Mandalay’s Magical U Bein Bridge

After arriving in Mandalay one of the first places I wanted to visit was nearly Amarapura, one of Myanmar’s old capitals. In 1860, King Mindon moved his capital palace to nearby Mandalay city. When I say moved his palace, I mean he literally moved his palace – brick by brick – carried by elephants. There were many extra beautiful teak columns that were part of the old palace but had no place in the new design so the mayor of Amarapura (U Bein) built a 1.2km teak bridge across the local lake. To this day it remains the world’s longest teak bridge.

I arrived a bit before sunrise and found this great old man fishing in front of the bridge. To the locals this is not a special spot, merely where they live and work. It was a pretty hazy afternoon and I was starting to worry that there would be no sunset…

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Sup dawgs?

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A local boy takes a swim in the lake.

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As it gets hazier, I see another local in the lake and I can’t quite figure out what he’s doing. Laundry? He was definitely not taking a swim. As he stands up I can see his Longyi (traditional burmese garment) tied in an unconventional way and it is literally squirming. What the hell? It takes me nearly a full minute to realize he was net fishing and is transporting the live fish in his Longyi. Those Longyi sure are useful…

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As I wait out the haze I come across a man who is not wearing his Longyi. It’s traditional to not wear underwear under one’s Longyi (so you can do your business just by squatting) so I have a feeling he was fishing commando. I didn’t stick around long enough to find out.

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I wandered back to the bridge as the haze started to lift and photographed some serious monks crossing. The bridge was where all of the action was so I decided to trek on over.

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At the base of the bridge…

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One of the first things I saw on the bridge was a lady showing off caged owls. “Ten-a-tousan-da kyat! Ten-a-tousan-da kyat! Free owl!”. After some discussion I learned that you can buy one of these young captive owls for US$2.50 and free them. Many of them had injuries and did not look healthy at all.

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I asked her to pull one out and the poor bird was almost too weak to stand. It had injuries on its wings and as you can see – above its beak.

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I realized this was probably a scam and did not want to contribute to the cruelty of animals. What a horrible scam though – catching and caging animals to get money out of tourists who want to save animals and stop animal cruelty. A tourist girl behind me didn’t agree with my assumption and paid to let one go. It immediately flew away and within 30 seconds a massive flock of black birds descended on it.

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Go little owl, go!

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The owl was definitely wounded but made it safely into the trees before I lost sight of it. I later discovered that the owls come back in the morning because they are fed and trained from a very young age by the lady running the scam and the cage is their home.

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As I walked up the bridge, I looked down to see a family living at the base of it. Again, this is not a government controlled tourism site – people live and work here every day.

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I found some beautiful burmese scrawled into the teak of the bridge. According to my Burmese guide, this poem says:

My girl:
        You gave me all of these sweet memories.
        Please don’t leave me.
        I can’t stand it anymore.
                Your lover

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This child was being propped up by her (his?) mother who has obviously massively gone overboard with the thanaka and make up. Nowhere else in Myanmar did I see face decorations like this. It seemed to be aimed strictly at the tourists and as expected, the lady asks for money to take a photo with the child. I later googled the bridge and found dozens of stock photography shots of this exact child with the exact same make up over multiple years.

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I looked over the side of the bridge to see a monk with a beautiful traditional parasol, slowly drifting along the lake. The front of his long tail boat had a heart inscribed in it. I’d like to think he was thinking of his long lost love… but as he is a Buddhist Monk I somehow doubt that. Perhaps he was pondering how much he loved the Noble Eightfold Path to Enlightenment?

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Yet another girl whose sole purpose in life seemed to be to pose for tourists. I took a few campy posed photos of her then she wandered off… then I snagged this candid as she turned back around and smiled at me.

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Another dramatically overly painted girl. I stuck my tongue out at her and she did the same back! Ah, the universal language of silliness. Pardon the colors, I was pretty much shooting straight into the sun.

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For reference, this is what real thanaka looks like when applied by locals. These two locals kept smiling at me and pointing at my beard.

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While down low taking candid photos of the girls, I noticed the monk was passing under the bridge exactly where I was sitting! These old boats are absolutely stunning.

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As the sun started to drop and the haze started to dissipate, the fishing teenagers headed back to shore. You can really see how shallow this lake is. Many lakes in Myanmar are only a few feet deep at most.

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I quickly realized that the fishermen heading to shore meant that it was probably about to get dark and I really wanted to photograph the bridge from a boat. I jogged to the start of the bridge and tried to hire a long tail boat to take me out. That was an adventure in itself because I wasn’t trying to cross the water, I just wanted to photograph the bridge from the water. Try explaining that to a non-english speaker! After some banter and a few flashes of my camera I handed over some cash (about US$1) and set off. Naturally, the boat had lots of water seeping into the base. This was a scary revelation as I looked over and saw a few other long tail boats completely submerged just a few feet away.

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Taking a boat proved to the the right idea. As the sun quickly dropped the silhouettes came out. Here you can see three monks watching the sunset together.

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A strolling monk.

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There were many bicycles on the bridge and everyone walked them instead of riding them.

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Wait for me!

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A quick shift in white balance completely changes the mood. Fun with camera settings!

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A few short minutes later the sun dropped out of sight. After this the sky was so dark my camera was nearly crying… and I couldn’t use a tripod since I was on a rickety leaking boat.

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Hanging out.

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More monks enjoying the sunset.

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A beautiful procession of women carrying baskets on their heads, children with not-yet-lit lanterns, and a bicycle go by. I was in such awe at this sight that I nearly forgot to photograph it until after they had already passed.

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A few moments later one of the women seemed to be trying to catch the moon.

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A young girl lights her lantern and passes by two monks.

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It was nearly pitch black and i was being eaten alive by bugs but I managed to squeeze off one final photograph. My camera refused to focus on anything and my light meter was telling me I needed a 5 second shot. I jacked up the ISO (sensitivity) to a completely unacceptable level, opened up my lens as far as it would go, manually focused as best I could in the dark, stood as still as I could in the gently rocking boat, and got this photo of a girl swinging her lantern back and forth as she walked. This moment truly felt magical to me and I felt transported to another time.

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I look forward to visiting the bridge again. I highly recommend arriving early so you have time to stroll across it and back before the sun drops. If you aren’t interested in renting a boat for photography, I’m fairly certain enjoying the beautiful sunset while local burmese cross the bridge would be a truly memorable experience.