The ancient city of Bagan lies along the Irrawaddy River approximately 450 miles (618 km) north of Yangon in Myanmar’s Mandalay region. Bagan was the capital of the Pagan Kingdom which existed from the 9th-13th centuries. In the prosperous kingdom it was an important city where Buddhism flourished. During its peak years (1044-1287) over 10,000 temples, stupas and other religious monuments were built. Today, the remains of 2200 of these religious monuments make up the Bagan Archaeological Zone. Bagan is one of Myanmar’s most popular destinations and attracts roughly 200,000 visitors annually.
One of the highlights of a visit to Bagan is viewing and photographing spectacular sunrises and sunsets over the plains. Perching atop of an 800-year-old pagoda and gazing across a landscape dotted with ancient pagodas is truly magical. Sunrise is particularly interesting as a good-sized flotilla of hot air balloons drifts over the stunning landscape towards the rising sun. There are a number of pagodas from where visitors can view and photograph the rising or setting sun. Some sites are more popular or considered better than others particularly when it comes to photography. Obviously ‘more popular’ translates into more visitors, and a less peaceful setting.
The best and most popular temple for photographing sunrise, and sunset for that matter, is undoubtedly Shwesandaw Pagoda. This spectacular monument constructed by King Anawrahta in 1057 AD, towers well above the many pagodas that dot the Plains of Bagan. Built to enshrine a hair relic of the Buddha, it is currently the tallest of the pagodas that visitors are permitted to climb. The enormous structure is composed of a traditional bell-shaped chedi or stupa, which sits on top of a five-terraced square base.
Visitors ascend one of four rather steep stairways to reach the various levels. It would be an understatement to call the view from the fifth level anything but breathtaking. The unrestricted view gives photographers an excellent opportunity to shoot sunrise or sunset with beautiful lines of fields, trees and pagodas in the fore and mid ground. The many hot air balloons which float over and above the plains at sunrise make the scene even more impressive. Visitors should be forewarned that this site is extremely popular and because the terraces are relatively narrow, the best viewing positions get very crowded. If your goal is to set up a tripod on the coveted northeast corner on either the fourth or fifth terrace, you had better arrive early. On my recent November visit I found that 04:45 was a good time show up; by 05:30 all of the best positions were already taken.
Law Ka Ou Shaung Pagoda
Law Ka Ou Shaung Pagoda is located 400 meters to the west of Shwesandaw Pagoda. Constructed circa 1200 AD this square-shaped monument has a flat roof, or terrace, which is accessed by an extremely narrow and steep stairway. A small sanctuary housing a beautiful Buddha image stands on a small terrace above the stairway exit. This site is far less crowded than Shwesandaw, most likely because the temple’s highest view point just barely clears the tree line. This is a good, perhaps great, place to view sunrise, but some photographers may find it less appealing than the towering Shwesandaw. I arrived at this site at 05:30 and had no problem finding a place to set up my tripod.
Myauk (North) Guni
When I arrived at North Guni at 05:30 there was no one else in sight and the temple grounds were pitch black. I asked the taxi driver if the upper terrace was indeed open to the public and if people did in fact view sunrise from it. He informed me that it is open and that a few people would arrive later in the morning. Before letting the taxi depart I decided to verify that access to the roof was possible. Utilizing the flashlight in my cell phone I entered the dark pagoda and was greeted by a huge Buddha image and two small mice, who quickly sought refuge in the shadows. After finding the narrow and claustrophobic stairway to the temple’s upper terrace I went back to the taxi and sent the driver on his way. I could not believe that I was all alone on top this 11th century pagoda. Around 06:30, just as the sun was beginning to rise, three visitors arrived followed by a local boy peddling the ubiquitous sand paintings “which you can only buy in Bagan”. With its lack of visitors, North Guni was by far the most peaceful and tranquil site that I visited for sunrise. I strongly recommend this pagoda to people who want a relaxing place to view sunrise. However, like Law Ka Ou Shaung, it is not a tall structure and it is difficult to shoot photos over the tree line, at least when looking out directly to the east.
The Bulethi complex consists of two large stupas surrounded by a number of smaller monuments, pagodas and lush farmers’ fields. Visitors are allowed to scale both of the largest stupas but unfortunately the August earthquake did significant damage to the taller western-facing one. This structure, which is now closed for restoration, is my favorite sunset spot as it provides excellent views of the plains and is a pleasant thirty-minute walk from the hotels in Nyaung-U. The eastern-facing stupa now gets crowded at both sunset and sunrise and its obstructed western view may not be appealing to photographers seeking a perfect sunset shot. On the other hand, at sunrise, one can get some nice shots as it is fairly close to where the balloons lift off for their morning flights.