Breaking down in Bagan (Day 136 - 138 by Gemma)

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January 30th 2016
Published: February 10th 2016
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Saturday 30th January 2016

On arriving at the bus station at 4.30am, we were accosted by a sea of taxi drivers eager to take us to our hostels. Turns out Luke was staying at the same place as us, Ostello Bello, so we negotiated a taxi journey together. Halfway to the hostel the taxi driver asked us if we wanted to take a detour to see the sunrise. Given we were already awake and all had it on our list of things to do, it made sense to do it now. So at 5 am, we were driving down a dirt track in the pitch black to who knows where to see the sunrise. Once we'd stopped, the taxi driver pointed forward and we stumbled through the dark towards the outline of huge pagoda. A bright torch caught us and a shadow pointed up, where we spotted some rather steep stone steps leading to the top of the pagoda. Removing our shoes, as is customary in all the pagodas & temples, we clambered to the top in the dark and found ourselves alone on top of a very tall pagoda pointing towards the East. We were soon joined by another few people who told us the sunrise was at 5.30am. Brilliant, only 30mins to wait, especially as it was freezing! And with Chris & Luke both in shorts, sunrise couldn't come quickly enough. Turns out their info was just a little off, with the sun actually rising just before 7am! By which time, we'd been joined by a lot more people and had frozen to the core. However, it was worth it to see the sun rising over the thousands of pagoda's that cover Bagan and watch the convoy of hot air balloons travel across the sky. A great experience, but wish we'd wrapped up more! From there we rejoined our taxi driver and raced to Ostello Bello ready for a hot cup of coffee.

We found Ostello Bello to be a great choice even from the outset with a very relaxed and social feel even at this early hour. We weren't able to check in till 2pm but made the most of the hot breakfast, unlimited hot drinks and temporary beds on the roof setup specifically for travelers like ourselves arriving at an ungodly hour from the night bus. Once checked into our 8 bed dorm room in the early afternoon, we decided to hire a e-bike (basically an electric scooter and the only real option in this areas) and have an explore. Bagan is relatively small and is split into Old Bagan and New Bagan, between which are huge fields scattered with over two thousand Pagoda's, temples and monasteries, some gold, some brick, and in varying styles and sizes. We used the afternoon to orientate ourselves, rather than stopping at any Pagoda's in particular. Bagan is often likened to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, which we could see. But unlike Angkor Wat, Bagan, being lesser known, is significantly less busy and is a much bigger collection of smaller individual buildings. This means that you constantly feel surrounded by the structures wherever you drive and with your e-bike you can steer away from the handful of bigger buildings, that attract the slightly bigger groups, take a random sand track and find yourself at a completely deserted pagoda in the middle of a field. A unique occurrence on our travels so far.

Having seen sunrise already and lovers of a sunset too, we'd heard the hostel arranged free sunset tours taking you to some of the best spots. So arriving back at the hostel at 4.30pm we joined up with a group of about 8 others and found ourselves a very secluded temple to watch a peaceful sunset (not a selfie stick in sight!). With the dark setting in quickly, we all headed back to the hostel en masse just before we were plunged into darkness in the middle of a field. With really not much around in Bagan, apart from a few small local restaurants, much of the nights activities would be centred around the few hostels in the area of which Ostello Bello seemed to be the biggest with a big outdoor seating area and bar, already busy by the time we got back. The evening was filled with food, beers and a noisy pub quiz, our team of 6 made up of people including Luke (our mosquito-hating bus buddy), Mike (a travelling tree surgeon) and a mix of Brits and Canadians we'd met throughout the day. We didn't do too badly ending in 3rd place out of 11 teams!

Sunday 31st January 2016

With no plans confirmed past our current location, we spent the morning planning onward travel making a snap decision to head to Singapore for Chinese New Year in a weeks time rather than heading to Malaysia as we'd initially thought. Having booked some cheap flights and hostels, we rented another e-bike from the vendors across the road and set off to explore some pagoda's and temples. Loosely following the map, we stopped at some of the grander temples as well as heading off-piste to wander around some of the smaller secluded temple in the hot sun. The interiors are often the sameish design with 4 entries and a Buddha statue facing towards each compass point. Its the approach to the temples that we found the most impressive so you can see the full building against the bright blue sky.

Now officially sunset chasers, we directed ourselves towards one of the bigger temples for the sunset, which although busy, had many levels so we could easily find a place to sit and wait. Once the sun had fallen behind the mountains, we made a sharpish exit not wanting to get caught driving back in the dark on our small battery powered bike. Rather than getting stuck behind the few tour buses kicking up dust with their wheels, we decided to take a small sand track to make a quick journey back. Sand isn't the easiest to drive on and we found ourselves slip sliding all over the place. We got a concerned look from a passing Burmese guy on a similar bike, who stopped to explain why we were sliding. A burst tyre - Brilliant! He explained in broken English that we weren't far from the main road so to drive the bike there and call the bike company for assistance. We ended up getting to the point where Chris was having to wheel the bike along the track. Then the tyre fell off. In the dark. With no hope of wheeling the thing any further, we had to abandon it on the dirt track and begin a long walk in the dark. By the time we got to an opening and a very quiet small village, it was pitch black. Having seen noone for ages, we were relieved when a bike whizzed past and lucky for us slowed down and turned round to meet us. We explained our predicament to the Burmese driver and US passenger and thankfully they offered to call the company and explain in Burmese what had happened and where we were. At this point we were joined by a little old lady who had left the village to find out what the commotion was. Phone call made, the bike drove off and we found ourselves waiting again the pitch black for the bike company. But not alone. The old lady brought us out a wicker bench to sit on, a bottle of water and a bowl of peanuts, uttering 'water blessing' and 'peanut blessing'.

We sat for about 10mins, when Chris started turning his pockets out and rummaging through the bags. 'Have you got the bike key?'. Why would I have the bike key? Who had the bike key last? Oh s**t. The guys on the bike who helped us have only driven off with the key, which had the number of the company on. So we're stranded in a village with a little old woman who can only say peanut, water & blessing, we don't have the number of the bike company or our hostel and it's dark. Really dark. Another 20 mins pass and the headlights of a bike let us know help has arrived. By this time, the old woman's daughter (we think?) has also come out and greets the bike. On the back of the bike are 2 people, one a child who we definitely recognise from trying to sell us postcards that morning but who speaks good enough English to explain the guys with our bike key had already driven it back to the shop for us. Phew. Now to find where we think we left the bike. The daughter, Chris, and the 2 guys from the bike shop drive into the dark. Leaving me and the little old lady at the village, still in the dark. Not wanting me to get lonely, she brings out another wicker chair for herself and we work out how to fill the time. So it turns out that along with peanut, water & blessing she also knows the words 'daughter' and 'grandson' and somehow manages to tell me about her whole family, using fingers to show ages and pointing at people in the village. Speaking absolutely no Burmese, I use my trusty Iphone to reciprocate, showing her pictures of my family, our cat (she seemed to like that one) and any other interesting photo's to hand. By the time everyone returns, we're basically best friends.

But alas, we are still not destined to go home. They eventually found the bike, but it's beyond repair in the dark so the only option is to bring us another bike out to get back. The guys leave, and it's now myself, Chris, the little old lady (my new bff) and her daughter, who actually speaks enough English to have a longer conversation and learn a bit more about their family and village. When the new bike arrives, Chris and I bid our fond farewells and get ready to follow the bike guys back to our hostel. However, (yes there's another one!) the bike they'd brought us had hardly any battery left and there's no headlight! There was just enough power to keep our headlight on (to light the way for both bikes) and to keep us going at a jogging pace. As a result, the guy on the motorbike held onto the back of our bike and had to basically push us home! Now in most countries, any sort of bump or scratch on a hired bike is used as a way to get tourists to hand over a lot of money. Given our wheel had basically fallen off, we were expecting the worst so were surprised when we were greeted by the owners in a chorus of concern and apologies. I guess all's well that ends well. We need a beer!

Monday 1st February 2016

After yesterday's shenanigans, I woke up today with a stuffy head and no desire to leave the warmth of my bed. Like Laos, the mornings and evenings here are cold (trousers, jumpers, scarves type of cold!) which is replaced by blazing sun come lunchtime. My poor body has no idea what's going on. Having had a busy few days we decided to take today slow and catch up on both sleep as well as onward travel arrangements, whilst making the most of our nice hostel and chatting to the very varied clientele. From conversations about Nazi Germany with a Londoner who spends half her year in England as a van driver and half in Malaysia following the sun, to a very sweet Chinese cruise ship worker on a holiday break from her 6 month stints on board who was excited to hear about our trip to China. Quite an eclectic mix!! A greatly appreciated day of chill.

Next stop Lake Inle!

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