Images of the ruins of ancient Bagan are among the sites in Southeast Asia you’ll have encountered a dozen times in travel magazines and brochures, and probably lingered over a while, wondering what it actually feels like to be in such an otherworldly location. Smothered in ornate stucco and capped with exquisitely gilded finals, the brick stupas and temples of the ancient city are framed by a backdrop of jungle-covered mountains – a vision as exotic as any on the planet.
Photographers flock to Bagan to capture the spectacle of its monuments at dawn, when the stonework seems to glow a molten-red colour and the golden spires glint above a carpet of acacia scrub and palmyra palms.
Given the number of different shrines, you might think you’d be spoiled for a choice of vistas. But the truth is, it can be incredibly difficult to identify where the best viewpoints are, and the best times of day to visit them. The parapet of a certain shrine may afford a sublime panorama, but the chances are, without lots of careful forward planning and a dash of luck, you’ll be there when the sun is shining straight down your lens or when a building mid-frame is crawling with other tourists.
As for finding a monk or two for foreground interest – or even better, one walking under a traditional pathein (lacquered-paper parasol) – forget it. This image may be one beloved of holiday companies, but the reality is there’s no monastery with an hour bus ride of Bagan, and even if there were, none of its monks would be carrying a traditional parasol because these days most Burmese people use cheap plastic ones from China.
So what do you do if you turn up at the site hoping to bag a collection of great shots and find yourself struggling?
The answer: just hang around the famous Shwesandaw Pagoda at sunset time, when nearly every visitor within a 10mi radius descends for the iconic view from the stupa’s upper terrace. If you’ve got a decent SLR camera – ideally a high-end Nikon, or a Canon with one of those grey-and-black L Series lenses on it – your kit will attract the attention of a man who might best be described as the serious photographer’s Fairy Godfather.
U Thant Sein is what in the trade they call a photo fixer. Whichever shot you’re after, he’ll be able to tell you whether it’s attainable, and if so, when and where. He’ll also have a selection of his own, which he can set up – for a consideration.
“I can do monk lighting candle by big Buddha foot. Yes? Or you like novice monk. With pathein parasol?”
U Thant Sein worked for years as a photographer’s assistant, and later as a location scout with movie companies out of the capital, Yangon. Nowadays, he and his wife make a living showing visiting photographers the most photogenic spots in Bagan, and making all the arrangements for models and props to bring those shots to life.
The process starts at a café in the dusty compound below the Shwesandaw, where you discuss the options over tea, agree on a fee and a time and place to meet the next day.
One of U Thant Sein’s favourite locations is a cavernous temple not far from Shwesandaw, which hardly any tourists discover. Its south-facing wall is pierced by a window of circular holes through which sunlight angles in dramatic fashion at around 4pm in the winter months. Mrs That Sein arrives in advance to burn incense so that the beams are accentuated. Then a pair of young novices dressed in traditional burgundy-red robes shuffle barefoot over the old stonework, directed by Thant Sein, who will have ordered them (for a fee) from the abbot the previous day. They might be requested to sit in the alcove beneath the sun beams, light candles at an altar or pray before the larger-than-life-sized deities adorning the flanks of the temple’s inner sanctum.
With the first shots in the can, you’ll then be whisked off on the back of Thant Sein’s scooter to the next prearranged location, which might be a choice viewpoint overlooking a cluster of particularly pretty stupas, or another shrine whose reclined Buddha is illuminated by the low-angled light of late afternoon. Nothing is left to chance; each shoot is timed to perfection.
Thant Sein’s activities are not limited to Bagan. His reach extends to Mandalay, a short flight north, where he can offer an even more varied smorgasbord of locations and subjects.
The classic shot in this region is the U Bein Bridge, a teak walkway on stilts where villagers and monks walk and cycle over the shallow waters of Taungthaman Lake to the town of Amarapura, on Mandalay’s leafy southern outskirts. In peak season, you can expect to encounter a gaggle of foreign photographers on the lakeshore at dawn, all waiting to capture the instant a red-robed monk walks in front of the rising sun.
On That Sein’s advice, however, you’ll be looking in the opposite direction for a far less hackneyed view of the bridge, with its wooden piles reflected perfectly in the water and the monks in silhouette.
Nearby, workshops of dusty young sculptors carving Buddhas from white marble and metalworkers polishing giant brass temple deities provide other fabulous subjects for photo stories. Thant Sein also knows all the most colourful neighbourhood markets and romantic viewpoints over the nearby Ayeyarwady River at Sagaing, with its ethereal collection of golden stupa spires.
The results, in photographic terms, are guaranteed to surpass all expectations. You’ll return home with a superlative set of images you’d never otherwise have been able to obtain.
There’s one problem though. Take a look through any magazine article on Myanmar, or the galleries of travel photography competitions across the world, and you’re likely to find a few familiar faces. Unbeknown to judges and editors, the novices at prayer the photographer alleges to have “stumbled upon by chance”, or the monk carrying a traditional pathein paper parasol encountered at dawn beside a 10th-century temple in Bagan will all have been paid to be there by Thant Sein.
Does that matter? Probably not. Fixers rarely, if ever, get any credit for their work. That’s the nature of the game. And the sad truth is that romanticized versions of a place tend to sell a lot better (or get more Instagram likes) than grittier, more representative ones. But lying overtly about how the shot came about is quite another thing.
Perhaps the most positive way of considering the conundrum is to accept something all professionals know perfectly well: the more control you have over your subject, the better your image of it is likely to be. Pitching up at a location on your own, without any local contacts, means leaving too much to chance.
A good fixer, on the other hand, can create moments of pure magic – or at least, ones that look like it!
Photo Fixers in Bagan
When available for hire, U Thant Sein touts for trade each evening at the Shwesandaw Paya in Bagan. He’s one of a select group of fixers that work around the site. If you’re serious about your photography and have better than average gear, they’ll pick you out of the crowd and offer their services.
For online tips on location finding in Bagan, head to Locationscout.