“Shhh! Stop talking! Sunset. Bridge. Look!”
Our boat rower punctuated his demands like a Lieutenant-General. We straightened to attention at his rebuke and brought our camera viewfinders to our eyes, fingers ready on the shutter button.
It was indeed an incomparable sunset in an incomparable location. In the foreground was the silhouette of the world’s longest teak bridge, an unstable structure centipeding its way 1.2 kilometres across Taungthaman Lake. Tourists, monks and locals finishing their day’s work perambulated the bridge. In the background, the sun smeared a pink-purple-orange residue across the sky.
Mandalay’s U Bein Bridge
U Bein Bridge, near Mandalay in Myanmar (Burma), is built from the wood of a former royal palace. We had been recommended to visit it at sunset, and after scoping it out we agreed it would best be viewed from one of the many boats currently beached on the shore.
We agreed on a price with a boat rower and then met two Chinese girls who decided to join us. We watched in awe as they pouted and whined until our boat rower reduced the fare for us all. We planned to cross the bridge on foot and meet on the other side to return by boat.
The bridge hadn’t particularly impressed on first view. For a start, much of it slumped over patches of farmed islands marooned in the centre of the lake. Chickens skittled through planted crops and even a few cows plodded across the ground.
The teak planks upon which we walked showed signs of negligence and one had to scrutinise one’s progress. Here and there planks were missing, and where they had been replaced, they had merely been stapled onto pre-existing boards to create a thoroughly uneven surface. As much as I tried to check my way, I still stubbed my toes several times and arrived at the other end of the lake minus a functional flip-flop.
The bridge pillars also seemed worn through, and several sections had been wholly replaced with plain conrete chunks, reducing the effect of antiquity but at least making the structure feel sturdier. For honesty’s sake though, the bridge should be celebrated as the world’s longest teak-and-concrete bridge.
Our guide rowed the boat in an unusual manner, crossing the oars while standing up. Several other boats adorned the lake at the peak sunset time. We congratulated our Chinese companions on their incredible bargaining prowess and became absorbed in conversation with them. Our rower seemed less than pleased that we weren’t showing more visible appreciation for our surroundings.
“Shhh! Monks. Look! Photos. Photos!” He demanded.
Monks indeed frequented the bridge, and their maroon robes billowed in the wind. Many of them walked barefoot and I pitied them the prospect of innumerable splinters and stubbed toes along the way.
The sky started off baby blue but as the sun drifted west, pastel pinks and purples tainted the clouds. The further the orb descended, the deeper the colours glowed until each celestial puff of white was tinged with a golden lining.
Our boat hovered around a leafless tree, its branches extending out like lightening strikes. Before it, men stood waist-deep in the water, casually clinging to makeshift fishing lines.It was an enviable place for such a recreational activity.
As the sun reached its nadir teetering on the edge of the horizon, it threw out a starry halo. The western end of U Bein Bridge disappeared into its centre, like a portal to another world.
Our conversation and my camera surrendered to the utter beauty of the scene. There are times when you travel when experience overwhelms you. I have rarely seen the sun interact so beautifully with its surroundings. Even as we bobbed on the water I knew this was a unique sight, the rusticity of a century-old bridge still used as it was originally intended, the sun colouring the sky with optimism.
I wondered if every rainbow ended at U Bein Bridge. Could the commuting monks, tourists and locals cross over to another world? Somehow, I doubted that it could be any more magical than what I was seeing now.
More about Myanmar
Oh my. You’ve only just hit the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Myanmar. With its borders becoming just the little bit more porous with every passing year, this is a gem that won’t stay hidden long much longer. Here are a few other things you won’t be able to avoid in this marvellous country: