Bagan: a victim of its own success

Kyaw Lynn/ Bagan / DPA
People wait to see the sunset from the top of Shwesandaw Pagoda in the ancient city of Bagan. (Photo - Reuters)
People wait to see the sunset from the top of Shwesandaw Pagoda in the ancient city of Bagan. (Photo - Reuters)

As Myanmar has opened in recent years, tourists have flocked to Bagan to clamber over its distinctive landscape of thousands of pagodas. But the industry threatens to destroy the heritage on which it depends.

The city of Bagan, one of Myanmar's most recognised and visited historical sites, is under pressure from growing hordes of tourists, despite regulation to conserve the site. At the 11th-century Shwesantaw pagoda, one of the taller structures, "you can see hundreds of visitors at sunset every evening," said Win Zaw Cho, chairman of Tourist Guides Association in Bagan Zone.

“Everyone who visits Bagan wants to see sunset or sunrise over the ancient temples and pagodas. It is a big, big demand and becomes a threat to old pagodas," he said.

About 30 per cent of the more than two million tourists who visited Myanmar last year went to Bagan, according to the Culture Ministry. They are drawn by the plethora of ancient pagodas, stupas, shrines and ordination halls that make up the unique landscape of one of the world's top travel destinations. It was the capital of 55 Buddhist kings from the 11th to 13th century, and saw more than 13,000 Buddhist temples and other structures built over its 42 square kilometres, of which around 2,200survive more or less intact, with another 2,000 in ruins.

But the site's success with tourists could be its undoing, with the footfall of hundreds of thousands of visitors threatening the structures, and the mushrooming hotels and restaurants degrading the cultural setting.

Official conservation efforts have also been condemned by archaeologists, for rebuilding over ruins with modern materials, or simply repainting over the more dilapidated murals. The site is hard to manage due to its dispersed layout, the lure of tourists' hard currency, and relatively ineffective regulation.

Authorities are now stepping up their efforts, and close most pagodas at sunrise or sunset to limit the damage from crowds.

"Tourists can enjoy sunrise and sunset in five places," said Kyaw Oo Lwin, director general of the Ministry of Culture's national museums department.

“Because we need to preserve our cultural heritages although we want to see more tourists visit Bagan," he said. Some local people disagree with the limitation, saying it is not a good idea for preservation. "Now trees such as bayan are growing on the wall and uppermost terrace of some old pagodas as no one is allowed to go there," said Maung Lone from local activist group "Bagan Lovers."

People stand on the Shwesandaw Pagoda as they wait to see the sunset. (Photo - Reuters)

"Some pagodas are like abandoned houses that are going to decay rapidly," he said. In the old city, another challenge is springing up, as hotels expand their grounds to encompass old pagodas and lay on "temple dinners, "in violation of regulations. The Tourism Ministry allowed the practice three years ago at just three sites, Shwe Nan Yin Taw pagoda, Damayan Gyi pagoda and around Ohtein Gone. It remains prohibited elsewhere.

"The temples and pagodas are religious buildings of Buddhism, and it is inappropriate to have dinners there, from a religious point of view," said Win Zaw Cho.

Temple dinners also threaten the future of old pagodas, said the activist group, adding that some small pagodas were demolished. 

"In some hotel compounds, pagodas were removed to another place or demolished for landscaping to provide temple dinners there," activist Maung Lone said.

One hotel manager defended the events.

"If the visitors request the temple dinner, we provide it on grass near the pagoda," not on or in the structure, said Aung Soe, managerof Thazin Hotel, which has some old pagodas on its grounds.

In principle, the presence of any hotels at all in Old Bagan is questionable. The 1957 Antiquities Act declared any structure must be at least 120feet (37 metres) from the nearest old pagoda. And during the early 1990s, the military regime declared Old Bagan an archaeological zone and relocated villagers from there to a nearby empty site, now called New Bagan.

But the restrictions appear not to have been applied to all, as well-connected businessmen developed large hotels including the Tharabar, Nan Myint, Bagan, Thazin and Then De, all inside Old Bagan.

Bagan Museum was built in 1996 inside the protected zone, as well as the 18-hole Bagan Golf Resort and a 60-metre glass-and-concrete viewing tower in the heart of the zone.

"This is the legacy of the former government whose officials authorised hotel expansions," Kyaw Oo Lwin said."What else could we do at that time?"

The government, which is pushing for Bagan to be listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, is updating the 1957 legislation with a bill published last month for public review. The new rules would impose stricter fines and even prison terms for violators, and would ban unauthorised commercial exploitation of heritage sites and artefacts."

According to these bills, some 22 hotels in Bagan would face (legal) action for having at least one old pagoda within the compound," a senior Culture Ministry official said.

“But these hotels are owned by powerful businessmen. So we will have to wait to see if the authorities dare touch them.”