Bagan: Top Spots for Photography

French architect Pierre Pichard inventoried all 2,834 temples, pagodas and stupas in Bagan, describing the scene as “a balance between uniformity and diversity.” Upon arrival, the thousands of structures all look pretty similar with variations on a few themes, but each one really has its own personality, which morphs with the changing light throughout the day. Our travel group of four was all very into photography and after spending the first 2 days in Bagan seeing all of the main sights, we decided to spend day 3 on the search for the perfect photo spots.

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Since online resources on best photo spots were scarce, we had to do our own research. We’d first search google images for photos of Bagan that we wanted to re-create (most of which indicated what pagodas were shown in the photo but not what pagoda the photo was taken from). Armed with these images, a couple rudimentary maps and our own photos from the past couple days, we were able to figure out where almost all of the best Bagan photos were taken from! Also, though our balloon ride was rained out that day, we were gifted with the luck of getting the best taxi driver who seemed to know every pagoda worth visiting, even the really obscure ones that nobody else knew about, and we ended up having the most magical day exploring these hidden gems. Because we had such a difficult time knowing where to go, and even the local taxi drivers didn’t always know the pagodas aside from the most famous ones, I am sharing all of my secret (and not so secret) spots right here.

 

Buledi – Best Sunrise Spot

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There are actually only a handful of pagodas that you can climb up (safely). The ideal view of Bagan is from about halfway up one of these pagodas. Too low, and you only see a couple pagodas nearby. Too high, and you see a lot of land in between the pagoda spires. Halfway up, you can see the tops of many pagodas clustered together. Zoom in to get as many spires in your shot as possible. I was handicapped by my 24-105mm lens, which didn’t zoom as much as I’d wanted. If I ever go back, it won’t be without a lens that zooms to at least 200mm. I didn’t actually see sunrise from Buledi, but based on this view and the direction of the sun, I think this one is one of the best sunrise spots.

 

Pyathada – Most Spacious Spot for Sunrise or Sunset

IMG_4561Pyathada all to ourselves at sunrise

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Crowds can be an issue for sunrise and sunset viewing, as almost every tourist in town will be climbing up one of the 5 or 6 pagodas that are able to be climbed. Pyathada has a huge, I mean HUGE, terrace that could almost fit all of Bagan’s tourists without feeling crowded. One morning, we had this place entirely to ourselves, so it seems to be more popular for sunset than for sunrise. It’s a little farther from the surrounding pagodas than I’d like for photos, but if you’re claustrophobic or don’t want to be fighting for a spot to view the sunrise/sunset, this is your spot.

 

Ananda – Beautiful, White & Amazing

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Ananda was breathtaking in its vastness and detail. The ornate spires looked different from every angle. It looks so different from the other temples in the area that it should be high on your list to visit.

 

Sulamani – Magical

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For some reason, the magic of Sulamani doesn’t translate in photos, but this was by far my favorite of the well-known temples in Bagan. Something about walking barefoot along the mossy brick grounds next to this towering structure aging gracefully was so powerful. I still can’t quite place why exactly I loved it so much so if you have been here before, I’m curious if you had the same reaction. There must be some magical spirits wandering the ancient corridors or something.

 

Shwegugyi – One of The Best Views

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The views from Shwegugyi were some of the best in all of Bagan. There were so many temples very close by that you felt like you were right in the center of the action. This would be another great spot for either sunrise or sunset, though the standing room is a bit limited so it could get crowded.

 

North Guni – Most Underrated

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I’ve saved the best two for last. These happened to be the final two stops on our visit to Bagan before we headed to the airport. To think we would have missed this if our outstanding taxi driver hadn’t taken us there! This is one of the reasons I’d highly recommend a private taxi to get around (the other being A/C). North Guni was hands down the coolest temple that you could climb up (and I’m pretty sure we climbed all of the climb-able ones), yet it was completely deserted because it’s not on many of the top temple lists. It has many levels and some tight corridors and I really felt like an explorer winding my way through hidden passageways to make it to the top level. Because we visited after some heavy rains, we were rewarded with a view of green farmland that reminded me of Tuscany, with pagodas instead of villas!

 

Khaymingha – Top Secret Spot

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This incredible cluster of stupas was our final stop, and possible the most under-visited site in Bagan. I’ve tried to find out more about it, but there is just not much information out there. The decaying, lopsided sea of stupas could not have been a more charming way to end our tour of Bagan. I haven’t included any maps because google maps does a better job than I ever could. Good luck in your Bagan explorations!

 

Be Kind To Animals: The Moon Restaurant

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Not a top photo spot, but I had to mention this amazing vegetarian restaurant with a sweet name. Everything was delicious and it’s a good place to try Burmese Tea Leaf Salad.

How to Beat the Post-Vacation Blues

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Happy New Year! I don’t know about you, but coming home from a really good vacation can put me into a funky mood for a few days, at best. The more your vacation shifts you away from your routine, disconnects you from the computer, or opens your eyes to a culture vastly different from your own, the harder it is to transition back into regular life. Here are a few things I do to help make the transition easier:

 

1. Continue the mindset of exploration

When traveling, you are constantly seeing new sights, walking down new streets, and trying new restaurants, etc. When you return home, rather than slipping into your old routine, use the momentum from vacation mode to try a new place or walk/drive a different way to work. This helps to keep up the excitement of discovering new things that you had while traveling.

 

2. Talk to people about their vacations

Friends always want to know about my vacations when I return home, but I also want to know about theirs. Hearing about their travels is exciting, and I make mental notes of places I may want to travel in the future. I especially love to hear about other cultures, and we can share our observations about the vast and various cultures of our beautiful world.

 

3. Bring the scent of your travels home

Scent is the most powerful of our senses related to memory, so I always buy a little something that smells like the place I visited. I just returned home from a trip to Fiji and Australia, and our resort in Fiji used this yummy coconut soap by Pure Fiji so I bought a few bars of it for myself at the airport. Whenever I use it now, it takes me right back to our little hut on the beach, showering sand off my legs.

 

4. Start planning your next adventure

This is really what helps me the most with my post-vacation blues. The day I returned home from Australia, I started reading a guide book about New Zealand. A trip to New Zealand may just be a daydream at this point, but that doesn’t mean I can’t start researching and planning for it. Planning a trip can take months to figure out exactly what sights you want to see, how long you will need in each location, etc., so why not start when you aren’t under a time constraint? Even if your next adventure is something small and local, having something to look forward to really takes the edge off the post-travel downer!

 

5. Connect the dots

If you made any friends while traveling, take a moment to send them an email or connect with them on social media so you can stay in touch. Send them a few photos of your trip, especially if you have any photos of them. I love seeing my friends’ status updates and photos on social media from all over the world. You never know when your paths might cross again in the future – you now have friends to visit the next time you travel to their area, in your hometown or somewhere unexpected!

What do you do to beat your post-vacation blues?

Stay in a Historic Home in Kyoto

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While visiting Kyoto, the former capital of Japan steeped in rich history, why not enhance your experience by staying in a historic house that is nearly 100 years old? Bairin-an (“Plum Grove”) is one of three units within a large machiya (wooden traditional townhouse) called Kyo Machiya Miyabi that was renovated to include modern facilities for added comfort, and is available for short-term rental.

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The design was completed by a renowned Kyoto-based architect, Geoffrey P. Moussas, who specializes in historic preservation of machiya. I really appreciated all of the original wood in the home, scarred by decades of every day use. Typical of a machiya, Bairin-An has an interior private garden and interesting interior features such as sliding windows made of paper between living spaces.

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Bairin-An is located in the famous Gion district of Kyoto where you can still see geisha walking in full kimono gear and white make-up, if you are lucky! Its location makes it an ideal home base for travelers, a short walk to Kyoto’s bustling business district, but on a quiet residential street that makes you feel like a local resident. It is within walking distance of many famous temples, including Kiyomizu Temple, a designated World Cultural Heritage site and a first stop for many visiting Kyoto.

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I especially enjoyed burrowing in the comfortable futon bed after a long day of sightseeing (if you’ve ever slept on a good futon, you know there’s no sleep quite like it!), then waking up and having a cup of green tea while looking out over the private garden.

Do you seek out places with character and history over a modern hotel?

A wedding and a funeral in Japan

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Rites and rituals are fascinating parts of a culture, and I got to experience an abundance of them in Tokyo all in one day. The overcast Sunday began with my grandmother’s funeral. There are numerous ceremonies for the deceased in Buddhism, starting with a wake and cremation ceremony, followed by multiple memorial ceremonies, but this was one of the most significant ceremonies which takes place 49 days after the death (in Buddhism, 49 days is the estimated time it takes a spirit to be reborn). During the ceremony, a Buddhist priest chants from a sutra, then members of the family stand one at a time at the altar to offer incense to the deceased.

Following the ceremony, our grandmother’s urn was placed in the family grave located on the temple grounds. After a catered lunch of traditional Japanese food at the dining area of the temple, guests were given a parting gift (in the photo above, you can see us carrying gifts into the temple that will be given to guests) as a thank you for condolence money given to the family. Indeed it is a gift-giving culture, and gifts are as much a part of daily life as part of major rituals.

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Later that day, I got to witness the wedding of my sister’s friend in the famous Meiji Jingu shrine in the heart of Harajuku, Tokyo. The bride wore a traditional white wedding kimono called a “shiromuku” and I think she looked so beautiful!

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Traditional wedding ceremonies take place inside the shrine and are only for close family members, but friends and the general public can observe the procession from different parts of the shrine, complete with the ubiquitous red paper umbrella. If you visit Meiji Jingu during the weekend, you will likely see several wedding processions.

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Many couples these days opt for a Western style wedding in a church or wedding hall, rather than the traditional ceremony, because the Western ceremony is more romantic and informal, and leaves room for personalization. No matter what style of wedding, guests are expected to give cash in a special decorative envelope (usually around $300 or more), and as a thank you for the gift money, the marrying couple gives guests a catalog that they can choose their gift from – things like ceramics, travel accessories, and food items. How smart to allow the guests to select their own gift! I may have to adopt this idea in some way.

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Whether you are able to witness a traditional wedding at Meiji Jingu or not, the shrine and the long tree-lined walkway to the shrine are impressive, not to mention a welcome diversion from the bustle and sensory overload of Harajuku just outside the shrine grounds.

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Insider tip:

Keep an eye on the guards in the shrine as they begin to direct foot traffic away from aisles just before a wedding procession comes through, and be one of the first to pick a vantage point right along the path before the crowds form to get the best view!

 

Have you experienced a wedding or funeral in another culture that was very different from your own?