BURMA PART 6: BAGAN

 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. 

After spending three hours at dawn on the top terrace of Shwesandaw pagoda we were hungry and ready for breakfast.
The terrace had been packed for sunrise, but immediately after the sun came up a lot of people had disappeared and it was easier to move around and take in the views across the plain in different directions.  By the time we left some local kids had come to the top of the temple and were hustling the tourists, selling postcards and posing for photos 

We saw more kids hustling in Bagan than anywhere else in Burma, which isn't surprising really as it's one of Burma's most popular and long established tourist attractions.  On leaving the hotel after breakfast to explore the temples a young girl immediately approached us and after (very sweetly) asking us if we'd like to buy some postcards, proceeded to pull a brand new Penguin paperback of Orwell's Burmese Days from her dress and ask us if we'd like to buy it.  She said it was "very good" and I asked her if she'd read it, to which she smiled in a kind of you-know-I'm-not-being-strictly-honest kind of way and said "Yes, of course.  It's very good."
In all the time we were in Burma we never found these encounters tiresome or awkward.  The kids were always polite and not particularly persistent, and it never felt like a pressure, but at the same time it is sad that the kids don't go to school because they can make money selling to tourists.

We hired bicycles for the day and spent the pretty much all of it riding through the fields, exploring the plains and their scattered temples.  We quickly discovered that the sandy paths made riding bikes pretty hard work, and the blazing sunshine and heat didn't help much.  Nor did the fact that I was carrying my camera gear (along with tripod) on my back for the whole day.  As the sun got higher I bought a hat from a stall in front of Ananda Paya, a large temple in the middle of the plain, to keep the sun off my head.  It really was hot, which made exploring the temples even more pleasant as their cool insides offered a welcome break from the heat outside.

As we cycled over the fields, getting shade where we could from the trees and stopping off at different temples, the scale of the place really started to sink in.  There are around 2000 temples and 2000 other religious buildings remaining, the majority of which were built between the 11th and 13th century.  According to various sources at Bagan's peak there were around 10 000 temples, stupas and monasteries built in the 100 square kilometer area. Doing the math, that's basically starting a new temple every 9 days for a period of 250 years!  

There's simply no way you can visit more than a fraction of the temples in the limited time we had there, but during the course of our first day we certainly visited a lot.  The inside of each temple has a similar layout with four main rooms at the cardinal points which have access to the outside ensuring the large buddha in each of these rooms is illuminated.  The poses and kinds of buddhas always varies; some are reclining, some have their right hand touching the pedestal to connect them with the earth, but all are incredibly beautiful and impressive, and most are around a thousand years old.

During the course of the day we visited countless temples and had a wonderful lunch at the Red Pepper Diner.  The food was great, and it really was a nice place to stop and take a break from heat and dust of exploring temples.  

As it moved towards the end of the day we made our way to Shwezigon Pagoda, a large temple complex in the town of Nuang U.  I'd seen various photos of the place and like Shwedagon in Yangon, it looked like somewhere that would provide opportunities to photograph people as they went about their daily rituals of worship.  It's a stunning temple, and like so many other temples in Burma upon entering it there's a sense of calm and peace.  It's just so pleasant and easy to sit down there and rest whilst the people around you quietly meditate and pray.
I spent some time wandering around and photographing people there, as well as a group of street kids who were living inside the temple and loved posing for photos.

The shot that I really wanted though was in one of the arched corridors that leads into the temple.  These corridors are at the north and south entrances, and as the late light streamed through the arches at the side they really were beautiful. However, they were also very busy with people coming in and out of the temple, and after waiting there for 15 minutes I thought it was going to be impossible to get a clean shot of the corridor so I gave up and returned to the main temple and get some photos of the gold stupa in the last light.  
However, just before we left I thought I'd give it another go, and as soon as I set foot in the corridor I noticed a lone monk walking towards me.  Behind him was a large group of people also heading towards the temple, but I realized that if I continued to walk towards him I could turn around after he passed me and photograph him walking down the corridor into the temple for a few seconds before the larger group overtook me and filled the corridor.
It was pure luck, I had around 5 seconds to frame and get the shot but in the end that was all it needed and the shot  is one of my favorites from the whole trip.

With the shots Shwezigon and the dawn shoot from the morning I really felt that it had been a good day as we climbed warily onto the bicycles and got ready to do the hour long cycle back to our hotel.  As we were heading along the road home we passed Buledi Paya, a popular sunset temple, around 20 minutes before the sun went down.  I hadn't really been that bothered about photographing sunset from a temple top, I knew that in the morning the light was far cleaner, and there was also the mist and balloons, but we thought it would be fun to just climb up and watch the sunset.  As it turned out, Buledi was incredibly popular that day and the upper terrace was tiny, a fraction of the size of Shwesandaw (where we'd been in the morning).  It also had no railing and a sloping floor, so with that and the large number of people up there it was a bit nerve-wracking.  
We stood and watched the sun slip closer to the horizon, and eventually I couldn't resist getting my camera out to photograph it.  There was no room for the tripod and no time to use filters, so I just shot a few images hand-held into the setting sun and then did a couple of panoramas more in hope than expectation that they'd be any good.

Then we climbed delicately down the incredibly steep staircase, found our shoes amongst the hundreds of others at the bottom (because like all temples in Burma, you have to take your shoes off to enter or climb to the terrace) and got back onto our bikes and headed back to the hotel.  We arrived a little after dark, saddle sore and dusty, but in good spirits.  We ate that night at The Moon Vegetarian restaurant near our hotel and had our second fantastic meal of the day before going back home and collapsing into bed, with the alarm set for another pre-dawn start the following day.

We found a taxi and a driver and told him where we wanted to go.  Unlike Shwesandaw, Pythanda was a long way into the plain across a lot of dirt tracks and not a journey I would have wanted to make on our own by bike.  It’s seclusion certainly made it a much less popular destination because when we arrived at the temple, ours was the only car there and we had the place to ourselves.  Another contrast was the access to the terrace at the top.  At Shwesandaw and Buledi, the temples were similar to pyramids in that access was via a very steep external staircase.  At Pythanda, the staircase was internal in a tiny dark corridor with a low roof.  Finding it in the dark of pre-dawn was pretty difficult, and then stepping into a the black hole of the doorway with it’s steep staircase was a little uncomfortable, even with our headtorches.

We slowly climbed up the narrow twisting staircase and eventually found ourselves coming out onto the temple’s roof terrace.  The receptionist at the hotel was right, you really could have a game of football up here. The terrace was huge, a big flat expanse that you could walk around and have an unobstructed view in every direction.  Around 15 minutes after we arrived, a small group of tourists from Thailand arrived, but they were the last and as the sun rose that morning there were just 7 of us on top of that huge terrace.

We spent a couple of hours that morning photographing the temples surrounded by mist as the balloons drifted across the sky again.  On the previous day I'd been photographing to the south and east into the rising sun, but because today we were in the south east of the plain with the majority of the temples to the north of us, the images I took on this morning were with the light behind me.

Once again, the stunning view with the mist across the plain shrouding and then revealing the myriad of temples as the balloons drifted above was breath-taking.

y the time we'd finished photographing and gone back down the stairs, our driver had fallen asleep in the car.  It had been another long dawn shoot and like the day before we were starving and couldn't wait for breakfast.  The hotel we were staying at (the Bagan Thande) had a wonderful location with the breakfast tables spread out beneath large acacia trees next to the river. It really was an idyllic place to sit and watch the river life slowly drift by, but as this was our second and last day in Bagan, we had lots to do.  

We decided to rent electric scooters for the day, as although the bicycles had been great on the previous day, riding them along very sandy paths in the strong heat had been really energy sapping.  The electric scooters made getting around so much easier, and they were a lot of fun to ride too.  

Our first destination was the village of Myinkaba to check out the lacquer ware workshops.  Whenever we travel Teresa likes to come back with some local handicrafts, and I thought that photographing the lacquer being inlaid would be interesting.

We parked up our scooters outside and headed into the different workshops, and Teresa happily engaged in haggling for a dusty old lacquer table (which neither of us was sure we could actually fit in our luggage back, although we did eventually manage it).  I spent some time in the back watching the girls incredibly skillful work on inlaying the lacquer work. 

Then it was time to go again as there were plenty more temples to explore.  The scooters made zipping across the fields from temple to temple so much easier than the bicycles on the previous day and we managed to stop off at far more places.   

One place I was particularly keen to visit was the reclining Buddha next to Shwesandaw Paya.  A local guide had mentioned it the day before, but in our rush to get up to the terrace in time for sunrise and then our later haste to get back to the hotel for breakfast, we'd not had the opportunity to see it. 
 
The Buddha is located in a small building at the side of the temple.  It's huge, filling every available centimeter of the interior, and as luck would have it, when we entered it was deserted except for a photographer who was accompanied by a local guide and a couple of novice monks.  The photographer was in Burma to shoot a book and the guide had organized for the novice monks to pose for him.  They'd created a beautiful, if very cliched, scene of the novice kneeling at the head of the Buddha praying with candles.  It was a little strange to me as in my travels around Burma I'd met many novice monks and for the most part they behaved like kids everywhere. They were curious, mischievous, happy and excitable, but the scene before me portrayed the young novice in a way that really didn't represent anything I'd seen of young Buddhist monks in the country.  Not only that, but it made little sense to see a monk pray with a candle whilst facing AWAY from the face of Buddha.  Monks will kneel on the floor before the statue praying towards him, but of course from a purely photographic point of view that would mean having to photograph the novice from behind.  The whole scene was reminiscent of many images I'd seen of Burma in books before arriving, but had little to do with the reality I'd seen since I'd been in the country.  It was the creation of an idealized scene which resonates with some deep preconception we might have about the nature of Buddhism and the children who practice it.  However, this kind of photo can't really be called documentary or travel photojournalism and has more in common with editorial photography where every aspect of the scene is posed and controlled.  

The photographer and I started speaking and he invited me to take a shot, which I did. I reasoned that it would be foolish to pass up an opportunity like this although I don't believe that the subsequent image is really "my photo" and doesn't really fit in with the portfolio of work I did in Burma.  Watching the photographer work was fascinating, his dedication to getting the shot exactly right, moving the monks head a millimeter further forward or back, controlling every aspect of the lighting, and taking hundreds of shots to get the prefect one, was realy quite impressive, and the work that he showed me that he'd completed whilst on the assignment in Burma was stunning. It just didn't seem to have much connection to the country I'd been traveling around for the previous 10 days. Still, I really did feel as though it were a fortunate and interesting encounter, and if I'm being honest, it was the perfect climax to the second of two wonderful days in Bagan.

We went home early that night as the next day we'd be up before sunrise again, although there would be no time for photography as our flight to Ngapali left a little after dawn.  On our way to the airport though we passed the launch site of the balloons we'd seen and photographed on the previous two mornings.  I couldn't resist jumping out of the taxi to take a few photos, and then it was back to the taxi and off to the airport to catch a flight to the final destination of our Burma trip. Like Mandalay before, we were both sad to be leaving Bagan and wished we could have had more time there. I've no doubt though that it's a place that we'll be going back to at some point in the future.