With several dozen A4-sized paintings weighed down with stones on the cobbled forecourt of the ShweguGyi pagoda, artist U Aung Aung offers visitors to the shrine an affordable souvenir of their visit—a commissioned painting of the temple for a fee of 10,000 kyat or less.
He and brother U SoeLwin run an impromptu gallery and art shop outside one of the bigger temples making up Bagan’s panoply of around 2,500 mostly red- and brown-bricked pagodas—a renowned tourist draw pulling in around 200,000 visitors in 2013, up from 160,000 the year before.
The brush-wielding brothers depend on the tourist season, which runs from around mid-November to mid-February, with numbers dropping sharply around March or April when temperatures in Bagan, situated on a river bend in Myanmar’s parched dry zone, hit toward 40°C (104°F).
“Some days five, some days 10, some days maybe one or two,” U Aung Aung said, discussing how many paintings the siblings sell each day.
But the presence of the brothers—along with other hawkers around this and other landmark temples in Bagan—is a reminder that visiting Bagan has its downsides, for some.
Women selling lacquerware souvenirs and men propped up on parked bicycles shout entreaties at passersby, or, unsolicited, provide tour-guide services around the temples, after which the expectation is that the visitor will repay their expertise by purchasing some of their wares.
Unwrapping a palm-sized sheet of white paper, one man who gave his name as “U TunTun” whispered, “I have orange sapphire, ruby, jade. The ruby is for US$120.”
Some might say such in-your-face bartering is part of the charm of visiting a long-closed former military dictatorship.
But Dr. Donald Stadtner, author of Sacred Sites of Burma, a book about Myanmar’s religious buildings and locations, is among those who are put off by the hawkers around Bagan’s temples. The buildings themselves—Bagan’s main attraction—are compromised, Mr. Stadtner feels, by shoddy renovations carried out during Myanmar’s period of military rule, partly to replace pagodas damaged in a 1975 earthquake, and partly to modernize the ruins in a display of piety.
“Thousands of temples have been restored at Bagan but with little attention to historical accuracy. [Changes are] based far too much on conjecture, and temples and stupas no longer preserve their original appearance,” he said.
Visitor numbers are increasing, and if the government’s hopes of attracting 7 million tourists a year by 2020—more than three times the 2 million foreign visitors who came during 2013—come to fruition, Bagan will likely see around 1 million visitors a year within that time.
As things stand, the area’s three small towns—Old Bagan, New Bagan and Nyaung-U—might struggle to cope with such an influx.
Brett Melzer, co-founder of Balloons OverBagan, whose hot-air balloons give tourists a chance to see the temple-studded plain below in all its dusty, ethereal glory, reckons tourism development in Bagan should not focus on just numbers of visitors.
“As it currently stands, there isn’t the capacity to deal with a greater influx,” he said. Describing the region as “a crown jewel for Myanmar,” he suggested that in future Bagan tourism focus “on quality rather than just growth.”
Land prices are going up, as demand for sites to build hotels, shops and restaurants grows in tandem with the tourism upsurge and in anticipation of lucrative future yields.
U Hla Min, manager of the Seven Diamond travel agency branch in Nyaung-U, said that business has gone up “by around 60 percent” since 2010, the year before Myanmar’s government began a series of reforms that have facilitated increased tourist arrivals.
But, he says, hotels are too expensive, something he fears will put visitors off, just as much as Bagan’s flawed renovations or pushy hawkers.
“Minimum is 50, 60 dollars a night,” he says, putting the costs down to land prices. “One square meter is five lakhs [500,000 kyat] in Old Bagan, for Nyaung-U maybe a bit less,” he said.
Building in the region requires a permit, meant to ensure that the proposed new structure does not add to the ill-advised eyesores built during military rule—termed “blitzkrieg archaeology” by renowned Myanmar historian U Than Tun.
The upshot of putting hotels and golf courses in among all those temples was that a bid to have Bagan listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site fell flat, though there is a chance that it could yet receive the prestige-laden accolade if another application is made.
Elizabeth Moore, professor of Southeast Asian art and archaeology at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, believes that Bagan is worth putting forward again for this top-tier recognition of its world-class cultural status.
“It is unique, perhaps complements Angkor, but is a classic Buddhist royal center of learning. The dispersed villages and royal enceinte make an ancient and living cultural landscape in my view,” she told The Irrawaddy.
But with elections coming up in 2015, winning Unesco’s imprimatur is probably less of a priority for the government than speeding up the business side of Bagan’s tourism development. Jobs are still scarce in what remains one of Asia’s poorest countries, with the unemployment rate estimated at 37 percent, so tourist draws such as Bagan have to be brought into the government’s job-creation thinking.
But U Tun Aung, the general manager of the Riverside Hotel, which sits on a hill overlooking the Ayeyarwady River and a busy dock where boats take piles of the renowned local lacquerware to be sold in Mandalay, said that there is a tension between those who focus on preserving Bagan’s archaeological purity and others whose first priority is business.
“The Culture Ministry says it wants to protect the zone, but the hotels and tourism sector wants to build the hotels,” he said.
He added that people in the hotel business understand the need to preserve the look of the region, but at the same time don’t like the delays imposed by the government.
“We would like to follow the regulations, but too much is a waste of time, as we need to move quickly,” he said.
This story first appeared in the March 2014 print edition of the Irrawaddy Magazine.