Mandalay: U Bein Bridge

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There are many attractions in and around Mandalay, but one of my favorites has to be the U Bein Bridge, located in Amarapura, a small town on the outskirts of the city.  The aging structure spans Taungthaman Lake, stretching 1.2km (0.75 mi), making it the longest teakwood bridge in the world. Known for its beautiful sunrise and sunset, this place is easily one of Myanmar’s most photographed sites.

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The bridge was built in 1850 using reclaimed wood from a former palace in Inwa.  There are over a thousand pillars rising out of the water supporting the dubiously worn planks. Though most of the bridge remains intact, some of the decaying wooden pillars have been replaced with concrete due to safety concerns.  Since there are no hand rails, and some parts shake and creak as people walk across, it can be quite unnerving. But don’t worry, the bridge is quite safe and used by locals every day!

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We woke up at the crack of dawn and made our way to Amarapura. The city was just waking up, so there was no traffic making the drive short and painless.  We were the first ones there and it was still dark out.  Looking around to find the best place to photograph the sunrise, we made our way over to a field on the western side where we could see the bridge contrast against the morning sun, creating a breathtaking silhouette.

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As the sun made its way over the horizon, the villagers started to stir and people begin making their way across the bridge – some in a hurry to get to work while others strolled leisurely across, stopping once in awhile to do their daily stretches.  Contrary to popular opinion, I think early morning is the perfect time to visit the bridge. Aside from a handful of sleepy photographers, there were not too many tourists around.

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In my zealous attempt to get the “perfect” picture, I accidentally stepped into a mud puddle by the river.  My leg was covered in muck and I had to use the river water to quickly wash up.

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After taking our fair share of pictures, we decided to walk across the rickety bridge.  It is amazing that it is only held together by nails and teak board. Despite its growing popularity, the U Bein Bridge still plays a practical and integral part in the daily life of people who live in this area.  The primary function of the bridge is to serve as a passageway for the locals on their daily commute.

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On our walk, we saw countless local commuters crossing the bridge by foot and bicycle.  I even got to chat with one of the friendly crimson-robed monks who was happy to pose for a picture and practice his English. From the bridge’s vantage point, we saw a farmer hard at work tilling his land.  On the other side, a fisherman was setting up his net and in the distance, a flock of birds swooped down in search of food.  The whole enchanting scene set against the soft morning light captivated my heart.

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We came back again at sunset hoping to recapture the moment, but the atmosphere had changed.  The small road was blocked by giant tour buses, bringing in hundreds of visitors.  The bridge was covered by vendors trying to sell trinkets to wary travelers.  On shore, fishermen and boat owners capitalized on the tourist trade, offering boat rides to the middle of the lake for about 12 USD, double what it would have cost a few years ago.  Even at this higher rate, the boats are in short supply, so unless you book in advance, there will not be any available for rent, as we found out the hard way.

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If you find yourself without a boat, there are other options – you can walk to the middle of the bridge (just past the concrete columns) and take the stairs down to the bottom where you’ll find a makeshift restaurant on an island in the middle of the lake.  Grab a chair at the edge of the water, sit back, and enjoy a drink as you watch the sunset.  Or you can go further out into the fields to a strip of land that juts out into the water.  From this vantage point you can get a decent sunset picture of the bridge.

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Once we found a good place to stop, we looked up and saw an orange glow gradually enveloping the bridge and fading over the water.  The sunset is intense and whether you are on a boat or on shore, it is still quite a show.  As the sun slowly descended into the calm water, I understand why this place has bewitched so many people.  The people, the scene, the atmosphere was all magical.

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