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John Einar Sandvand

Photography in Myanmar: Marvelling at the temples of Bagan

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PICSPIRATON SUNDAY: Any trip to Myanmar includes a visit to Bagan. For a photographer it is easy to understand. 

Visiting the ancient city Bagan is all about sunrises and sunsets. Or almost all, at least. That´s when people gather on one of more than 2000 temples and pagodas to marvel over the beautiful colors cast over the landscape.

From the 9th to the 13th century Bagan was the capital of the Kingdom of Bagan. During this time more than 10.000 temples, pagodas and monasteries were built, of which more than 2000 remain.

Travelling in Bagan

Tourism in Myanmar is still in its early days – and the infrastructure can we weak. Yet I found it surprisingly easy to move around in Bagan thanks to the abundant supply of electric motor bikes for 8 dollars per day.

With the e-bikes you can move from temple to temple at your own speed, often on small and sandy tracks that are best suited for a horse. It is indeed a fascinating experience.

Most hotels are in the neighboring town Nyaung-U, just a few kilometers away from the temples.

Each morning about twenty balloons bring tourists up in the air for a spectacular view of the Bagan temples. But the price is stiff: More than 300 dollars. Photo: John Einar Sandvand

Each morning about twenty balloons bring tourists up in the air for a spectacular view of the Bagan temples. But the price is stiff: More than 300 dollars. Photo: John Einar Sandvand

Sunrises and sunsets in Bagan

For an eager photographer the time schedule for a typical day in Bagan looks more or less like this:

  • 5 AM: Get out of bed, dress and pick up the e-bike. Travel to the chosen temple for sunrise.
  • 6 – 8 AM: Climb up on the wall of one of the temples, set up the tripod and start taking photos.
  • 08:30 AM: Breakfast in the hotel
  • 9 – 11 AM: Extra nap in hotel room
  • 11 – 2 PM: Relax by the hotel pool
  • 3-5 PM: Tour the area on an e-bike
  • 5 – 7:30 PM: Go to a temple for sunset photography
  • 8 PM – …: Dinner, photo editing and sleep

The most popular temple for sunrise and sunset is Shwesandaw. The view is beautiful and lined with pagodas both towards west (sunset) and east (sunrise).  But it can be quite crowded – and if you are going to use a tripod it is smart to be there early and claim a spot.

Here is a trick, though.  Most tourists assume by default that the higher you climb the temple the better view. It is true to some extent, but the best photos can still often be taken at a lower level where more pagodas are shown as silhouettes against the golden sky.

A nice temple with fewer visitors is Bulethi. Here only about 20-30 tourists showed up, and by stepping one level down I had plenty of space 🙂 I also enjoyed sunset at the Pyathada temple.

Sunrise from the Bulethi stupa in Bagan. Photo: John Einar Sandvand

Sunrise from the Bulethi stupa in Bagan. Photo: John Einar Sandvand

Article 2 of 5 about photography in Myanmar

This article is part of a series of five about photography in Myanmar.

More photos from Bagan

Sunset from the Shwesandaw pagoda in Bagan. Photo: John Einar Sandvand

Sunset from the Shwesandaw pagoda in Bagan. Photo: John Einar Sandvand

A fascinating light emerges when the artificial light over the biggest temples in Bagan mixes with the last colors of the sunset. Photo: John Einar Sandvand

A fascinating light emerges when the artificial light over the biggest temples mixes with the last colors of the sunset. Photo: John Einar Sandvand

Colors change continuously during the sunsets and sunrises in Bagan. Photo: John Einar Sandvand

Colors change continuously during the sunsets and sunrises in Bagan. Photo: John Einar Sandvand

Morning fist in Bagan. Photo: John Einar Sandvand

Morning fist in Bagan. Photo: John Einar Sandvand

The landscape in Bagan is dotted with more than 2000 temples, pagodas and stupas. Photo: John Einar Sandvand

The landscape in Bagan is dotted with more than 2000 temples, pagodas and stupas. Photo: John Einar Sandvand

Sunset from Bulethi in Bagan. Photo: John Einar Sandvand

Sunset from Bulethi. Photo: John Einar Sandvand

Good morning! Tourists in balloons great tourist on the temples at sunrise. Photo: John Einar Sandvand

Good morning! Tourists in balloons great tourist on the temples at sunrise. Photo: John Einar Sandvand

Photo location

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23 comments… add one
  • Geir

    Nydelig og nyttig på en gang. Skulle gjerne visst litt mer om hvordan du legger opp en tur til Myanmar rent praktisk. Stemmer det at man må gå veien via lokale reisebyråer?

  • Jeg la opp turen selv, Geir! Flybillett tur/retur Oslo-Bangkok med Thai Airways og deretter Bangkok – Yangon og Mandalay – Bangkok med Air Asia. Hotell ble bestilt gjennom Booking.com. Innenriksbilletter er vanskelig å bestilt på forhånd siden knapt noen flyselskap godtar onlinebooking med kredittkort. Her valgte jeg å ha is i magen – og det gikk bra. Hotellet i Yangon fikset de tre flybillettene på et par timer. Betaling med amerikanske dollar i kontanter. Lokal transport ordnet jeg på stedet. Det var ikke noe problem. Det er veldig billig å reise i Myanmar…det dyreste er vel hotell.

  • Nathalia Cardenas

    I love all of the pictures! I have a question, is the last picture with the hot air balloon also taken from the Shwesandaw Pagoda??

    • Thanks, Nathalia! No, that one was taken from Bulethi, if I remember correctly. Bulethi was really a nice pagoda to take pictures from – and a lot less crowded than Shwesandaw 🙂
      Have you been to Myanmar?

  • Sarah Corrigan

    Great photos, heading there soon and just wondering, the second picture from the top with the hot air balloons rising in the distance, what temple was that photo taken from? I really want to see this 🙂

    • Hi Sarah,
      That photo was taken from the temple Bulethi, if I remember correctly. A smaller temple – with fewer people.

      John Einar

  • Kathrine

    Hei,
    Nydelige bilder! Jeg skal dit selv til vinteren og lurte på når du var der? Virker jo som det er mye endringer som skjer for tiden. Og et annet spørsmål, bruker du stort sett tripod når du tar bilder? Usikker på om jeg vil dra rundt på det. Vurderer å kanskje prøve en gorillapod..

    • Takk for hyggelig tilbakemelding, Kathrine! Jeg var der i november 2014.
      Selv har jeg alltid med meg et stativ. Har et stort og kraftig Manfrotto-stativ som jeg bruker hjemme – og et mye mindre stativ fra Slik (http://www.slik.com/CS-PRO624CF.html) som jeg har med meg i bagen når jeg er på reisefot. Ikke like bra som mitt store stativ, men gjør absolutt susen. Med den typen bilder jeg tar – vanligvis med HDR – er stativ ganske viktig.
      På den turen hadde jeg i forkant kjøpt en 70-200 zoom fra Canon mens jeg var i Bangkok – og det ble nesten den eneste linsen jeg brukte i Myanmar. Perfekt både til å ta bilder av mennesker – og til å komme tettere på templene 🙂

      John Einar
      John Einar

      • Kathrine

        Ok, takk for tips. Gleder meg til å reise😊

  • Dick

    Hi John,
    Love your pictures and comments ! Technical question for you , if you don’t mind ? Did you back up your pictures while on the road and if so what is your ‘ system ‘ I have one of those Western Digital portable drives which accepts cards but it’s too much of a ‘ hope for the best’ system. Could please tell me what you are using ? Thanks in advance !

    • Hi Dick,

      I use an online backup service called Jottacloud.no. So whenever I have wifi, it backs up all the new pictures from my harddrive. When travelling, I try to ensure that files are backed up before i delete them from my camera card.

  • David

    You took such beautiful photos. I’m planning a trip for next November and your photos inspire me to buy a better camera for the trip.

  • I know this web page gives quality based posts and additional stuff,
    is there any other website which presents these kinds of stuff in quality?

  • Hi John, love your site – beautiful photos and great writeup. I visited this location and also did a writeup which is where I stumbled on your site. Amusingly we both noticed the trick about avoiding the crowd at the topmost level of Shwesandaw 🙂 Also we have a similar style of site! Great job, I think we need more like this.

    Anyway I thought I’d share my post if you’d like to check it out.
    http://www.sidecarphoto.co/listing/shwesandaw-pagoda/

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