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:
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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…