Bagan Archaeological Area and Monuments

Bagan Archaeological Area and Monuments is part of the Tentative List in order to qualify for inclusion in the World Heritage List.

Click here for a short description of the site, as delivered by the State Party


Year Decision Comments
1997DeferredBureau - Of "unquestionable universal significance" BUT problems with buffer zone, Golf course etc
1996 Tentative list Submitted as tentative site by State Party


Reviews

Clyde (Malta):
It most definitely is the first WHS Myanmar will have on the heritage list in the near future hands down. Thousands of temples, monasteries, stupas, pagodas, ordination halls, libraries, murals, Buddha images. The rural life in the plains adds to the overall experience. My favourite temple is Sulamani for its architectural beauty and murals. Had quite a few reservations against the constant temple reconstructions but a UNESCO WHS listing will surely help in managing the magnificent site,
Date posted: February 2013
Paul Tanner (UK):
The Bagan Archaeological zone stretches across 42 sq kms of the Irrawaddy plain and contains literally thousands of temples, pagodas, monasteries and other structures from the 11th to 13th centuries built in the golden age of the first great united kingdom of Burma. King Anawrahta (1044-1077), having overcome the rival Mon kingdom of Bago, embarked upon a massive construction program in support of Buddhism (primarily of the Theravada variety but also accepting influences from Mahayana, Hinduism and local animist “Nat” religions) which continued under his successors until 1297 when, as a result of Mongol invasions and other contributory factors, the kingdom disintegrated. A few of the largest remaining structures continued as pilgrimage destinations to this day whilst the others (the vast majority) gradually fell into disrepair.

The joy of visiting such a site is to be found both in taking in the grand buildings but also in exploring the numerous smaller structures scattered among the agricultural landscape. It is a site one could easily give 3 or 4 days and still be benefiting from new experiences, but in Nov 2012 we had only 1 full day plus half an afternoon! However, this was not my first visit as I had spent a full day there way back in 1977 and the comparison across those years identified a series of interesting issues.

My first visit had been by horse and cart and it was nice to see that these were still operating but, on this second visit, we made full use of a car across 9 hours in order to fit in as many of the major sites as possible. Bike hire is also widely available but would need at least a couple of days.

To WHS enthusiasts the site is also of interest as Myanmar’s only attempt to date at gaining an Inscription – it was deferred in 1997 with its Universal Value fully accepted but its management found greatly wanting. The story of this aspect of the site touches upon a number of significant issues both regarding Myanmar’s recent undemocratic history and also on the problems of preserving such a site in a developing country which needs tourism, lacks skills and, in any case, doesn’t fully accept UNESCO’s view of the World! Because of this I tried at every opportunity to find out details from the locals about UNESCO’s troubled relationship with Bagan and Myanmar over the last 20 years!

My memories of the site in 1977 include 2 aspects which have totally changed over those 35 years.
First the increase in numbers of tourists. 2012 arrivals are expected to be almost 60% up on 2011 which itself was a record year of 120000. The trend is ever upwards at a similar rate, limited only by hotel rooms at Bagan and the ability of Myanmar as a whole to receive yet more – most people visiting the country will go there. There are currently 2000 hotel rooms in Bagan and activity is taking place to double this in the near future. In 1977 there was one upmarket hotel of perhaps 40 rooms and a few “hippy” guest houses – so I saw almost no other tourists during the day! And all tourists were limited to a 1 week visa and counted themselves lucky if they managed to make it up to Bagan for a single full day!

The second major change is that the site is no longer an archaeological “ruin”. In 1975 a major earthquake had inflicted significant damage both to the minor temples and pagodas but also the major structures. And that was merely the latest of a series of such events over the centuries which, combined with the ravages of time, had given the entire site a ruined aspect. Now there is hardly a ruined structure remaining. Unfortunately however this is isn’t due to the hard work of dedicated trained archaeologists working to the highest international standards of renovation. Instead it is a reflection on the cultural obsession of Myanmar’s people with building “merit” towards the achievement of Nirvana by sponsoring the renovation of any Buddhist monument which has fallen into disuse. Such renovation pays scant attention to authenticity in the use of materials and in design – so Stupas acquire shapes, colours and accretions which have no foundation in Bagan’s architectural history. There is hardly a structure which doesn’t have standing next to it a stone on which is engraved the details of the individuals or organizations which have organized/funded the changes! From its religious and cultural viewpoint Myanmar regards it as far more important to restore a Buddhist monument back to religious use with a Buddha statue than to worry about the niceties of brick manufacture and stucco work – and who is to say it is wrong!

The other great change over the last 35 years relate to the overall environment of the site. The forced movement of people from Old Bagan to the town of “New Bagan” in 1990 before adequate services etc were provided and without adequate compensation has been cited (perhaps not totally fairly) as an infamous example of the old regime’s callousness in dealing with its people. The construction of hotels by regime “cronies” has been another. In 2012 we stayed at the most infamous hotel of them all the luxurious “Aurium Palace” owned by Tay Za, the target of US and EU sanctions for his activities as part of the regime. (see photo across its infinity pool - we didn’t take a $300 balloon ride!!) The Bagan golf course resort had been a major cause of Bagan’s UNESCO deferral in 1997 and the Aureum Palace has also incurred UNESCO’s displeasure. A particular unfortunate feature is its Nan Myint Viewing Tower. Opened in 2005, it is 60 m high in brown concrete and glass in circular form with an external staircase (as well of course as internal lifts) to mimic the traditional Burmese watch tower (which isn’t relevant to Bagan!). As well as providing fine views over the Bagan plain, it can equally be seen from nearly everywhere across the site!

So what did we see? I have listed our full day route below to give a feeling for what can be fitted in. We lunched briefly after Ananda
i. Schwezigon. Single massive golden topped structure
ii. Gubyaukgyi at Wetkyi-in. Fine frescos with huge gaps where some were removed and taken to Germany in the late 19C by a Dr Fritz von Nottling (I can find nothing about what happened to them).
iii. Htilominlo. Fine external stucco
iv. Uppali. Fine frescoes
v. Ananda. Perhaps the finest of the large temples – externally and internally. We visited on 2 days.
vi. Abeyadana Pahto. Fine frescoes
vii. Nan Phaya. Has recently installed interior steel support framework which, we were told, UNESCO isn’t happy about
viii. Manuha. Built by the captured Mon king
ix. Gubyaukgyi at Myinkaba. Was the first UNESCO restoration project in the 80s before they left. Fine interior frescoes protected by glass and fences. Nearby there is a carving in 4 languages (Pyu, Mon, Old Burmese and Pail) which has acted as a “Rosetta stone” to aid decipherment
x. Sulamani. Fine murals/stucco

We also stopped off at smaller pagodas/stupas and for photos etc of course – all in all, a pretty full day. One major change in my appreciation of the site compared with my first visit in 1977 (No Lonely Planet guide in those days!) was the internal decoration of many temples. Without torch or explanation this aspect had passed me by as I concentrated on the exteriors. It was good to have this missed aspect rectified. I would suggest that having a good guide was worthwhile – otherwise (even with LP or similar) what you are seeing is a bit like watching a movie in a foreign language!

So will it ever get inscribed? Yes of course, but a lot of negotiation will have to take place and UNESCO will have to accept some things it doesn’t like. But each year which passes withuot inscription will result in more changes taking place over which UNESCO has no leverage. Interestingly however, we heard of no activity to move forward on inscription (and I have found none on the Web). The Archaeologist at the Yangon National Museum mentioned the recent conclusion of an agreement with UNESCO/Italy to assist competence building etc but this related to another of Myanamr’s T Lists at Sri Ksetra ( http://www.mmtimes.com/2012/news/615/news61521.html ). Finally, if anyone is interested further in the recent history of Bagan’s “preservation” have a look at http://acl.arts.usyd.edu.au/~hudson/Hudson-2008-RestorationOfMonumentsAtBagan.pdf
Date posted: November 2012
Susan Stair (Virgin Islands, USA):
So many areas of Myanmar (Burma) should be World Heritage Sites, but Bagan is definitely unlike any other location in the world. We visited in May, right after the cyclone, and not only were we the only Americans we saw, but the only tourists. So of course, this made this wide plain of hundreds of temples even more awesome. And access to them is too easy...we climbed to the top of some to see sunsets & sunrises. No one guards the area & the treasures in many of these temples are priceless. The Irawaddy River flows nearby & the pottery markets & people were a pleasure.
We have been lucky to visit many sites in the world from Angor Wat to Tikal to the Pyramids. And Bagan is as impressive in its own right. We hope the Myanmar generals & government will see the benefit of allowing Unesco to grant WH status to Bagan.
Date posted: November 2008

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