to my eyes. I continue on feeling the sun on my body. Despite the wind on my body I feel sweat trickling down my neck to my back and droplets making their way along my calves to my ankles. The traffic is moderate with mostly everyone on scooters or motorbikes, tourists and locals alike. Dogs wander about now and again. Horse drawn carriages are more common as I come closer to Old Bagan. As I continue on shops, buildings and street-side vendors become more and more frequent. The auto and scooter traffic increases and there is even a roundabout ahead. I manage to maneuver around it without causing an pile up of wheels and metal. I wonder where I am and pull over and check Google Maps. Ah yes, coming up on Nyaugh-U, a town where I could explore. But do I go there or do I turn and wander the back paths in search of pagodas and everyday life of the people? I turn and head back the way I came. I stop at some of the places I motored past. I go down a wide dirt path for some time. I turn left, then right and then straight ahead randomly choosing my direction. I come upon a neighbourhood, children playing outside. They wave and yell “hello!” I wave in return. The homes are shabby, wore and old. Battered wood walls with corrugated metal roofs. A woman is cooking outdoors on an open flame over a brick grill. Garbage is strewn in the street along motorcycles and a few cars. Random dogs everywhere. A scraggly ginger cat saunters by. I think to myself how very fortunate I am for living where I do. A yearning to learn of the history of this country. One that has been closed off to visitors for so very long and now is opening its itself to the world. “What effect will it have?”, I wonder. I exit the neighbourhood and head back to the main street. The fading yellow sun is low in the sky as it casts a pink and orange glow on the horizon. My scooter must be returned soon. I head back onto Bagan-Chauk Road, no longer in need of my sunglasses. I relish in the ride back to my hostel. In a way I feel free. I can not explain exactly why and am not sure I want to. I am simply glad to wander.
All photos taken and owned by Eeva Valiharju / Wanders The World