It’s 4:45 am when I leave my room, dark folding damp around me. Outside the hotel road, where the horsecart and bicycle hire boys hang out, sleeping in a heap on a bamboo platform, Kyakya is waiting for me, the “good” horse ready. I suggest to Naingmo that he should pile into the back, and he immediately lounges on the red floral “bed” of the horsecart. “Did you sleep here?” He nods, grinning.
There’s a circle of boys and young men shaking something in a plastic bottle on the ground. “Lucky draw,” says Kyakya. “They’re choosing numbers for the lottery?” “Yes, lucky draw.” I saw the lucky draw cart at U Bein’s bridge at dawn the other day, all gold paint and tinkling music. They’re gambling to choose the numbers to gamble with, in the dark of dawn.
Kyakya – it sounds sort of like Jojo if the J sounds like the J in Jacques – is about 20, wiry and weathered with facial hair that seems to have come from a variety pack. A little fu Manchu, a little goatee, a little untended mole, and a little random unshaven. His English surprises, me, though, and I soon float into a rhythm.
Light is sifting in quickly as we trot through the sand and dirt roads past That Byin Nyu, the biggest, looming square temple, Ananda Paya – everyone’s favourite, graceful and golden and still a very active site of worship — and the smaller red stupas and lesser temples studding the plain. Temples have an inside you can enter; stupas are pagodas with no interior. Sometimes there are terraces on either stupas or temples, sometimes accessed inside and sometimes from narrow steep stairs.
We’re heading for the most obvious spot, Shwe-san-daw Paya, a white stone pyramid-shaped stupa with a bell-shaped top, with wide terraces bathed in light at sunrise and sunset.
At 5 am, there are no tour busses disgorging people nervous about the narrow stairs, and the hawkers are mercifully not awake yet. I climb up quickly, grateful for the railings. On the top terrace, it’s just me, the quiet german family from my hotel, a few straggling travelers, a Chinese guy who’s studying in Ottawa and who is planning on a 2000 km bike trip across China when he leaves Myanmar.
Sunrise is an exercise in presence. Still cool, faded dawn in the east over the plains, waiting. Fiddling with different lenses, noticing the moon and the sun in the same sky, watching the light change.
I sit, close my eyes and breathe quietly, listening, for about 10 minutes, and when I open them, the light is completely different. Golden hour, palaces ripe with light, the stupas and temples across the plain as rich as they become. I am above and inside them, inside history.
The spell breaks when the Chinese guy who lives in Ottawa offers to take my photo, and we start the ritual of where are you from, where are you going, what have you seen, how did you get here. He took an overnight bus, notoriously uncomfortable. I tell him my plane was so rickety I swear it had rats. The chatter makes it feel like morning, and suddenly, I’m hungry. I clamber down, find Zyazya and Naingmo and the good horse and am a tourist again yearning for coffee.