2011
06.06

The history of Burma may be rife with oppression and peril, but during its golden age the country produced one of Southeast Asia’s most spectacular sights.  Throughout the vast plain of a deserted city along the banks of the Ayeyarwady River once existed more than 13,000 temples, pagodas and religious buildings.  Dating back more than 800 years, this area, now called Bagan, is 42 sq km (16 sq mi) of desert-like terrain where each dirt track seems to lead to another of the 2,200 temples and pagodas that still stand. Mountain ranges rise in the distance and the wide river rambles along, but it is the collective view of thousands of temples dotting the landscape that makes this one of the most memorable places of which most people have never even heard.

The sun rises over the 2000+ pagodas at Bagan in the country of Burma (Myanmar)

An area that was created during a period of manic temple-building and ruled over by decadent kings is now a vast scrub-land that holds only the remnants of history and three small towns.  Most independent travelers base themselves in the northeast corner of the zone at Nyaung U where there is a bus station, a good selection of budget guesthouses and a street lined with restaurants, aptly dubbed “Restaurant Row”.  Horse-cart drivers ply the streets in jingling carriages and offer day tours of the ruins where they can shuttle tourists to the most popular sights.  Others, like ourselves, opt for bicycles which can be rented for a dollar or two a day, allowing you to explore the sights independently, only a short ride away.  Each has its own advantages.  The horse cart drivers know all the sights, but will probably take you only to the most visited locations.  The bikes, on the other hand, offer you the freedom to explore on your own, though only so far as your body will allow.

20121007_Burma_7965

2011.06.06_HDR_82-Edit

20110607_Burma_1923-Edit

On the western side of the zone, the village of Old Bagan exists atmospherically among the bulk of the temples and caters mostly to tour groups.  There are a scattering of hotels and restaurants, but I hope you would choose to stay here independently.  Remember that participating in a package tour is one of the easiest ways to finance, through tourism, the Myanmar government 20110607_Burma_2440-2-Editwhich has provided only strife and oppression to the people of the country, especially those living in Bagan.  In fact, the other town in the area, called “New Bagan” was created when the government forcibly relocated those living in Old Bagan.  With no advance notice, the government held a lottery for the residents in which they selected a number, arbitrarily banishing them to what was often only a dusty patch of parched earth where many lived for up to two years without shelter or water, forced to rebuild a new home on their own.

Famed as one of Southeast Asia’s most memorable sights, the temples and pagodas at Bagan are the main draw-card for many tourists visiting Myanmar.  Undoubtedly, this ancient sight should be on all traveler’s lists and therefore it sees plenty of tourists, especially during the high season.  Though for those who brave the heat and visit Bagan at low season, you will find it easy to discover solitary stupas to have all to your own.  While thousands of tourists scramble around sights like Angkor Wat, the temples at Bagan seem almost virtually unvisited and there are plenty of locations where you can wander up deserted staircases or stand on temple rooftops, all completely alone.  The solitary sensation and “wildness” of Bagan makes it even more memorable, though you will be an easy target for the vendors who will eventually track you down.

20121006_Burma_5946-Edit

20121005_Burma_2487

2011.06.07_HDR_16-Edit

Traveling in Burma’s low season was an incredible blessing for us as we seemed to have the whole country to ourselves at times.  We would walk the town streets and feel like movie stars with every person calling “Hello!” or erupting in smiles that would cover 20110607_Burma_1725-Edittheir faces.  This was both a blessing and a curse as it made for wonderful personal encounters, but also pegged us as targets for the many people looking to sell paintings, jewelry or other souvenirs for tourists to buy.  It was not uncommon for us to approached by sellers on motorbikes who had to track us down hoping to sell their goods.  Their tenacity was remarkable and obviously unnerving for some tourists.  I try to remind myself that many of these people rely on small sales that only make them a few dollars, but it is this minuscule amount of money that many depend on each day.  Though their pleas can be bothersome, I found that when I showed them proper respect and dignity, the Burmese always departed with a smile, even when we declined their offers.

The most troubling thing about Bagan is usually trying to decide where to go when there are over 2,000 pagodas from which to choose.  As a photographer I know this particularly unnerving as most visitors only have a limited amount of time to find the best photos in the site.  One approach is to purchase The Map of Bagan which is available at most guesthouses and often is free.  With information available online and in the guidebook, one is able to highlight some of the more popular and impressive temples at Bagan.  This information, obtained from Lonely Planet, lists five of the most photographed temples:

  • Ananda Pahto – one of the finest, best-preserved and most revered of all Bagan temples
  • Dhammayangyi Pahto – an absolute colossus, this red brick temple is visible from all over Bagan
  • Gawdawpalin Pahto – considered the crowning achievement of the last period
  • Shwezigon Paya – the original golden stupa, prototype for the Schwedagon in Yangon
  • Thatbryinnyu Pahto – the tallest pagoda at Bagan, topped with a golden spire
  • Shwesandaw Paya – one of the most popular temples to visit, especially at sunset

20121004_Burma_HDR_39-Edit

20121006_Burma_4471-Edit

20121004_Burma_1787-Edit

I usually spend a week at Bagan in order to photograph the many outstanding locations, but most visitors will only spend 2-3 days visiting the temples.  In such a short time, it is not possible to cover the whole area so I would recommend focusing on the locations listed above.  Bagan is not well-marked and few of the roads are paved so traveling by bicycle can be a frustrating and exhausting affair, especially if it is your first visit.  I would recommend hiring a horse cart for your first day exploring the 2011.06.07_HDR_62-Edittemples.  Though I have never done it myself, traveling with a ‘guide’ will help you to distinguish the locations of the most popular temples and possibly discover some less-visited locations along the way.  Some drivers will have limited knowledge about locations for photographing sunrise and sunset, though most seem to follow the same route, most likely ending at Shwesandaw Paya for sunset.

Traveling by bicycle is my preferred method for photographing Bagan.  These days, most of the high-end travelers and photo groups are traveling by vehicle, though this limits them to those temples which can be reached only by road.  Many of my favorite locations are not accessible by vehicle and my schedule limits me from traveling with groups.  So instead, I brave the heat and pour buckets of sweat while bicycling all over Bagan.  It takes me about a half hour to travel from Nyaung U to most locations which is physically exhausting and forces me to manage my days, scheduling most shoots between sunrise and 10am; then taking a break during the mid-day heat before resuming shooting again 2011.06.07_HDR_26-Editbetween 4pm and sunset.  Traveling by bicycle requires some planning and knowledge of the local area, though even first-time visitors to Bagan will discover incredible wonders found down meandering paths and dusty dirt roads, unbeknownst to those traveling by vehicle.

From the vast panorama of a pagoda-dotted plain to a temple’s crumbling walls adorned with paintings thousands of years old, Bagan is one of the most visually astounding places I have ever visited.  That being said, it is not a particularly easy place to photograph.  The sheer size of this ancient city and staggering number of temples to explore makes it difficult to list exact locations and the time of day in which to photograph them.  Even the famed sunset shot from Shwesandaw Paya is not particularly desirable to me, unless the weather conditions present something truly extraordinary.  Most visitors will be at the mercy of their horse cart tour or bicycle ride, in which case you will often have to deal with unfavorable lighting conditions.  In this case, you want to be out as early and late as possible to take advantage of the few hours of “magic light” and the very beginning and end of each day.  For this brief couple of hours, there is beautiful light that really showcases the vast landscape and countless temple exteriors.  Unfortunately, it does not last long before the sun is overhead and beating down; during that time, focus on photographing interiors or taking advantage of the shaded areas, while doing some scouting for other locations to shoot around sunrise and sunset.

20121006_Burma_6121-Edit

20121004_Burma_HDR_26-Edit

20121005_Burma_4369

Having visited and photographed Bagan several times, I have become rather familiar with the area and the locals that call this place home.  For me, a visit to Bagan is a bit of a homecoming and I spend most of my days visiting and working with several of my local friends.  It is a unique opportunity for me, not only to create some new images, but also to experience what makes this country truly special – its people.  Instead of being whisked around in an air-conditioned vehicle, I prefer to spend my days riding alongside my friend’s motorbike or having lunch at their homes.  In turn, they are able to assist me in a number of indispensable ways, such as finding locations, arranging models, and making purchases of items such an candles and incense sticks.  I need only to do the research beforehand in order to establish the vision for the images I want to create.  Then, together, we can work to create something truly unique.

20121004_Burma_1779

20110607_Burma_1846-Edit

20121004_Burma_1877

The opportunities available for photographing at Bagan are endless.  There is a wealth of places to explore and treasures to find and each time I return I seem to find something new, wonderful and exciting.  For it is not only in the size and grandeur of the biggest temples that Bagan’s beauty is exemplified, but in the countless other small temples in which life-size Buddha statues and ancient paintings are hidden.  It seems in each new place, no matter how seemingly irrelevant they appear in the immense scale of Bagan, one can discover art, artifacts, and moments of photographic bliss that make each of its 2,200 temples worth exploring.

20121007_Burma_7877

20121003_Burma_764-Edit

2011.06.07_HDR_73-Edit

18 comments so far

Add Your Comment
  1. I can’t wait to show my burmese students all these photos Kyle. I know for a lot of them, they will bring memories and I hope that they photos are happy ones for them. I have spoken to my Karen students and they have shared their plight from their home country to ours. I try and help our other students understand what they have been thru in their country and why they are here. thank you so much for helping us understand things we may never have realized.

  2. :-)

  3. Absolutely amazing!

  4. Wow…..breathtaking!!

  5. Amazing!

  6. these inspire me to become a better photographer!! great work!

  7. LOVE, LOVE, LOVE these…

  8. You have some great shots, and it’s so interesting to read your stories too. Hope I can return to Bagan some day. And I agree with you that Burma’s the friendliest place in the world :)

  9. Picked up from Flikr. Excellent shot. Yet to read the content but will do later. Love the shot with the beams of light hitting the Buddha.

  10. Hi Kyle,

    We have just returned from Burma. When I viewed your pics, I realised that we had missed so many great shots with the POV that you have captured. Wonderful pics !!

    Thanks for sharing,
    MayJayne

  11. Kyle,
    Very impressive and may be my inspiration to see Burma.

    I have a passion in taking photographs of “temples” and Burma
    would be a great place to go.

    Two thumbs up from Minnesota

  12. Wonderful picture, wonderful Bagan, a really great place to visit once in lifetime
    I’m working on some market reseach about activities for tourists in Bagan, Myanmar. Appreciate if you could give us opinion on a link below

    http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/MK85BST

    Thank you very much for your attention

  13. Hi Kyle,
    Wonderful photos! Will be heading for Bagan in two days, 4/30/2013, from Yangon. Could you recommend a places/places for sunrise and early morning hours? I have three nights there, not enough of course, but this is the first time and I hope to return. Will follow your advice for evening/sunset time and will go to Shwesandaw Paya. Any other words of wisdom will be highly appreciated. You can look at some of my photos at http://www.marcopolophotography.com. Thanks. Alex

  14. Hi Kyle,

    Such beautiful photos you have!
    I have a plan to go to Burma this Sep. Please share which place you take the #1 photo of this thread to get the overall landscape of Burma?

    Thanks for sharing!

  15. Thank u for sharing Birma’s historical beauty

  16. […] An amazing photobook of the Bagan temples from Kyle Hammons […]

  17. beautiful!

  18. Dear Kyle,

    I came across your post while looking for information on how to find good spots for photography in Bagan because I will be there on 11 Jul. What you do is truly inspirational and I wish I had more time but I only have two days. I actually come all the way to Myanmar only for two days to do photography, as crazy as it may seem. For that reason I was wondering if you would be able to share some of your friend’s contacts as I really want to avoid tourist traps. I prefer to get lost and wonder around accompanied by someone you know and trust.

    Your help would be greatly appreciated!

    Thank you, Cristian