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

Posts tagged ‘U Bein’s Bridge’

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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Bridge of Smiles

I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve visited U Bein’s Bridge in Amarapura, not yet a dozen, but more than a handful. It takes less than 30 minutes to drive there from Mandalay, so it’s not a taxing journey, and it’s always enjoyable. Nice scenery and always a bunch of friendly locals walking across the bridge or fishing from it. No motor vehicles are allowed on the bridge, so the atmosphere is very quiet and laid back.

 

Once you are at the famous teakwood bridge (supposedly the longest such bridge in the world), the one that’s been pictured on several book covers (Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace and Thant Myint U’s The River of Lost Footsteps), you have the choice of walking across the bridge, or taking a rowboat, to the village on the other side. I find it fun to walk across and then take the boat for the return trip. Taking the boat is especially a nice idea around sunset time; with the bridge framed in the setting sun you can get some beautiful shots.

 

Ko Maw Hsi and I took a group kids from 90th Street to the bridge on a Sunday (no school!) while I was in Mandalay. Maw Hsi had the whole day planned, starting with breakfast at U Tin Chit’s teashop and then a tour of area temples. We piled 12 kids in a small truck and off we went. On the way to Amarapura we stopped at several monasteries and temples, the kids gleefully posing for photos at each stop. We had lunch at nice little restaurant in Amarapura and were then ready for the bridge. If it had been my choice I would have timed our bridge arrival for later in the afternoon, when it wasn’t so hot and the sun was in a better position for photos, but I always try to roll with the flow in these situations and let others decide what they want to do, and when to do it. And usually it all works out, as it did this time.  

 

As we walked across the bridge, it was obvious the water level in the lake was very high, the highest I’d ever seen it. A couple of lakeside restaurants, in fact, had water up to their roofs. Maw Hsi said the water level in the nearby Ayeyarwady River was also unusually high for this time of year. I hope that’s not a harbinger of flooding in a few months’ time.

 

We walked around the village on the other side of the bridge, stopping a couple of more temples. At one place, a youth group had gathered and was singing songs and playing games (one activity involved quickly passing around a balloon and trying not to drop it). I handed the camera to Zin Ko, who both took photos and a video of the silliness. Afterwards, the kids took a break and sprawled out on the temple floor, obviously exhausted by all the walking, not to mention jumping around and acting silly themselves.

 

When it was time to return to the other side, we debated renting a boat or not. Actually, because there were so many of us, we needed two boats. Maw Hsi was worried about the added expense, but I assured him that I had enough money to pay for it all. In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t expensive at all, but I have to remember that Maw Hsi and the other families on 90th Street are very careful with their money and can sometimes see things like renting a boat — when you could just as well walk — to be a frivolous and wasteful expense. But at the same time, the kids really were tired and I know they got a kick out of riding the boats, so I was happy with the decision.

 

 

 

 

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