Photographing the Sunrise and Sunset in Bagan

It’s hard to believe that, many centuries ago, there were over 10,000 temples and pagodas in Bagan. Although only about a quarter of these are still standing, Bagan offers an unimaginably beautiful skyline and is quite unlike anywhere else on Earth. The best times of day to photograph this spectacular scene are sunrise and sunset, when the hot air balloons glide soundlessly over the silhouetted pinnacles. Simply stand atop an ancient pagoda, and you’ll have a breathtaking view of the vast, flat plains of Old Bagan and the thousands of temples between you and the horizon.

Easier said than done.

Recent regulations have stipulated that only 5 pagodas can now be climbed, due to tourists committing ‘culturally disgraceful’ acts. These 5 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 is not entirely true that they are the only 5 you can climb. Firstly, North Guni was badly damaged in the 2016 earthquake and is now closed, so that takes you down to 4 locations. Secondly, Thitsarwady is not on Google Maps or the tourist map, and no one we asked had heard of it, so that’s not really an option either. Shwesandaw is the only pagoda easily accessible by road and is therefore bursting with over 1000 (we’re not exaggerating) aging Western tourists, shuffling off of their luxury air conditioned coaches and complaining about having to climb the steep steps. Unless you know how to deal with a broken hip in a country with one of the worst healthcare systems in the world, it’s probably best to avoid Shwesandaw.

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. Basically, you are Lara Croft.

The lack of height of these temples is compensated by the fact that there are far fewer tourists there, and the other tourists that do make it to these places are often like-minded, happy to sit quietly and enjoy the peace.

Here are our top locations for viewing the sunrise and sunset in Bagan:

Sunrise

Bulethi

Bulethi is located in the east of Bagan, and we were therefore not expecting there to be many temples between Bulethi and the sunrise. We were wrong. There are temples everywhere in Bagan and Bulethi is in an excellent position to watch the hot air balloons silhouetted against the rising sun. The newly built viewing tower is a bit of an eyesore, but is understandably necessary given the huge numbers of visitors to this heritage site.

There is another temple just a few feet to the West of Bulethi which is technically closed, but we did see a few people climbing it for sunrise. It would probably offer a great view for the sunset (rather than the sunrise, which would be blocked by Bulethi) but we would not encourage anyone to climb temples that are not officially open. There is a polite red sign at the gate that ‘strongly requests’ no one enters, and we suggest you respect this.

sunrise-from-bulethi-bagan-myanmar

Law Ka Oushang

Slightly further along the path from Shwesandaw, you will find a quiet and well positioned temple to watch the sunrise. This offers the added smug bonus of driving past Shwesandaw and the hundreds of tourists already poised with their tripods and zoom lenses at 5am.

Law Ka Oushang is located in the West and therefore has an excellent view across the plains to the East. You can’t climb particularly high, and there are some trees around that may partially block your view, but it is still our favourite place to watch the sun rise in Bagan!

Watch out for the 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 is not an entry fee and is unlikely to go towards maintenance of the temple.

sunrise-from-law-ka-oushang-bagan-myanmar

Sunset

Pyathetgyi Pagoda

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 left of the building and climb all the way to the top. It’s a bit off of the beaten track, but still attracts some large groups (watch out for coaches trying to squeeze past cows on the dirt roads!). Make sure you get there early and don’t set up a time lapse on your GoPro in a place that people are able to stand in front of.

sunset-from-pyathetgyi-pagida-bagan-myanmarsunset-from-pyathetgyi-pagida-bagan-myanmar

Taung (South) Guni

Easier the 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, but you 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 selling postcards at the temple. Once we made it clear that we weren’t going to buy anything, they were quite happy to show off all of the foreign currency they had collected from tourists over the years. We gave them some post-it notes and they had great fun writing on them and sticking them on each other!

sunset-from-south-guni-bagan

Top Tips

Get there early and stay late

We saw people turning up 5 minutes before the sunrise and complaining that they couldn’t get a good spot. Seriously. You need to get there about an hour before sunrise and about 2 hours before sunset to claim your space, even at the quieter places. Similarly, some people would leave the second the sun dipped below the horizon. Be patient – sometimes the sky looks best after the sun has set.

Be respectful

Remind yourself that these are sacred religious sites, so take off your shoes and socks, dress appropriately, don’t make too much noise and don’t drink alcohol. You’d think this goes without saying, but apparently not.

These temples and pagodas were all built between 11-13 century, and as such are a little rickety. Be aware that there are loose bricks and the stone is crumbling. Don’t cause damage and don’t hurt yourself!

Wrap up warm

The temperature during the day in Bagan might reach the mid 30’s, but early in the morning it can get surprisingly cold. Make sure you have plenty of layers. We’ve even resorted to wearing socks with our flip flops – not a great look.

Make sure your e-bike is fully charged

The battery can run out quickly, particularly if you are sharing a bike and driving on the dirt roads. Most places will offer to recharge the bike for you while you’re having lunch, but make sure they understand that you aren’t just returning the bike early. We picked up a bike after a lunch time ‘charge’ to find the battery lower than when we dropped it off, and subsequently ran out of power on the way back. Towing an e-bike by holding on to it from the back of a motorbike at 50kmph is not the safest way to get back to your hotel. Trust us.

Have plenty of cash

The first thing you will notice when you arrive in Bagan is the demand 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 a very poor exchange rate. If you don’t have any cash on you, you’ll be sent back to wherever you came from!

Use a tripod

One of our biggest regrets is not taking a tripod travelling. Some of the best shots can be taken in low light, and slow shutter speeds are necessary to avoid excessive noise. This will result in camera shake unless you have a tripod. It might add weight and take up space in your backpack, but we promise it will be worth it!

Don’t be shy of Photoshop

We battle with the ethics of using Photoshop on travel photos. For Bagan, we reason that the photographs taken here are for the sole purpose of looking beautiful, so it’s not totally unethical to take the sunrise sky from Law Ka Oushang and lend it to the view from Pyathetgyi Pagoda. Especially when it looks this good…

bagan-sunset


 

The Journey to Kyaiktiyo – Why Drive Up the Mountain When You Can Walk?

The weary traveller is often presented with a choice on the road – whether to take the easy route, which may not be as rewarding, or take the tougher option which will most likely be more exciting, more interesting, more real. Mount Kyaiktiyo, situated in the South East of Myanmar, is a perfect example of this dilemma.

One of Myanmar’s most sacred Buddhist sights, travellers, tourists and pilgrims visit the mountain to bear witness to the giant golden rock that has balanced, seemingly impossibly, on the very edge of another rock for centuries. The secret to its astounding clinginess, in spite of numerous earthquakes that have rumbled this mountainous region, is that it is glued to the rock with a few strands of Buddha’s hair. Whether or not you believe in this holy adhesive, the gold leaf covered boulder steadfastly defying the laws of physics is a sight to behold.

the-golden-rock-myanmar

So, should you pay a few thousand kyats and take a crammed pick up straight to the summit from Kinpun (the welcoming base camp where wise visitors stay the night before ascending), or join the holy wanderers and hike the steep and dusty pilgrim’s path?

We decided to join the pilgrims on their path, and our 5 hour climb up the mountain was one of the highlights of our zippy trip around Myanmar. We set off just before 8am, an unexpected chill still lingering in the highland air, stocked up with 100 Plus (a miraculous Malaysian isotonic drink), dried mango and big sticks of sugared coconut for energy. Walking along the main road of Kinpun, which becomes the path up the mountain, we did our best to avoid the hustle and bustle of the market stalls, the coach parties and baffled tour groups. But no sooner than we’d walked 100 paces out of town, the atmosphere changed completely and we were greeted with the stillness of the morning, the only sounds a whistling kettle, a hungry cat, a cheering cockerel.

kimpunkimpun-morning

As the mountain path began, we felt confident that we could reach the summit without too much hardship. The weather was cool, the path mostly shaded by tropical foliage and bamboo shacks, whose entrepreneurial owners also offer drinks and snacks, and it wasn’t too steep. For the first couple of hours, we had a hoot meeting the locals, mostly descending the mountain, posing for group selfies and pretending that we knew about the premier league. We lost count of how many selfies we were asked to pose for, but it’s safe to say that many Facebook feeds of Myanmar featured our sweaty mugs that day.

Everyone, without exception, that we met along the path was welcoming and friendly. Tea shop owners would insist that we take tea with them, free of charge, just to have a chat with us. Joking families on pilgrimage would tell us we’d taken the wrong path, that the pick ups were back down the mountain, so rare is it to see a foreigner on the trail.

tea-shop-owners-on-the-path-to-the-golden-rock

By midday, our legs were growing achy and the heat was picking up. Whilst most of the trail had been shaded so far, the shacks began to be further and further apart. We found ourselves climbing steep, thigh-busting steps in the full glare of the sun, crunching up dusty trails in the searing heat. By this point, we’d grown weary of the selfies, our smiles more strained with each new request. We couldn’t take any more tea due to the lack of toilet facilities. Nick had run out of betel nut to chew. Things were getting tough.

path-to-kyaikto

The 7 and a half mile path felt interminable. It grew increasingly steeper, winding around the mountain so that often we were walking away from our destination. But we kept on, and eventually reached the sacred summit.

What a shock it was for us, having seen no other tourists on the path, to be met by a crowd of thousands of people, some local, some just wealthy foreigners on a coach trip from Yangon for the day, swarming around the holy site. There were restaurants, hotels, tourist tat stands, some of them even within the ‘sacred’ area where you have to take off your shoes to enter. There was a feeling of a crowded beach to the place, with families camped out in makeshift tents to avoid the midday sun and confused tourists trying to work out what they should be photographing.

the-entrance-to-the-golden-rock-myanmarfamilies-in-the-shade-at-the-golden-rock-kyaikto

We were even more shocked when, dripping with sweat, caked in dust and filled with relief at having finally made it to the top, we were stopped in our tracks by an official and asked to pay a foreigner entry fee of 6000 Kyats each. “But…” we tried to argue, “we’ve just hiked all the way up the mountain. It took us all day. These people have just come up in a pick up!” Indifferent to our argument, or perhaps not fluent in any English other than,  “Foreigner must pay entry fee. 6000 Kyats,” we had no real choice other than to cough up the cash.

It must be said that this supposedly spiritual space left us feeling baffled, even a little bit disappointed. Yet, stumbling across rowdy monks taking a cooling dip in a damned stream, insisting that a 60 year old man’s English is pretty good considering he lives halfway up a mountain, stopping to take in the view of the mountain ranges stretching out to the horizon in a low hanging mist, these are the rewards of the hard path. If you visit Kyaiktiyo, do take the pilgrim’s path, don’t take a pick up. We assure you that in this case, the journey is the destination.

a-young-boy-climbing-a-tree-on-the-path-to-kyaikto

young-monks-swimming-on-the-path-to-kyakto

Note: Whilst we strongly recommend not taking a pick up to the summit, we don’t advise hiking down in the dying light of the day. Instead, take a pick up back to Kinpun with the locals just before sunset and brace yourself for a terrifyingly thrilling 30 minute ride down the twisting mountain road at an absolutely ridiculous speed, partly in the reassuring orangey glow of sunset, partly in the dark. Once the adrenaline wears off, you can get a reasonably priced meal at the top notch Sea Sar Restaurant and then head to bed for a well earned rest.