Bagan sunsets and sunrises.
The harsh light of Bagan can make temple photography during the middle of the day somewhat hard work and for your more atmospheric and photogenic opportunities, you’ll be restricted to those relatively short early morning and late afternoon times. Don’t worry during the intervening period there are more manageable village and rural life subjects since villages, farms and contemporary temples fill the areas between pagodas plus of course the chiaroscuro of the temple interiors to tackle. Now since your early and late light doesn’t last long and you won’t have much time to try various spots some forward planning may well pay dividends.
This isn’t however as simple as you may imagine. Since the area is so large there will always be a spot on the map that will seem to provide backlit or front-lit sunrise and sunset views but then since the area is also completely flat and you don’t want to find yourself climbing an acacia tree at 5.00 am you’ll need to find a correspondingly located temple from where you can get a raised vantage point. (We’re ignoring the government’s eyesore ‘viewing tower’ for now.) Your choice is limited by; a. which sites allow access to upper-level viewpoints meaning which temples have staircases and b. which ones the authorities are granting permission to climb. The latter varies considerably and certain promising sites may be closed due to construction work or restoration for example whilst a previously inaccessible temple may recently have had a visitors’ staircase added. Most tourists, guidebooks and indeed local guides have unfortunately limited knowledge and/or imagination so tend to stick to a few well know sunrise and sunset viewpoints which can get very crowded, especially in high season.
Up to date info at your time of arrival is essential so we can’t make any specific recommendations right now. Emphasising to the guide or driver that you’d like a less crowded option may or may not work or else you can scout around on your own during the day. Note though that certain temples that may be unlocked during daylight hours may not necessarily be open at 5.00 so ask around. One of our best finds came through stumbling around, lost in the dark, and being directed by a local to a tiny temple with no gate on the staircase and a splendid little upper floor terrace. Wasn’t even marked on some of the maps!
Finally when selecting your spot bear in mind that generally if there is access then there will be all-round access – i.e. to all 4 sides of the temple.
Rainy season provides the best and worst occasions as you’ll get clearer, haze-free skies with a few clouds providing colour or on a bad day just a grey drizzly sky. The misty effect you see on many Bagan dawn photos is either dust in the air in the dry season or a slight morning mist coming off the river in the cool months. The famous hot-air balloons which feature in many shots only operate early mornings during the winter months.
As we said not so easy but then the scouting around is half the fun!