Date: April 21, 2017
Bagan was founded in the second century A.D on the banks of the Irrawaddy River. Between the 11th and 13th centuries, Bagan was the capital and cultural central of the Pagan Empire. During this time, Bagan’s rulers and wealthy subjects constructed over 10,000 religious monuments, comprising stupas, temples, and monasteries. Unfortunately, Bagan is located in an active earthquake zone. The archeological sites subsisted through over 400 recorded earthquakes between 1904 and 1975, and countless more since the time of their construction. Today, only approximately 2000 archeological monuments remain--still plenty to compose one of the world’s most remarkable landscapes!
Bagan—or technically, now, the Bagan Archaeological Zone—consists of thousands of temple ruins sprawling across 26-square miles of flatlands, making it one of Southeast Asia’s most coveted archeological sites. You’ve likely seen in a travel magazine a sunset photo of hot-air balloons rising over the unique Bagan landscape. Like so many other photographers before me, I came to photograph the epic sunsets and sunrises over the scattered ruins Bagan (unfortunately, the hot-air balloons were only operate during the peak season in mid October through mid-March.)
But I had to work through some rigamarole before I would get the opportunity…
I arrived at the Bagan bus terminal at 4:30 A.M. after having taken a night bus from Inle Lake. Stepping groggily off of the bus, I was immediately accosted by a swarm of taxi drivers vying to take me into town. Half-asleep, I accented to the offer from the man who happened to be standing right in front of me. As it turned out not, he was not a taxi driver but just a guy with a motorbike. I discovered this after he took me to a remote corner of the bus park to wait—away from his competitors—as he retrieved his motorbike. I used the sketchiness of this as a bargaining tactic to knock off 1000 kyat from the ride.
We’d only been driving for ten minutes when the guy suddenly stopped on a dark and remote stretch of the road. He indicated for me to get off the bike while mumbling something about a police checkpoint and that I needed to leave my bag with him and walk past the checkpoint on my own, pretending to be a local. At least, I think this is what he was trying to communicate—his English was quite clumsy. Thinking that the man was afraid of being caught for not be a licensed driver, I tried to bargain down the price further, and also insisted that he was to drive me across the checkpoint, since I didn’t want to get questioned by the police. Not understanding what I was after, the driver retrieved from his wallet a tourist pass, which is required to enter the Archeological Zone, frantically attempting to explain something to me, while looking up and down the deserted road.
After a few more minutes of listening to his jabbering, I finally came to understand that the proposition was that I buy the used pass that was still valid for a few more days. He offered 20,000 kyat for the both the pass and the ride. Feeling somewhat relieved that soon we would be getting on our way, I bent down to inspected the pass undertake light of the headlamp, noting an expiration date of the daybefore I was due to leave Bagan, while choosing to gloss over the bold letters stating that the pass was non-transferable. Since a new pass costs 25,000 kchet, I decided to take the deal since I had heard that it was only at the superstar temples that authorities regularly checked the passes anyway. We got back on the bike and sped off, zooming past the checkpoint, not slowing down until we were well down the road. At one point the driver’s hat flew off. “No problem!” he yelled into the wind.
I got to my guesthouse well before sunrise and, although amped from the wild ride from bus stop, I was soon overcome by the lack of sleep. I woke up at ten, sweating, with nothing but a fan and the desire not to move a muscle keeping me cool. By noon, the heat would climb to 105 degrees. Hot enough to cause both my laptop and phone to crash from overheating. At around five, when it was starting to cool down, I rented a bicycle and, with my camera gear, pedaled one of the taller temples nearest to my guesthouse, Bulethi, hoping to catch a nice sunset.
The rain came 10 minutes after left. I was drenched in seconds. Mindful of a story I heard of a villager being struck by lightening, I stopped in at a tea house to wait out the rain, still hoping that I would get to the temple in time for sunset. I ordered a coffee and waited awkwardly while the family who worked there dashed around with shovels, fighting a losing battle against the water flooding the dirt floor. At one point, I offered to help but the question was otiose as the women doing all the work couldn’t speak English. I didn’t get much farther trying to point back and forth between the shovel and my person. I sat watching until the owners had gotten things more or less under control, and my instant coffee was served. After about 40 minutes, the rain abated and I made it to the Bulethi temple in time to catch the last notes of the sunset.