EARLY this year, a 6.8 magnitude earthquake struck near Bagan. Dozens of temples that litter the valley were damaged, but to put this into perspective, the region contains over 2,000.
I first visited Bagan a few years ago during the dry season (between May to October) and was curious to see if the region had changed at all after the earthquake, as well as to check out the seasonal differences now that the monsoon season is nearing its close.
This was also a decent opportunity to take the railway to Bagan, a trip of about 400 miles; in Myanmar terms, that’s roughly seventeen hours due to the neglect the railways have suffered for over half a century.
I was fortunate enough to sit next to a chatty Burmese man who not only shared his food with me, but also his reaction to the earthquake.
He told me that he was shocked and sad to hear that the earthquake had damaged a number of religious buildings in Bagan – sadder, in fact, than if he had heard reports of such damage in Yangon or Naypyidaw.
After a substantial time spent being rocked about on a wooden bench slowly pacing through the Burmese countryside, I finally arrived in Bagan.
The first difference I noticed was how the traditional view of Bagan with stupas – the tops of temples – rising above the vegetation now resembles a building site, with many of them stabilized by scaffolding to prevent further damage.
Tarpaulin covers also contributed to the new horizon, with numerous blue and red sheets covering the peaks of the temples.
The timing of the earthquake during the rainy season saw torrential rains exacerbating the initial damage caused. I drove past a freshly collapsed temple that may have fallen victim to the downpours.
However, the shoddy ‘repairs’ undertaken by the military government in the 1990s appears to have taken the brunt of the damage caused by the rains and the quake.
One surprising consequence of the earthquake has been the unusually positive effect it has had on tourism in Bagan.
Travelers I spoke to explained that they first came to hear about the region, and Myanmar in general, through international media reports on the event. Hotels have also experienced a post-quake surge in customer bookings that were above the seasonal average for Bagan.
That means that the biggest change I’ve noticed since my last visit here is not a result of the earthquake, but rather the increase of tourism to Bagan.
This year, a curfew was implemented to prevent foreigners from leaving their hotels after 11pm to stop unruly backpackers from behaving badly. A number have been found allegedly drinking alcohol and sleeping in temples overnight, both of which are forbidden.
In fact, the Burmese government had originally contemplated a ban on allowing tourists access to the roofs of temples.
With the increased appetite for Bagan – in part due to the earthquake and the “opening up” of Myanmar – the authorities appear to have zero interest in letting Bagan become a spiritual successor to the backpacker hedonism commonly found in Siem Reap and other southeast Asian tourist hotspots.
Bagan has the potential to become the region’s success story, where integrity of the area comes first, tourist dollars second.
Bagan is changing but not because of any natural disasters. The damaged temples shall be rebuilt like they have been countless times over the past thousand years.
Earthquakes have occurred often in the past, but how the region adapts to mass tourism is surely a greater challenge as Bagan opens its doors to new and unexplored territories.