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.