Before and while visiting Myanmar, we were concerned about the situation and did a lot of research in order to be ethical travelers. You can find more in our article about Travelling in Myanmar: is it Ethical? Is it Safe? We then looked a bit more into the history of Bagan: there used to be only one, located where the Old is now standing. The reason there are two today is not very joyful. Learn the history of Bagan, as well as some tips to be a responsible traveler in this situation, such as choosing Old Bagan or New Bagan.
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The sad story behind why there are two Bagans’: the New and the Old
In 1990, the government suddenly forced the residents, who have been guardians of the pagodas for centuries, to move from the Old Bagan to the New Bagan, which was only a peanut field infested of snakes, a few kilometers away. 4,000 people were forced to move in less than a week.
This happened just before the 1990 elections when Aung San Suu Kyi (“the lady”, leader of the
This happened in the middle of the summer, and the land provided was hot and dusty. Residents said that the police had forced homeowners to sign an agreement to leave the historical zone and that they were forced to move their belongings immediately. The new area had no roads, water or electricity. A resident said that people didn’t even know where exactly to go because the land wasn’t marked properly. They weren’t compensated either. An old resident interviewed in the Myanmar Times said that elderly people died of heart attacks.
Residents hoped that they would be able to go back to their ancestral homes later on, but were never allowed.
The reasons behind the eviction were to make the area more tourist-friendly, with hotels and facilities, but also to put an end to pillaging. Additionally, they wanted to get the area recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
However in 1996, due to several criteria, the UNESCO declined to classify Bagan as such. U Aung Kyaw, director of the Department of Archaeology, National Museum and Library, stated that “They [the military government] implemented a two-lane road and golf course within the heritage area, which is against world heritage conservation procedure. In 1996, experts from UNESCO’s heritage committee suggested to re-apply, with a detailed map of the cultural site as well as legislation to protect the heritage”.
The UNESCO has been working with Myanmar since to help the area meet the criteria necessary, and a new submission has occurred in 2017.
Unfortunately, the government’s plans to both make the Old Bagan an attractive tourist area, while respecting the UNESCO check list seems to be a problem. Many hotels have been granted licences around Bagan until 2013. However in 2014, The Department of Archaeology and National Museum (in order to get the UNESCO designation), reinstated a ban on properties deemed to close to temples. 42 hotels have been given 10 years to relocate, without compensation.
Residents are now afraid that they will have to move again. Some of them accused the officials to under appreciating the efforts they have been putting in. Indeed, the locals and the generations before them have been the ones conserving the pagodas for centuries, as part of their heritage.
What you can do to help while visiting
To change and make the history if Bagan, simple things that can have a big effect:
- Hire locals to guide you around the place, it is huge, and you’ll easily get lost even with a map. They can help you make the most if it (like they helped us find pagodas we were looking for)
- Support local businesses: buy souvenirs from local vendors, go to the market, have food in small restaurants…
- Stay in a small structure, privately owned hotel or B&B (avoid the big, fancy hotels)
- Stay in New Bagan instead of the Old Bagan