It was one of my more confusing mornings.
Sitting up shivering, I brushed the red crumbs of the ancient temple from my cheek, and gave Ronan a nudge.
What had been the sweltering plains of Burma’s Mandalay region had cooled overnight. Despite wearing all of our cold weather gear (a Primark hoodie each, not sure what the toggle rating is on those…), we had enjoyed a chilly night on the temple roof. Still, the cold and the uncomfortable ‘bed’ was worth it for the perfectly clear night sky that had stretched out above us. We’d seen a lot of impressive night time vistas on our travels, but that was one to rival them all.
Employing the pre-dawn autopilot that we had perfected after nine months on the move, we stumbled across the temple roof to the steps that we had ascended eight hours earlier, gingerly feeling our way down the pitch-black staircase and back into the temple.
Though I had been periodically checking our bikes throughout the previous evening, I had no idea whether they would still be waiting for us. The gate, built to block entrance to the temple out of hours (ahem) was thankfully still unlocked. We gave the giant Buddha statue a nod of thanks and went out into the morning, lighting our way with the 50p torch hurriedly bought at the local market. Don’t fail me now ‘Duralight’!
I breathed a sigh of relief as i saw our garish, rusting bikes poking out of the gloom, hidden masterfully directly next to, and a bit poking out onto, the main path. Hiding in plain sight? We hopped on and started back to the main road, swerving and bumping through the soft and deceptively deep sand, winding between dozens of other temples, big and small, hidden by the undergrowth and the dark of the early morning.
Soon enough, after several sandy and pathetically slow crashes, we were back on the main road, our chosen sunrise spot in mind. Our earlier reconnaissance had identified a clear favourite, so off we cycled towards the river, alone apart from the very earliest of early birds.
Taking advantage of the poorly maintained nature of Bagan, and Burma’s historic sights more generally (though admittedly most of the time it worked in our favour, just don’t go nicking bricks and stuff, yeah?), we battled our way through the vines that had long ago claimed the perimeter wall of our chosen temple. One of the tallest temples and right by the river, it was perfect place to watch the sun rise over the still-hidden plain.
After our nine months on the road our Tomb Raider tourist skills were well-honed. A bit of flip-flop parkour saw us around the lamest attempt at a metal fence, giving us access to the temple’s flat roof, just below its spire. We set up shop as the sky began to turn purple, spying one or two other like-minded westerners on the smaller temples closer to the main road, setting up their DSLRs for a sunrise time lapse. Over the next half an hour the sun slowly rose from the horizon, a great orange ball of fire – probably the most perfect cliché sunrise I’ve ever seen. The mist among the silhouetted temples began to lift as the plain warmed and the luxury tourist hot air balloons began to rise and drift listlessly across the cloudless dawn sky – like i said, clichéd.
It was an uncomfortable night, but I wouldn’t swap that morning (or the previous night’s stars) for anything. It was the most peaceful, most stunning and hardest earned sunset I have ever had the pleasure of enjoying. We cycled back to the hotel we stayed in when we first arrived, collapsing, exhausted but content, after 24 hours of adventure. We returned to our makeshift bed/ancient temple for the final time that evening, to enjoy one last picturesque Bagan sunset before we left the next morning and headed north to Mandalay.
DISCLAIMER: You’re not really supposed to do any of this, and it is technically against the rules of the park. If you do decide to do it, please be considerate. Don’t leave any rubbish behind and don’t take anything from the temples themselves. If in doubt, always follow the Love Life Go Travel mantra: don’t be a dick.