Monday, August 31, 2009

U Bein Bridge

One of the more unusual tourist attractions near Mandalay is the U Bein bridge (or U Bein's bridge), a teak structure running 1200m across a long, shallow lake.

The Burmese have an interesting habit of changing the location of their national capital every once in a while. Back in the late 1700's, the capital was moved to Amarapura. When the city of Mandalay was constructed in the mid 1800's, the capital moved north. This move left plenty of abandoned buildings and U Bein, a government official, decided to use the salvaged timber to build a bridge.

Since then, the bridge has been in constant use. It's as much a social meeting point as a way to get across the lake. Numerous locals stoll across the bridge to enjoy the breeze or just relax on the many benches and pavilions.

The area has a few monasteries, so monks and nuns are frequently seen on the bridge.

I arrived at the bridge about an hour before sunset. A few people from my Mandalay guest house were willing to share a taxi ride so we all traveled together. While the two couples went off on their own, I explored the west side of the bridge. As a popular tourist attraction, several restaurants are located on both sides of the bridge and some vendors have set up food stalls under the pavilions. The west side also has a numerous vendors selling various trinkets and souvenirs. The Thais are well known for selling captive birds which you can release for merit, but I'd never before seen a captive owl. The creature was not much larger than my hand.

The souvenir vendors can be persistent, but never cross the line to pushy. The bridge has one unique feature that's difficult to avoid:
Cute girls guard the entrance to the bridge. They're well versed in English and do their best to stick with you all the way across and back. Their goal is to sell you a necklace or some other small item. There were few tourists on this visit and this kid decided to follow me and convince me of the advantages of buying something from her.

I was wearing the duplicate of one of the necklaces she was carrying, so she tried to convince me to buy a different one. "I need only one!" I told her. Undetered, she was convinced I should buy one for a family member and named each relative. For each, my response was "I don't have" and told her I was abandoned as a child and raised by bears in the wilderness. I almost convinced her but she insisted I buy necklaces for the bears.

She gave up after a while, but I agreed to hire her as a guide. I didn't actually need a guide for a bridge that runs from one side of the lake to the other, but it was fun getting her perspective on life in Myanmar and the tourists she meets. She also proved an effective spy by telling me what the locals were saying. It's no wonder the topic of conversation in each group of passersby was the foreign tourist walking on their bridge! She told me the locals were always curious about the foreigners but were too shy to talk or could not speak English.

The old bridge looks rather rickety and very worn with age, but it's solid and full of character. The grain in the dark wood is very deep from years of exposure to the sun and monsoon rains. The structure is well maintained by Myanmar standards. At first glance, the bridge looks like it was constructed in a haphazard fashion as it's not perfectly straight. It might well have been constructed by locals without a proper surveying tools, but it is quite sound. About half way across, the bridge takes a slight bend. I suspect the original architects wanted to connect to a small island there. Now, however, there are quite a few islands!

It feels a bit odd using a bridge that does not cross much water. What little water beneath is so shallow it's possible to walk across with no difficulty. Of course it's now the dry season and in a few months the lake will be swollen. When it was first built, the water was much deeper and boats could row out to the river from the old capital.

By the time I reached the other side, the sun was quite low. I regretted not arriving earlier so I could explore the east side and the remnants of ancient Amarapura. The sun was very low and if I wanted sunset photos, I had to head back soon.

I made arrangements with one of my traveling companions to meet up on the east side where we could take a boat across the lake. They were waiting there, with the boat, as were several other tourists. Walking across and boating back is the way to see the U Bein bridge.

The sun creates beautiful silhouettes of the bridge.

One trick I've learned about sunsets is that you should wait a while after the sun goes down. There is frequently an encore presentation of color!

See more photos here.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Up the Irrawaddy River

A boat is the most civilized way to travel. A jet may get you there fast, but you don't see anything. A boat, on the other hand, moves at a leisurely pace, enabling you to observe life, not just fly over it while watching a poor video facsimile. Even a river barge can be luxurious if only because you can get up and walk around.

There is no question about how I would go from Bagan to Mandalay, it is question of when. Normally there are numerous choices, but with the river running low, there was one option and it leaves at six the next morning.

At 5AM, shuffling feet in the hall alert me to the impending wake up knock on my guest-room door. The proprietors were used to my early rising and so was I - I had been up for twenty minutes repacking my gear. I settle my bill and step out into the night. It's deathly quiet and still. Only a few windows show evidence of light. The desk clerk looks up and down the road for the horse cart they booked for me the night before. After making some tut-tut noises, he tells me to wait and dashes off into the darkness. A few minutes later he returns and the sounds of a distance horse clop down the road.

I thought that the boat left from the landing at the north side of the town, so I was surprised when the driver turned his horse toward the temples. It would not have been the first time a driver shifted to auto-pilot in taking a tourist on a sightseeing trip. The clerk assures me that he was going the right way and off we go into the darkness. We pass by the Ananda festival market and the place is lively with lamp-lit market stalls and people walking about. I don't know if they kept going all night or if they rose even earlier than I had imagined.

A few minutes later, I know exactly where we were. The speed boat landing is just below the monastery I visited a few days earlier. At the top of the stairs, one of the sailors tries to take my bags, but I'm already comfortably wearing my backpack and camera bag. He insists on carrying my tripod down to the boat. The full moon is just above the horizon and glorious in a cloud mottled sky.  My ride for the day is pressed against the bank throbbing like a diesel powered amphibian dinosaur. It looks fast.

Below us rests the old paddle-wheeler, sitting there in all its decaying majesty. A tired river queen powerless to thwart the young usurper a hundred meters upstream.

I'm the first passenger to arrive. That six o'clock departure time is really just to get the lazy tourists out of bed at a descent hour. After stowing my bag, I go back ashore. Other passengers arrive; maybe a dozen in all. The captain soon blasts the horn and I scramble back up the gangplank and make my way to the stern. The crew cast off the lines and push the boat into the current. The eastern sky is turning pink. To the west, the moon is an orange globe hanging over a blue green horizon. 

As the rumbling engines power the boat into the middle of the river, I see large cliffs in the distance. Two pagodas stand in silhouette against the brightening sky. Bagan was once much larger, but a long time ago the Irrawaddy decided to change course and washed away nearly a third of the ancient city and it's splendid architecture. These pagodas were spared ... for now. The sun crawls lazily out of bed to wish us a good morning.

Few of my fellow passengers speak. We're all watching the sun as it bounces across the top of the cliffs. The forward motion of the boat and the jagged horizon makes it appear as if the sun was moving along the river playing hide and seek. I switch from lens to lens as the light and subjects changed. I occasionally review the images to make sure my exposure is correct. Some of the photos appear as blanks in thew viewer. That's odd. Others appear, disappear and reappear again. I figure I must have accidentally changed some image viewing setting and continue shooting. I realized later that I should have switched to a different storage card. By the time I got to Mandalay, I had a corrupt card and would have lost every photo were it not for bank of image recover tools I used to salvage the corrupt files.

It's not long before the sun is well clear of the horizon. At this latitude, at this time of the year, it practically flies up like a balloon. Speaking of which, I had intended to go for a ride across Bagan on a hot air balloon. The company running the service keeps very odd hours and I managed to miss them. I could have been up there this very morning, but the choice was between a balloon and going to Mandalay by boat. Delaying the trip would mean waiting three or four days for the next boat or taking the bus or a plane. Off in the distance, I could see the silhouettes of the balloons as they ascended and cross the plain. I'm sorry I'm not up there.

Most of the traffic on the river consists of oar powered fishing boats and people crossing from shore to shore. A quick wave from our railings is all that's needed to get big smiles and waves from the little boats.

To avoid getting stuck on the shifting shoals, the captain keeps our boat at half throttle. It's no leisurely pace; we cruise by other up-bound commercial craft with ease. Most of the boats we pass are the steam boats that have been converted to diesel. They still have their old smoke stacks.

The larger riverboats are, of course much more romantic.

Being well up above the water surface gives a much better perspective of the other boats and the scenes on the river banks. There are numerous encampments on the sandy islands left when the monsoon swollen river subsided. People fill their boats with clean river sands and send them to Yangon for construction projects.

As the sun rises too high to get good photos, I get comfortable on one of the wicker chairs on the upper deck. It's hot, but so long as I'm out of the sun, the fast moving boat provides enough of a breeze. The other passengers are a mix of Europeans, mostly older couples who pretty much keep to themselves.

I introduce myself to the only other serious photographer. He's a Torontonian who was a plant manager for an international firm. They had him on expatriate status for a few years but decided he should accept a local wage for a job in India if he wanted to stay on. He quit and has been spending the past year traveling through Asia. I give him some tips on Myanmar and he, in turn, provides me with all sorts of valuable info on China, practically running an itinerary for me.

Looking upstream, a line of rafts catches my eye. It's a dredging project, but it's not to clear a channel for the boats. As we come alongside, I realize it's a gold mining operation using the river to sift the bottom sediment.

The boat cruises by many small towns and smaller villages. Most of them have a few pagodas and a few have guardian lions sitting on the shore. Occasionally, we can see pagodas off in the distance. Myanmar is littered with ancient temples and ruins.

The boat provides free tea but sells food and cold drinks for those willing to pay the premium price. This is typical of most boats and I was prepared for it, having picked up an assortment of snacks the evening before. I offer my Canadian friend some food. He gratefully accepts the fruit and cookies and buys me a beer.

We spot a barge caught on the shifting shoals of the river. It looks like it carries petroleum. A tugboat pushes the barge in a circle in an attempt to free it from the submerged obstruction. We soon leave it behind but another barge is stuck ahead. Its tug is running full throttle to push it free; we can hear the sound of it's engine above our own as it spews black exhaust from its stack. A third stuck barge appears ahead of us. A tug navigates a wide circle around as it attempts to find a proper channel.

The fast boat takes a full day to navigate up the river. Some of the passengers complain that they were told it would only take half a day. I don't know why they're in such a hurry. I'd rather take our time then get stuck.

When I see the monasteries of Sagaing, I know we're near our destination.

Behind our boat, the sun casts a fiery red on the water.

At this point we pass beneath the only bridges we have seen that cross the Irrawaddy. I discover later that's its actually illegal to photograph them, but everyone aboard was shooting that magnificent sunset.

One of the last sights we  see before arriving in Mandalay is a cargo operation unloading logs. One of the crew mentions that it's teak.The logs are three to four feet across. I wonder how they look before they fall to the chain saw. In all my travels in Myanmar, I have seen nothing that resembles an old growth forest.  Looking at the wood being hauled in from the water, I wonder if I ever will.

View the full-size images here.