Bagan, also spelled Pagan, on the banks of the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River in Myanmar, is home to the largest and densest concentration of Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas and ruins in the world with many dating from the 11th and 12th centuries. The shape and construction of each building is highly significant in Buddhism with each component part taking on spiritual meaning.
Bagan became a central powerbase in the mid 9th century under King Anawratha, who unified Burma under Theravada Buddhism. It is estimated that as many as 13,000 temples and stupas once stood on this 42 sq km plain in central Myanmar, and Marco Polo once described Bagan as a “gilded city alive with tinkling bells and the swishing sounds of monks’ robes”. Approximately 2,200 remain today, in various states of disrepair. Some are large and well maintained, such as the Ananda Pahto, others are small tumbledown relics in the middle of overgrown grass. All sites are considered sacred, so when visiting, be respectful including removing shoes as well as socks before entering or stepping onto them. Bagan’s golden age ended in 1287 when the Kingdom and its capital city was invaded and sacked by the Mongols. Its population was reduced to a village that remained amongst the ruins of the once larger city.
In 1998, this village and its inhabitants were forcibly relocated a few kilometers to the south of Bagan, forming “New Bagan” where you will find accommodation in its handful of cheap, quaint, clean hotels and religious centers. Despite the majesty and importance of Bagan, UNESCO did not include it on its World Heritage Site list, because it says some temples were rebuilt in an un-historic way. Nonetheless, the site is arguably as impressive as the Pyramids of Egypt: a dry, vast open landscape dominated entirely by votive architecture.
Perhaps in some ways, its lack of recognition as a World Heritage site has, so far, saved it from over popularity and mass tourism. However, all of that is surely about to change with the recent political advancements of the past year and, after decades of isolation, recognition by the U.S. and an ease on trade restrictions. Slowly, but surely, Myanmar is on a path to finally join the remainder of the Asian nations on its road to development and increasing wealth – although it may take two or more generations before it can catch up with its neighbors. What these means for tourism however, is a rapid surge in popularity. Myanmar, suddenly, is safe and a ‘hot’ destination to visit. With its incredible sites, largely English speaking nation, and wealth of culture and spirituality, it will be hard for Myanmar to resist the temptations to build its tourism industry fast and furiously. After decades of isolation and hardship it is hard to begrudge the country that.
One must consider that its infrastructure is so poor that there is no room for growth in its current state. At least for the next five years it will be a lucky few that are able to find space on the flights and find hotel rooms to enjoy the country. Already, the next high season (October to March) is practically booked out!!
The country is a delight for the avid photographer. No where in Asia, bar perhaps India, is there a country that can be more scenic, culturally rich, colorful and as photogenic as Myanmar. It is practically impossible to leave the country without a vast library of wonderful images.
I personally found the Burmese open and hospitable and wonderful to work with, as far as my photography was concerned. A true delight.
As always, a good guide and translator, is essential to work with the local people, particularly when asking for monks to become part of the image. It wasn’t enough to chat to some of the monks yourself, but to take the correct procedure and to visit the head monk at the monastery to ask, delicately, for his blessing. Like most things in Asia, it takes time and patience, with a large degree of respect and understanding for the protocol of the places you are in. The monks that I worked with (many were novice monks) in setting up some of these rather dramatic images, were extremely accommodating with, what must have seemed like, some bizarre requests! Still, a lot of the images here were taken rather candidly and these remain my favorite of the series.
For images that capture the magnificent landscape of the pagodas and stupas there is no finer way then to take the Balloons over Bagan experience, which leaves at sunrise virtually every day during the dry season. The flight is only 45 minutes, however, provides ample opportunities to capture the monuments from an aerial perspective. Adding the other balloons into the frame provides perspective and an aspect of scale to the picture.
My visit, on this occasion, only accorded me 2 days in Bagan and a day or so in Yangon. Another visit to Inle Lake is now planned for sometime in August, when the forests are lush from recent rains and there are far fewer visitors. I am excited about the prospect of my return, as anyone would be to this enigmatic and inspiring destination.
As always, please visit our full screen view portfolio site for a wider range of images from this series. This also includes a number of images from Yangon.