It seemed odd, but the first thing my guide, Sai, wanted to do in Mandalay was show me a bridge. “U Bein’s Bridge. Most famous bridge in the world,” said Sai.
Really? I’d never heard of it. “What makes it famous?” I asked him.
“Made of teak.”
As it turned out the bridge wasn’t in Mandalay proper but just south of the city in the town of Amarapura, one of the many former royal capitals. (The Burmese think nothing of changing their capital, usually for astrological reasons or the like. Over the centuries it’s been in Bagan, Pegu, Ava, Sagaing, Amarapura, and Yangon. The current capital is Naypyidaw.)
Anyway, the bridge was built around 1850 when the capital moved from Ava (an hour’s walk southwest) to Amarapura. The mayor of Amarapura, U Bein, salvaged the teak planks from the old palace building to construct the 1.2km bridge over Taungthaman Lake.
So if you’re at all like me and are told that the most famous bridge in the world—which you have never heard of—is a half-mile long teak bridge made from two-hundred year-old planks taken from a royal palace, you imagine that what you’re going to see is something very grand. But that’s not what U Bein’s Bridge is at all. It’s very simple. And low to the water. And rather rickety (many of the pillars look dangerously decayed and some of the planks were cracked or broken so you had to be very careful where you stepped).
Basically it’s a very pedestrian bridge with no architectural flourishes that serves the thousands of locals—farmers, shoppers, monks—wanting to get from one side of the lake to the other. I noticed that there were a number of police on the bridge and asked Sai if that was to prevent acts of vandalism. He said no, it was to prevent local youths from harassing tourists. “Some locals tired of so many tourists walking on bridge,” he said.
If we were a shrimp fisherman trying to get from one side of the lake to the other, all the camera-toting tourists would bother us too.