musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

A Bridge Too Crowded

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My recent trip to Mandalay also coincided with my birthday. I didn’t have any big auspicious plans for that day, except for one wish: I wanted to see the sunset at U Bein Bridge in nearby Amarapura. My friend Ye Man Oo arranged for his father to take us — along with his brother, cousin, and a few other friends — to the bridge that afternoon. We all piled into the back of the pickup truck and thirty minutes later we were at the bridge.

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I’ve been to U Bein Bridge five or six times already, but I never tire of the experience. I’m always charmed by the quaint old structure (supposedly the world’s longest teakwood bridge), the steady flow of pedestrians (along with a few bicycles, but no motor vehicles are allowed) going from one side of the lake to the other, and the lovely scenery. People fishing off the bridge, taking photos (and these days, the inevitable “selfie”), and watching the world go by.

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But this time, I was disturbed to note that the usual tranquil atmosphere had been displaced by hordes of tourists, both locals and foreigners, who had descended upon the bridge. Honestly, I felt like I was back at one of Angkor’s more popular temples; the place so overrun by visitors that you couldn’t stop and take a photo for fear of being trampled. I’m not exaggerating; it was that crowded. The other odd aspect was that the water level in the lake was very, very low; the lowest I’ve ever seen it. I didn’t notice a single person fishing this time, and frankly there weren’t many spots where someone even could fish. Most of the land beneath the bridge was high and dry, and there were even a few enterprising farmers plowing fields under it!

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In past visits my strategy was usually to walk across the bridge to the village on the other side, and then hire a row boat to take us back again. But this time, due to the plethora of tourists, there were no boats available. And of course nearly all of those tourists had requested that their boat wait on the east side of the bridge until sundown so that they could photograph the iconic structure as the sun set. Still a lovely sight … but be ready for the crunch!

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