Myanmar backpedals on Bagan climbing ban

Old Bagan at sunrise. Source: Asean Economist

Myanmar has retreated on its ban on temple climbing in Bagan, following fears that tourists would no longer be able to savour the former capital’s picturesque sunsets and sunrises where the sky is littered with hot-air balloons.

The Ministry of Culture barred visitors from climbing on the monuments on Monday but within 24 hours it had revised the order to let tourists ascend five of the largest pagodas out of the 3,000-odd Buddhist monuments.

“We would like to replace the statement about banning the climbing of pagodas with an amendment exempting five designated pagodas in Bagan,” the ministry announced on its Facebook page, the standard forum for official announcements in Myanmar.

The ministry accused foreigners of “culturally disgraceful” acts “such as wearing inappropriate clothing, dancing and sleeping”.

Tour operators feared that bookings would plummet as the temples provide impressive vistas of the dramatic plain and a climbing ban would restrict the amount of time tourists would need to spend at Bagan.

Myanmar wants Bagan named by the UN cultural agency as a Unesco World Heritage site although its bid was harmed by heavy-handed “restoration” work.

The ministry’s update stressed the need to conserve the Buddhist ruins, many of which are crumbling and overgrown, although almost all of them have been unsympathetically rebuilt using inappropriate modern building materials in recent years. Experts say the haphazard renovation work, including building hundreds of new structures over historic foundations, has irreversibly damaged the landscape.

The ministry also justified its climbing ban added that safety was a concern, referring to an American tourist who needed hospital treatment earlier this week after falling from a pagoda.

“Bagan’s ancient buildings have been there for many years and we are concerned about damaging the pagodas and the danger of hurting people,” the ministry said.

Bagan’s plain of temples, built in the 10th and 14th centuries, are still worshipped as a holy site in the Buddhist-majority union.

The area’s popularity on the tourist circuit has grown exponentially since the generals relaxed visa restrictions in 2011 following decades of isolation. The number of foreign visitors has doubled in the past five years.

The Ministry of Tourism has declared that “a panoramic view of this land at sunset will leave you with a lingering sense of awe and wonder”.

It said nearly half a million foreign tourists, including package tourists and backpackers, visited last year.

“Bagan can offer other pleasures for tourists,” said Naung Naung Han of the Union of Myanmar Travel Association, which represents domestic tour firms.

But he said those prevented from climbing the structures to see a sunset and sunrise would be missing out. “For a foreign tourist, such an experience could be an unforgettable moment in their life,” he said.