Edit: I'm proud to announce that my book on Photographing Burma is now available for download at the iBooks store. It's got over 140 pages and 120 images, and includes information on everything I know about photographing in one of the most amazing countries on earth.
Back when we first started looking into this trip, when we'd decided to go to Asia but weren't sure which country yet, the more I looked at Burma and saw places like Golden Rock and Inle, the more I wanted to go there. However, it was seeing photos of Bagan and reading descriptions of the vast plain covered with thousands of ancient temples that really made us decide "We have to see this place!"
Because of the route we'd chosen to travel around Burma Bagan was one of the last places on our itinerary, and despite all the amazing places we'd seen before there'd always been a sense of anticipation about finally getting to Bagan.
As it turned out, our plane landed at night and driving from the airport to our hotel in Old Bagan we couldn't really see much, just the odd tantalizing glimpse of a couple of large illuminated temples between the trees.
One of the problems with arriving at night is that there's no chance to scout locations for sunrise and then look at the best ways of getting there. Because of this, I decided that for the first sunrise, I'd go to Shwesandaw Pagoda. I knew it was a really popular location for sunrise and would probably be busy, but it was close to our hotel and I'd seen enough photos from there to know that there'd be a great view.
Waking up in the dark the next day, we walked to the front of the hotel and as there were no taxis we decided to get one of the horse and carts that you see everywhere in Bagan. It's not a particularly practical way to get anywhere as it's so slow and you can't really see much, but in the darkness of the morning for such a short trip it was fine. When we arrived at the bottom of Shwesandaw Pagoda it was still dark but from the number of parked taxis and horse and carts, it was clear that quite a few people had already arrived. We headed to the steps which lead up to the terraces near the top of the pagoda and started the steep climb up. As we got higher we could hear the hushed voices of the people assembled at the top, and when we reached the top I was surprised to find the terrace almost full. Fortunately, I managed to find a spot where I could set up my tripod and wait for the sun to come up.
Up until now we still hadn't really seen Bagan properly, so over the next 30 minutes or so we got our first glimpse of this amazing place as the sky got brighter and the sun started to come up. The terrace got busier and busier making it pretty hard to move and I realized that I was going to have to shoot all the images from the spot I'd set up in. So that's exactly what I did. I spent the next two hours watching the scene change from misty half light, to the sun appearing on the horizon, and then the sun burning through the mist on the plain. Just before the sun came up, balloons appeared on the horizon and spent the next hour or so drifting across the sky giving an additional element to compose around the different temples that I could see.
And that was how we first saw Bagan, in a stunning sunrise that I simply couldn't pull myself away from.
The scene lent itself to shooting telephoto panoramas, so I spent a while shooting images that would later be stitched together to give an idea of the epic sweep of the whole scene, but I also tried to compose single images that picked out one particular detail or element of the location.
I photographed for about 2 hours from the same spot, and then after the sun had risen the terrace started to clear making it easier to move around. I took the opportunity to move to different sides of the temple and shoot the scene in other directions as the surrounding temples were illuminated by early morning light.
As I said, it was difficult to pull myself away, but we reached a point where the light has passed it's best, and I knew the shots I had were as good as I was going to get. Besides, we were starving!
All in all we spent around 3 hours at the top of the pagoda, and without a shadow of a doubt I can honestly say that along with being one of the most amazing scenes I've ever witnessed and one of the most stunning locations I've ever been to, it was also by far the most productive session of photography I ever had.
Normally, I would edit a selection from a single location down to just the best ones for inclusion in a blog, but here I've decided to put most of the images together to give an idea of the changing light and conditions throughout the morning. The best way to view the images is by clicking on them to display the image larger. I've included slightly larger versions of the panorama images than I would normally upload online, but even then it's very difficult to do them justice on the internet.