Day 71: Motorbike slips along rainy Bagan trails
The rain drew out a special beauty in the pagoda dotted landscape of Bagan, Myanmar. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
THERE is the muffled sound of rain when the alarm in the 6-bed dorm room of Otello Bello sounds at 4am. I wake again to the sound of rain at five. It's looking like there won't be a sunrise tour this morning.
After nearly no sleep on the bus last night, a good night's rest isn't a bad thing. I know I should just be grateful for the rain. However, after going on lock down in a cafe in Yangon for nearly a week, it's hard not to be a little be antsy to get out their and explore.
Though it's still raining, I cough up another five bucks for an electronic scooter, the same one I had yesterday, as my longi was still under the seat. I thought my wallet was in the bike as well when they picked it up without warning or notice last night. I managed not to get too worked up about it, and it turned out that the wallet was in one of my bags.
Benjamin, a Cornish fella that discovered geocashing last year, sets out ahead of me. Though last night he invited me to join him in the hunt for a small film canister hidden among the thousands of temples and millions of ancient bricks, this morning, the well-dressed man seems keen to get out on the adventure by himself.
However, we do agree to make an attempt to bump into each other somewhere in the maze of temples, as I know the general area he's looking.
Only a few minutes off the main road, the sand turns to straight mud. I start scooter skiing: flip-flops sliding across the mud and the back tire squirming in an attempt to lay the scooter down. The beauty of such a small little machine is that it's nearly impossible for me crash it in the mud.
Benjamin's figure flashes in an arch of the top floor of a temple off in the distance, a single tire track leads to the pagoda.
My bike stops moving.
Standing while giving a gentle push, the bike and I are able to make forward progress, never digging ourselves in like I would on the Honda CB500X. This is the other wonder of a scooter or a very small bike, not only do they not sink into the mud, sticking like a dinosaur in a tar pit, even when they do, you can simply bend your knees and move them – no need for an elderly Thai man to rescue with his stick and bottle of water (story here).
Waddling forward, with the scooter unable to pull its own weight – a tired pony in need of lots of encouragement – I take off my sandals, getting the wonderful, wet mud between my toes.
At the lower entrance are Benjamin's mud-caked shoes and socks. I leave my shoes at the southern entrance of the “Temple of the Black Buddhas”, which is what the geocashers call it, because the large cement Buddha images are painted with dark brown, perhaps black, robes. Past the southern facing Buddha, I make my way to the largest of the four images on the ground floor: the one on the east. This is also where the narrow stairs leading up the pagodas are usually located.
I'm forced to duck down low as I climb the steep staircase, too narrow turn around in. Even in the nearly complete darkness – light sneaks in through a single window, smaller than a mellon halfway up – it's possible to make out the ceiling directly over head. The classic, sharp keystones create ridges like the hard pallet of person's mouth.
Benjamin is glowing when I arrive. He's already re-hidden the most obscure and difficult to locate geocash in Myanmar – to give me a similar thrill in finding it.
Having not put in the hard leg work: checking descriptions, GPS locations and setting out with the singular goal of finding this unique spot in the world, I fail to generate the same treasure hunter buzz that he's high on.
Nonetheless, he gives me a break down of the description.
Reaching up high on the south-western corner of the pagoda, my hand finds a loose brick. Behind it is the geocash – straight out of Indian Jones. Flipping through the small pad of paper in the clear film canister, Benjamin notes that someone was here the day before and the day before that. He's not the only geocasher in the region.
Benjamin strikes a douche pose after finding a cock and balls drawn with stones on top of one of the Pagoda. He said I could post the picture, but need to clarify that he didn't actually make the disgraceful image. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Roger, an older man who I befriended during my lock-down days in Yangon, would approve of the geocashing. Among the vast array of projects Roger is juggling – including establishing a number of business in Myanmar – is a travel book. We had jammed on the idea of the book for several hours, though I've still not had a chance to go through the detailed outline he's written up. Basically, the goal is to get travelers to explore the world with a purpose other than traveling. I'm a classic example, as I'm carrying a slackline, juggling equipment, a drone, magic props and so on. For Benjamin it's geocashing. Geocashing gives him a goal for the day, allowing him to see a place in a completely different way.
Happy as a new button on a winter coat, Benjamin decides to avoid going back out in the rain, lingering in the temple with his snacks and a good book, watching the weather slowly evolve over plains.
I join Michelle, Jeff, Lars and Andy – people I met on the free tour yesterday – at the hostel. They are hiding from the rain. The entire hostel seems to be struggling with the weather, unwilling to go get wet, but also unsure how to spend the day. Our group votes for games.
The Simonelli-Stone family, my family, has a long tradition of playing games on sick days, rain days, snow days and of course the holidays. I even managed to squeeze out a short, modestly profitable career in online poker. Games are the ideal way to spend a rainy day. But, but I'm feeling unsocial. I'm not sure what it is, as I like everyone in the group, but I'm just not feeling it. Instead of joining in, I climb back into bed with my laptop for some down time.
I roll the die – time to buy a little bottle of the red labeled Mandalay Rum from a small mom-and-pop store down the street. Upstairs at the hostel, I pour myself a tall glass of rum and coke; Andy, a young American at the end of his Southeast Asia trip, joins me.
Lars has taught the group a German game called Wizard, which is fairly similar to a number of other trump-based card games.
I consider getting dealt into the next game. However, the weather breaks.
Dying to get the drone up in the air, I slip away from the group and head back out. Dark storm clouds blanket the south, but the Ancient Zone is rain-free, at least for the moment.
The battery life on the scooter is fading, but four of the five “fuel bars” remain. Yesterday, the first bar held for the entire day. So today, I've been driving in “third gear”, which is as fast as the scooter can go, but still fails to break the 40km/h threshold.
At Dhammayazika Pogoda, I head left, avoiding the mud bath to the right as the dirt road forks. The little muddy path I'm on thins, becoming more of a trotting path for cattle or perhaps goats than something fit for a motor vehicle.
The bike's power plummets as a sheet of rain drives in from the south. Less than 20 meters away, a hard rain bites into the freshly turned peanut field. However, the scooter is out pacing the storm – a miracle given the mud and power issue.
I smile as I catch a better section of track, leaving the rain behind – or so I think. Moments later, the tires come to a stop in a thick gloppy mud. Kicking off my sandals, I start waddling the bike forward.
The rain catches us.
Some water seeps into my drone bag; I need to buy a proper backpack for it.
What appeared as an opportunity to capture stunning aerial footage is quickly turning out to have been a mirage. Have no idea what I'll do if the battery on the bike completely dies. There is nobody and nothing around me – except for sparse shrub forest and muddy fields, lots of muddy fields.
Miraculously, the scooter, chugging along at a glacial pace of 10km/h makes it back to the main road, and eventually the hostel.
A much-deserved hot shower later, I emerge, joining my group for games, a little magic and a fairly expensive meal – which is what I get for ordering a starter, main dish, dessert and sharing some of the less-than impressive Burmese wine.
Hopefully the sky will be clear for flying tomorrow. This is supposed to be Myanmar's dry zone, right?
The sun comes out for a moment, providing a sliver of a sunset. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli