Rain and shine in Bagan
The landscape and elements scream for attention in Bagan, home to more than 10,000 Buddhist temples lying in various states of repair amid lush vegetation by the Irrawaddy river in central Myanmar. Weather is a big factor in any travel and photography. And I got lucky, and unlucky, during my second trip to this amazing place.
I travelled in October, which is usually towards the end of the wet or rainy season. It’s a good time to travel in Asia. The vegetation is green and the rivers flowing. The weather is usually pretty good except for the occasional passing storm or downpour. This October, 2017, was nearing the end of what the locals told me had been a particularly wet wet season. And others kept telling me it “should have stopped by now”, as we again huddled under a tree or waited in a car for the heavens once again to close so I could scurry to a nearby temple.
Another good reason to travel at this time was that there are fewer visitors, meaning cheaper prices and more space at the sights, fewer Westerners and others getting in the way of photographs and jockeying for tripod positions. But in Bagan, you never have the place to yourself, such is the lure of the site, which Myanmar has finally, after decades of dithering, requested be added to UNESCO’s world heritage site list.
I discovered there are also plusses and minuses with the weather in the wet season, too. The skies are often more interesting in photos during the wet season, with storm clouds, or puffy white clouds as a storm builds, compared with the endless, formless blue that dominates during the dry season. Sunrises and sunsets can be spectacular too, but only if the sun is shining at this time. The weather combined to put on one brief, underwhelming show during my few days in Bagan, with the others evenings rained out and a damp squib.
Then again, passing downpours followed by sunshine mostly means one thing … rainbows. Perhaps Asia could rename the late wet season as the rainbow season, if it wants to attract more visitors at this time.
I spent two days with my own taxi driver, who drove me around to all the temples he thought I should see, plus the ones I had picked out from a guide book and the map you get given when you pay for your tourist archaeological entrance pass. You can pay this on arrival at Nyaung U airport. It costs about $25 and you must get it. I was checked by tourist police twice during my short stay.
There are so many temples, mostly earthy redish/orange brick works amid the green vegetation, they remind me of the anthills in northern Australia that dot that landscape. But my highlights, especially photographically, were;
Buledi for its amazing views from the top. There is not much room on this smallish pagoda, which means it must get pretty packed at sunrise and sunset, but the views looking over numerous nearby temples are amazing.
Most temples that allow you to climb up involve a sometimes hairy ascent and descent. You have to watch your camera and lenses (don’t let them hit the steps as you climb up) and keep a firm grip. Those not keen on heights should take note.
Shwezigon is like a mini Shwedagon of Yangon, with its huge golden stupa and surrounding pagodas and temples. It also has the added advantage of a long corridor leading up to it that is must for photographers. It provides a catwalk for produce sellers and monks and novice monks, and looks great with its strong reoccurring lines of sunshine and shadow.
Almost next to Shwezigon is Bupaya, a strange golden “blob” by the river that is worth a look.
Payathonzu provides the chance to see 13th century mosaics painted on the walls. Photography is not allowed, but there is another small temple next to it, off a beaten track, that has similar murals and there is no one stopping photography. I discovered this with the help of a young hawker who took me on an impromptu guided tour. Bring a strong torch to see the murals and don’t use flash photography. A torch and high ISO (with fast lens) will do the trick.
And then there is Shwesandaw, now officially the go-to sunrise and sunset vantage point, especially now Sulamani, which once offered wide terraces with great views, is out of action due to a strong earthquake in 2016 that damaged many of the pagodas. The view is worth the clamber up the steep sides, but be prepared for crowds, even in the wet season.
Another side trip worth the effort is a drive about 50km to the southeast of Bagan to Mt Popa, a steep mountain peak that features a Buddhist temple at its top. It’s an amazing scene but probably best snapped on the way towards the mountain (tell your driver you want to photograph it on the way out and if he is any good he will know the best spot), as although the peak provides great views, the temple itself is underwhelming.
But perhaps the best way to take in Bagan is on board an electric motorcycle. These fun things are rented out everywhere around Bagan, are cheap, easy to ride, and great for hitting the open road and even doing a bit of bush bashing as you discover pagodas big and small around Bagan.
It was aboard an e-bike that I saw a rainbow appearing after a downpour and managed a few photographs of temples underneath them, which is not a view you would normally associate with Bagan … except in the rainbow season!
Come on Myanmar tourism, get on board.
If the sunsets don’t “turn on” during your stay, don’t despair. I instead went for a pagoda silhouette photograph one evening from atop a small temple I discovered not far from hotel in New Bagan. Although there was no sunset colour, I like this photograph as the shape of the pagoda strongly suggests Bagan and it reminds me of the season in which I visited. Here I used my 70-200mm zoom to isolate the shape of a dominant temple, and obviously needed my tripod.
In my kit bag:
Along with my Canon 5D I carried a 16-35mm lens for landscapes, good for sunsets (if you get one), and even atop Buledi, although I also took a 70-200mm zoom for isolating a temple or temples, and for the Shwezigon corridor “catwalk” and other photos. As well, I packed a 28mm fast prime lens for interior shots. So two heavy zooms and a prime to lug around, although I did not carry all of them everywhere I went all the time. Sometimes you have to suffer for your art, but the photographs will be worth it. I also had Manfrotto tripod for the sunset photography.
And here is a photograph of my only real sunset shot I took in Bagan, when after a bit of bush bashing on my e-bike on my first day the shrubs and trees parted (OK, I felt a bit lost at the time, I admit) and there, suddenly, was Shwesandaw pagoda and what looked like a couple of hundred people clinging to its sides waiting for sunset. I parked my e-bike and joined them. I didn’t have my tripod with me but I did have my 70-200mm lens with image stabilisation. I moved to a lower terrace for this shot, to have more of the pagodas feature silhouetted against the sky. Below is another from that first evening.
You can see all my photographs of my trip to Myanmar, including Bagan and Yangon, as well as Ngapali beach on my Flickr site here.
Have you been to Bagan in the wet season? I would be interested in hearing your thoughts as to wether you prefer it over other times of the year, or any other comments you have.