Have you noticed how, when you arrive at a ‘must-see’ place, it often doesn’t look like the photos you’d seen in the brochure or online? You turn up expecting a massive ‘Wow!’ moment, and you get more of an ‘Oh… ok… cool. What’s for lunch?’
That seems to happen quite often for me. Even though I know full well that brochure photos are taken by top-notch photographers when the light is perfect and not a soul is around. Then I turn up in the middle of an overcast day when the place is teeming with tourists… no wonder it doesn’t look the same!
Except for Bagan.
Until I started planning my trip to Myanmar, I’d never heard of Bagan. With almost no knowledge of the country, I’d put Myanmar right at the top of my wishlist – simply because rumours were rife that it was fabulously photogenic and I rather fancied the idea of going somewhere that few of my friends had been to before me.
So I booked a group tour, safe in the knowledge that all the tour companies cover more or less the same ‘highlights’, and I would get to see the best bits of the country. I wasn’t disappointed. Myanmar is just as unspoiled and photogenic as the rumours made out, and Bagan is possibly the most photogenic place of all.
Situated in the Mandalay region in the middle of the country, Bagan used to be an ancient city. From the 9th to the 13th centuries it was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan, and during that time over 10,000 Buddhist temples and pagodas were built on the plains surrounding the city itself. Today, over 2200 of these ancient structures still survive in what is now called the Bagan Archaeological Zone.
What this means in practice is that that Bagan is like nowhere else you will have ever been. It’s often touted as Myanmar’s answer to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, but apart from both sites being filled with fabulous ancient temples, the two are quite different. At Angkor the temples are mostly hidden in the undergrowth or swallowed up by trees, so you can only see them one at a time. But at Bagan the vegetation is relatively sparse, and the plain is so enormous and flat that you can see it stretching out for miles, with temples, pagodas and stupas dotting the landscape as far as the eye can see.
You could spend days and days exploring – and once you’ve paid your park entry fee you’re free to roam around as you like. The best way to do this is by bicycle – though depending on the time of year it can get very hot and sweaty, and some of the bikes for hire are pretty creaky, so you might want to rent a scooter instead.
Even on a hot and hazy day the combination of vast open plains carpeted with thousands of green trees and red domed pagodas is breathtaking, so unless your camera is actually broken or you forgot to take the lens cap off, there is no way you won’t be able to take wonderful photos. Some of the larger temples have several levels, so try climbing the staircases for a bit of extra height – the views from the top will give you the perfect vantage point to really take in the sheer scale of the place. And it’s so huge that even in peak season you’ll easily be able to find corners with not a soul in sight.
Of course Bagan is not just splendid from the outside. Inside the temples there are treats at every turn – from glorious shafts of sunlight illuminating cool and airy corridors…
… to curious carvings of mischievous-looking spirits…
… to enormous gold buddhas adorned with precious stones.
Sometimes even the smallest, most insignificant-looking pagoda can reveal a secret when you peer inside its tiny doorway.
World Heritage Site – or not
But just when I was revelling in all this jaw-dropping ancient splendour, I discovered something shocking. In spite of its important history, unique setting, and graceful architecture, Bagan is NOT a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It really needs to be. Currently it’s not being looked after or protected properly, and as Myanmar opens up to tourism, and more and more people flock to the site, it’s in serious danger of being ruined. So I couldn’t understand why somewhere this unique and spectacular wouldn’t be listed. It’s a no-brainer, surely?
Then I discovered the reason. It turns out that over the last few centuries attempts have been made by successive governments to renovate and restore the site – but their efforts were somewhat cackhanded and were not deemed sensitive or historically accurate enough. In the 1990s someone even thought adding a golf course and an ugly modern 90s viewing tower would be a good idea… and unsurprisingly UNESCO have been holding back on awarding the long-coveted World Heritage status until they sort the mess out.
But don’t let that put you off – clearly the fact that it took me a while to find this out shows that the dodgy renovation work doesn’t spoil the experience. And the government has apparently cottoned on to the fact that the jewel in Myanmar’s tourism crown is at risk of crumbling away before their very eyes, so plans are now underway to rectify the problems.
One reason why restoration of the site is more urgent than ever is that in 2016, a large earthquake hit the area, causing significant damage to some of the temples. But far from being a calamity, the earthquake may actually have been a blessing in disguise. Ironically, much of the damage was to parts of the ancient structures that had been unsympathetically restored, so there’s now a second chance to put things right. And the quake has again shone a spotlight on Bagan, hopefully encouraging the powers that be to come up with a new plan for more sensitive development in the future.
To climb or not to climb
With their sloping sides and stepped brickwork, in theory it’s possible to climb up the outside of many of the temples for a better view of the surrounding area. And when I was there in 2015, people did just this, swarming all over the monuments like ants. At the time I did wonder if it was a good idea for two reasons: (1) because all those feet and hands scuffing and grabbing really can’t be good for the ancient brickwork, and (2) because some of those temples are pretty high and steep, and it would be all too easy to slip and fall off. In fact in early 2016 an American tourist did just that and ended up in hospital.
So it’s probably not a surprise that the Myanmar Ministry of Culture has now banned climbing on all but five of the temples. They did initially ban climbing entirely, but backpedalled rapidly after enormous objections from tour operators that an outright ban would severely damage the industry.
What this does mean, of course, is that now you can only climb on five of the temples, those five are likely to be extremely busy, particularly at peak times. So get there early to secure your spot and be prepared to have sharp elbows!
This is Shwesandaw Pagoda, just after sunset. It’s one of the temples you can still climb, though it’s perilously steep, so if you struggle with heights you may want to give it a miss. We got there a full hour before sunset to grab our spot, and over the next 45 minutes or so it got busier and busier, until the west side was completely packed with people jostling for a good camera position. Unfortunately there was low-lying cloud on the horizon, so we didn’t get much of a show, but I’d highly recommend giving it a try in case you get lucky with the weather.
Of course the other spectacular – and popular – time to see the temples is at dawn, when the temples are washed with the gentle light of the rising sun. Many tourists opt for a hot air balloon ride over the site which I’m sure is amazing, but it’s also butt-clenchingly expensive!
And while I’m sure it would be amazing to see the site from above, I figured it would be just as memorable (and cheaper!) to watch all those hot air balloons from beneath as they floated gracefully over the plain.
So a few members of my group and I set our alarms for about 5 am, dragged ourselves out of bed, and scaled a nearby temple to wait for the sun to come up.
The monument we chose was a small one quite near to where we were staying – and no one else was already there. It was pretty hairy scrambling up it in the dark, so I’m not surprised that climbing temples like this one has now been banned. It it sad that people will no longer get to experience the view in quite the same way, but for the sake of preserving the architecture, and for safety reasons, the ban does seem like a good idea.
Now I’m afraid you will have to travel to one of the five permitted temples, and be prepared for it to be crowded. Trust me though, it will still be worth it.
I’m sure the people in the balloons were having a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but then so were we.
Have you been to Bagan since the ban came into force? What was it like? Add your comments below.