One of the ‘bucket list’ things to do in Myanmar, if not the whole of Southeast Asia, is to climb atop a thirteenth-century temple in Bagan to watch the sunset over a magical landscape of 3,000 pagodas.
As I write these words, there’s certainly something unbelievable in the idea that tourists can actually clamber all over these ancient monuments. Precious archaeological ruins would surely be off bounds to clumsy tourists in other parts of the world, don’t you think?
However, no matter how much you agree with the authorities that these ancient pagodas should be protected (and we do), there’s something undeniably appealing in finding a small temple all to yourself amidst the ruins, finding the best route up and sitting on the ancient stone walls watching nature’s greatest show.
August 2017: SEA Backpacker Experience
Visiting Bagan ourselves for the first time in August 2017, we noticed a few signs on some of the major temples asking visitors not to climb. We didn’t mind. We avoided the major temples at sunrise and sunset as they were often overcrowded, preferring to head off into remote areas on our trusty ‘e-bike’ to find our own private temple from where we could watch the sunset.
To be honest with you, we didn’t really “get” Bagan at first. That was until, we were able to find a hidden door in one of the temples, inched our way up a tiny stairwell and scrambled on to the roof of a small temple. I remember laughing as I popped my head out of the walls to see the view. So this is what it’s all about. I thought.
At one of the smaller temples one evening as we sat with a few other backpackers just below the stupa, we saw a man drive up in his car and photograph us. We were concerned that we may be in trouble for climbing the temple.
Thoughts raced through my mind of spending the night in a Burmese prison! However, there had been no notice telling us not to climb that particular temple, and we hadn’t been told not to by any officials. This is what everyone did in Bagan right?
We managed to climb a temple every evening of our three nights in Bagan and were bestowed with glorious views like this:
April 2018: Traveller Experience
We were recently contacted by a traveller, Indi Blake, who told us about his recent experience visiting the temples in Bagan in April 2018:
“We really enjoyed the feel of Myanmar and were so excited to see that classic view of the thousands of temples as far as the eye could see, that can only be seen in Bagan.
Our first day exploring we didn’t encounter any temples that we could climb, all the stairwells had been blocked off by metal gates with padlocks and red signs. We figured that we just coincidentally missed the sunset points that we had heard so much about.
The next day we set off determined to find our view, unfortunately, we encountered the same metal gates and red signs on all the would-be vista points. I spent a fair amount of time online looking for information about the ban but couldn’t find anything current. I was surprised to find so little information published on the issue. Not a single current article!
When we asked the people at our hotel about the gates and signs they confirmed that there was a recent ban on all climbing and suggested that we pay to view from a nearby high-rise hotel or use one of the dirt mounds that had been created for viewing. In trying to reassure us they said that if we saw other tourists climbing that we should just follow suit.
We gave the dirt mound a shot and pushed our way through throngs of people to a fairly unimpressive view at the top. After getting a glimpse we were absorbed back into the crowd. Hardly the beautiful serene sunset experience we came for.
Despite the blanket ban on any climbing, thousands of tourists are still coming to Myanmar with the intention of seeing that iconic view. Predictably people find ways around it. While exploring, a few local people approached us and told us that they could take us to a temple that we could climb for a fee. We declined thinking that we would just find our own.
We ended up getting our view just by climbing one of the ‘out of the way’ temples. We didn’t see any officials there to enforce the ban. While we enjoyed our sun-downers, another tourist who hadn’t seen us ended up climbing the same temple.
Clearly breaking the official law is an option many choose. It seems that the site is in a weird in-between stage where the ban is in full effect but the dust hasn’t settled and no one is clear on how enforcement will work. It’s also a bizarre issue because the temples are so incredible and probably should be protected, so ethically it felt pretty weird to climb them, but because climbing has been the touristic draw for so long, we just didn’t want to miss out.”
What are your options to see that iconic view?
1. Man-Made Mounds: Whether you agree ethically with the recent ban or not, one thing’s for sure, the muddy mounds that the authorities have created as ‘viewing platforms’ just don’t offer the same romantic experience. They just don’t.
2. Hot Air Balloon: Hot air ballooning has always been popular in Bagan, although at $300 USD (at least!) per person per flight, it’s hardly a budget backpacker way to get a birdseye view!
3. Tethered Helium Balloon: Another recent suggestion is a tethered helium balloon at various spots around the ruins offering tourists the hot air balloon experience at a lower cost. This has yet to be put in place.
4. High Rise Hotel: (Sounds just like the authentic experience you’ve always dreamed of.) Some of the nearby hotels offer a decent view of the temple landscape such as the Bagan River Hotel.
Oh, and drones are banned too.
Reasons for the temple climbing ban
There are a few important reasons why the authorities have initiated a ban.
1. Preservation: First of all, the ban has come into place to protect the ancient monuments from wear and tear. Like Angkor Wat in Cambodia or Machu Picchu in Peru, no one disagrees with the fact that it is essential to find a way to preserve these ancient structures for future generations.
Footprints, fingerprints and of course, scrambling on the rock will of course, in time, lead to erosion and the destruction of the buildings. It’s amazing when you think about it that they’ve lasted this long!
2. Recent Earthquakes: Not only do the temples have to survive pesky tourists, but nature is having a go at them as well. An earthquake in 1975 and more recently in 2016 badly destroyed many of the temples forcing authorities to begin a process of (questionable) restoration. Read more on that here. This desire to protect the temples from any further damage has encouraged the ban.
3. Safety of Tourists: If you’ve been to Bagan and climbed a temple yourself, you’ll know that some of the temples are very tall and have very steep and precarious staircases. Parts of wall are missing in places and it would be very easy to fall. In November last year, an American tourist died after falling 20 feet from Wattanathaw Pagoda.
4. Religious Beliefs: As the temples are of course Buddhist in origin, many people believe that it is disrespectful to climb the monuments. We all know that in Buddhist culture, the feet are considered the dirtiest part of the body and that shoes must be removed before walking into any household. Tourists in dirty sandals being allowed to climb the temples could be viewed by some as very disrespectful indeed.
5. UNESCO World Heritage Site: Although this reason hasn’t officially been stated by the Authorities, it has been known that the country wishes to get Bagan recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If they are to win the bid, the government must show that they are taking sufficient measures to protect the structures from harm.
So when did the ban happen?
Well, it’s not quite clear.
This article published in the Telegraph in July 2017 describes the ban but says “It is not known when the ban will come into force.”
There has been no official announcement from the Ministry of Tourism in Myanmar, although various resources say that there has been a notice added on the entrance tickets to Bagan Archaeological Site as well as notices at Bagan Airport stating that temple climbing (on any temple) is now banned.
At the moment, however, there seems to be no official fine for someone who is caught climbing the temples, nor is there an official way to enforce the ban.
Local Reaction – March 2018
In this article in the Myanmar Times from March 2018, it seems that locals have mixed reactions to the recent climbing ban. Local guides, hotel and restaurant owners are concerned that the ban will have a negative impact on tourism.
Tourist numbers have already been down over the past few years, mainly due to the violence that erupted in the Rakhine State against Rohingya Muslims. It seems that local businesses that rely on tourism have continuing threats to their livelihood from forces beyond their control. (Read our article on boycotting Myanmar here.)
There have also been claims that the ugly manmade mounds, built for people to view the temples, have a detrimental effect on the surrounding ancient landscape. Not to mention, the enormous vibrating machines that are used to create the mounds are destabilising the very earth that the temples are built upon. (Source: Myanmar Times)
Possible Lifting of the Ban on Some Temples – April 2018
In the face of widespread unhappiness about the ban, a recent article in a local Myanmar newspaper states that Authorities are currently meeting with local communities to possibly allow climbing only on certain temples, at certain times, and for a restricted number of people each day.
A local committee has requested that 16 temples which are considered strong enough for climbing, be opened up to the general public. How many, if any at all, the Authorities will decide to open up again is unknown. One thing seems pretty certain though, Bagan won’t offer quite the same experience for backpackers ever again.
What do you think? Do you support the temple climbing ban?
Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!
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