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World Heritage Site Status for Pagan

It was extraordinary that Pagan did not have World Heritage Site status, all the other great historical sites in South-East Asia, like Angkor or Borobadur, have long been listed. The first official Burmese application was in 1995 but there had been discussions long before that and Unesco had been actively involved in restoration work through the 1980s, following the devastation of the 1975 earthquake. Back then I was privileged to assist the French archaeologist Pierre Pichard in his great survey of the monuments. It seemed inevitable that the site would be listed and then 1988 happened and Burma went back into the dark ages.

The only news from Pagan during those dark days of Slorc* dictatorship was in 1990: the community who had long lived in a village of outstanding charm and loveliness were relocated at gun point one morning without any advance notice. They were moved to a peripheral location in the desert like plain with neither water nor electricity and had to make temporary shacks using materials dismantled from their former homes. I had lived in the village for over a year in 1986 and was appalled and wrote an article for a magazine about it resulting in being banned from Burma by the regime for several years.

Pagan 1
Pagan 2

By the mid-90s Burma seemed to be changing and the door opened ajar for foreign investors and tourism. I was forgiven past demeanours and allowed back in to pursue publishing projects, including Pierre's stupendous eight volume Inventory of Monuments at Pagan that I co-published with Unesco. However, something terrible was happening at Pagan. The local population now relocated out of the way, Slorc embarked on an ambitious restoration programme. The Archaeology Department's highly trained experts were side lined; the military stepped in and conducted all operations themselves. Pagan had not seen so much building activity since its heyday in the 13th century.

Local cement factories and brick works saw their output scale up to levels previously unimaginable. Nearly every single one of the 4000 monuments were completely rebuilt using modern British type bricks and Portland cement. At Old Pagan the bricks were essentially square tiles of only about 4 inches thick and they had no cement, using only the minutest amount of lime mortar as the bricks were so flat that they interlocked perfectly. The military architects used considerable licence, constructing elaborate superstructures where the originals had been lost, more figments of a romantic imagination than bearing any connection to original forms used between the 11th and 13th centuries.

New roads were constructed, including a dual carriageway dissecting the site into two; trees were planted everywhere – greening it up, yes, but loosing once great vistas. Even a golf course was constructed within the Zone. Many said it was a racket whereby the army were extorting donations for the restoration nationwide and then making lots of money out of the brickworks, cements factory and construction contracts all of which they controlled.

Pagan 3
Pagan 4

Unesco were appalled. Pierre vowed never to step foot in Pagan. I was in tears when I saw what they had done. Later, after starting Pandaw in 1995, when I took the bus from the airfield to the river bank I would shut my eyes. Not surprisingly when Slorc applied to Unesco in 1995 their application fell on deaf ears.

In recent times, now that Slorc have stepped down and there is a semblance of democracy, the issue in discussions with Unesco was more about tourism development. Speculators had long been buying up chunks of land around Pagan, particularly along the river bank, and a number of new luxury hotels joined the old ones, since refurbished. These speculators had strong and powerful influence so the discussion with Unesco now was over 'planning' rather than restoration. I am glad to say that the Archaeology Department managed to block several humungous projects which eased the path of the application. Rather like at Siem Reap in Cambodia, visitors to Angkor would in the future accommodated in a hotel zone far from the monuments – now materialising as ribbon developments along the roads in and out beyond the limits of the archaeological zone.

I wonder just how much difference to tourism being a World Heritage Site will make? Is this really going to clinch a decision on where to go on holiday? The vacuum formed by the collapse of western tourism to Burma since the Rohyingya crisis of last year was filled almost overnight with regional tourists – Thais are the largest number of foreign visitors, but the largest number overall are Myanmar tourists visiting their own great cultural sites. When they open the planned international airport a short drive away at Pakokku, Pagan will be open to direct flights from China. (Siem Reap gets a dozen flights a day from China.) Mercifully, this is still a few years off as they have been discussing this project for aslong as they have been negotiating with Unesco. It may be that for the much- anticipated Chinese hoards World Heritage status would be the clincher.

Pagan 5
Pagan 6

What will be the benefits of World Heritage Status? It is unlikely that Unesco are going to come in and re-restore the temples and the issue of their incorrect reconstruction seems to have been gently forgotten. Hopefully there will be money and training for the archaeology department – the mural paintings in many temples are in a woeful condition and mass tourism is not helping. The best thing is probably the fact that the Burmese government really want this as they think lots more tourists will come and in order to keep the listing they will have to stop any property developers from building new hotels within the Zone. It is even said that the ones already in the Zone will have to be closed and dismantled by 2025.

I hope also that Unesco will do something to protect the monuments from mass tourism. The great stupas and temples were never intended to be climbed, they are giant symbols with shrines around their peripheries, but every tourist wants to climb to the top, particularly at the sunset hour causing erosion. Burmese Buddhists have been appalled by inappropriately dressed youngsters in skimpy clothing and Unesco might embark on a programme to inform tourists on appropriate dress and behaviour within these sacred sites. I have mentioned the mural paintings that are unprotected from sweaty paws and the larger temples are now overrun with touts and vendors. Then there is the appalling plastic pollution – litter from the masses of local tourists who all the time are eating and drinking and chucking their litter on the ground because there are no bins or if there are bins they are never emptied. Let's hope Unesco can sort these things out.

Pagan 7
Pagan 8

Despite all the terrible things that Slorc did to Pagan through the 90s most visitors remain awestruck and the old magic is still there. Overcoming prejudices, I often head off in the early morning on my mountain bike and really enjoy exploring the less visited areas and the area is vast! When I meet our Pandaw travellers on the boats there is a strong level of excitement and interest in what they have experienced at Pagan. I would be a huge bore if I was to say: "you never knew Pagan as it was"!


Pagan: Art and Architecture of Old Burma, Kiscadale 1989Pandaw founder Paul Strachan is author of Pagan: Art and Architecture of Old Burma. Kiscadale 1989.

*State Law and Order Restoration Council

Burma Handbook

A Burma River Journey - A Handbook for the Traveller by Pandaw Founder, Paul Strachan

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Cecilia Gray posted in Jul 2019

Congratulations and commiserations Paul! Great to have the site at last recognised as a World heritage site, Commiserations to think that its heritage was NOT recognised when in its original state and then perhaps restored in keeping g with its origins.


Sandy Hazzard posted in Jul 2019

What a great article by Paul sharing his past involvement and experiences with Bagan. As a leisurely solo traveler to Bagan 10 years ago, I also took the time to marvel at the less touristic areas. Even after only 10 years, I wonder how mass tourism has changed the town. Please don’t allow it to become another Siem Reap!


Martin Deroover posted in Jul 2019

Mr Strachan is absolutely right on every point he "carefully" dares to make regarding situations in myanmar be it on the ppolitical critical and pprrcarious evolution or on the fate off many sites of utmost historical importance - I havem since tjh'e 1980s been there several times and understand his worries - he and his company are doing wonderffull jobs (of course his is also a commercial entrrprise) but he should get the most important gratitude of the nation and the world - real world travellers of this world let our voices be heard loud and clear on this matter!!


Bill Haddock, Denver, Colorado posted in Jul 2019

I enjoyed reading your blog on Bagan being awarded the World Heritage site designation by UNESCO. On the other hand it was quite a sobering story which asks the question if there are any current or future archaeological or preservation projects at the site that one could contribute to. My wife and I were on your Bagan to Mandalay cruise in Feb 2018 and thoroughly enjoyed touring Bagan. Since I retired a few years ago I have been quite involved in archaeological and preservation projects in Colorado and New Mexico, and appreciate your frustrations. Please let me know if there is anything we can do to ensure a better future for this World Heritage site.

Finally, we are really looking forward to our Feb 2021 Mekong River - China to Vientiane cruise.