We’re beginning 2018 with an exquisite post on photographing the best of Bagan in Myanmar with Lights, Camera, Backpack.
If you’ve been following IQPlanner for a few months, you’ll be more than familiar with Flic and Nick, the team behind the excellent Lights, Camera, Backpack. Consistently offering travel inspiration through their stories and photos, you can find out even more about the two from their IQPlanner profile page.
Many centuries ago, there were over 10,000 temples and pagodas in Bagan, though only about a quarter of these are still standing. Bagan in the southeast Asian country of Myanmar offers a beautiful skyline and is quite unlike anywhere else.
Needless to say, the best times of day to photograph the temples and the backdrop are sunrise and sunset. This is when the hot air balloons glide over the silhouetted pinnacles.
Stand atop an ancient pagoda, and you’ll have a breathtaking view of the flat plains of Old Bagan and the thousands of temples between you and the horizon. To put it simply, it’s magical.
The challenges of photographing at sunrise and sunset
Due to recent regulations, only 5 pagodas can be climbed, due to tourists committing ‘culturally disgraceful’ acts. The 5 pagodas are: North and South Guni, Thitsarwady, Shwesandaw and Pyathetgyi. Whilst these 5 may be the best locations to see the sunrise and sunset due to their height, it’s not entirely true that they are the only 5 you can climb.
North Guni was badly damaged in the 2016 earthquake and is now closed, which reduces the number by 1. Also, Thitsarwady isn’t on Google Maps or the tourist map, and no one we asked had heard of it, ruling out this pagoda. Shwesandaw is the only pagoda easily accessible by road and as you can imagine gets very busy.
Fortunately, there are lots of other temples you can still climb. Although you might not get much more than 20ft high, it’s great fun spending your day zooming around on your bike, finding secret passageways and staircases in forgotten temples.
The lack of height is compensated by the fact that there are far fewer tourists here. And the other tourists that do make it to these places are often like-minded, and happy to sit quietly and enjoy the view.
These are our top locations for viewing the sunrise and sunset in Bagan.
Bulethi is located in the east of Bagan, and we weren’t expecting there to be many temples between Bulethi and the sunrise. However, we were wrong.
There are temples everywhere in Bagan and Bulethi is in an excellent position to watch the hot air balloons against the rising sun. The newly built viewing tower may not be to everyone’s liking, but is necessary given the huge numbers of visitors.
There’s another temple just a few feet to the west of Bulethi. It’s technically closed, but we did see some people climbing it for sunrise. It’d probably offer a great view for the sunset but we wouldn’t encourage anyone to climb temples that aren’t officially open. There’s a polite red sign at the gate that ‘strongly requests’ no one enters, and we suggest you respect this.
Law Ka Oushang
Slightly further along the path from Shwesandaw is a quiet and well-positioned temple to watch the sunrise. You’ll definitely feel slightly smug as you drive past Shwesandaw and the hoards of tourists ready with their tripods and zoom lenses.
Law Ka Oushang is in the west and has excellent views across the plains to the east of Bagan. You can’t climb that high, and there are some trees that may partially block your view. However, it’s still our favourite place to watch the sun rise in Bagan.
Tip: Beware of people demanding a ‘money present’ at the bottom of the stairs. You can give a donation if you wish, but bear in mind that it’s not an entry fee and is unlikely to go towards maintenance of the temple.
Photographing the sunset
The multi-level flat rooftops of Pyathetgyi offer plenty of space and height for great views of the sunset.
Find the hidden staircase in the tower at the back, and climb all the way to the top. It’s a bit off of the beaten track, but still attracts some large groups. Make sure you get there early, sit back and watch.
Taung (South) Guni
Easier to get to and much quieter than Pyathetgyi, South Guni is a great place to watch the sunset. There aren’t many temples directly west of Guni, so the sunset skyline isn’t quite as spectacular as it is from some other locations.
Saying that, you do get a great panoramic view of the whole of Bagan. Another plus is that there were only about 20 other people there.
Some people have complained about the kids that sell postcards at the temple. Once we made it clear we weren’t going to buy anything, they were quite happy to show off all of the foreign currency they’d collected from tourists over the years.
Instead, we gave them post-it notes and they had great fun writing on them and sticking them on each other!
Get there early and stay until late
Suffice it to say, it’s best to arrive early. We recommend arriving about an hour before sunrise and 2 hours before sunset to claim a good spot, even at the quieter places.
Similarly, some people leave the second the sun dips below the horizon, but be patient: sometimes the sky looks best after the sun has set.
Remind yourself that these are sacred religious sites, so remember to remove your shoes and socks. Also, be mindful to dress appropriately, don’t make too much noise and absolutely don’t drink alcohol.
Another thing to consider is how old these temples and pagodas are. All were built between the 11th to 13th century, and unsurprisingly are in need of some maintenance. That said, be careful of the loose bricks and crumbling stone.
The temperature during the day in Bagan may reach the mid 30’s, but in the morning, it can get surprisingly cold.
So, it’s important to dress warmly and that you have plenty of layers. We even resorted to wearing socks with our flip flops — not a great look!
Have enough cash
When you arrive in Bagan, the first thing you’ll notice is the request to pay 25,000MYK for an archaeological zone pass. If you don’t have the right cash in Kyat, you’ll have to pay $20, which is far off the correct exchange rate.
If you don’t have any cash on you, you’ll be sent back to wherever you came from.
Use a tripod
To take photographs of higher quality and less shaking, invest in a tripod. Some of the best shots can be taken in low light, and slow shutter speeds are necessary to avoid excessive noise.
However, this will result in camera shake unless you have a tripod. Unavoidably, it will add weight and take up space in your bag, but the result will be worth it.
All photos (except the last) courtesy of Lights, Camera, Backpack.