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.
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.
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 which 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.
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 their 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
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 temples. 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 between 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.
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.
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.