The ancient teakwood bridge in U Bein, some 10 km south of Mandalay, is often called the oldest or the longest such structure in the world. Both statements may be arguable, but this does not make this attraction any less spectacular of atmospheric. Definitely not an off the beaten track destination, it is highly popular with domestic and foreign tourists but is nonetheless one of those hallmark sights that cannot be skipped in favor of something less common. The old cliché applies: if you have not been there, you have not been to Myanmar. A powerful redeeming factor is that despite its popularity, the bridge in U Bein remains surprisingly authentic. Most of the original pillars and planks have been preserved, only a few concrete supports were added where the old wood was getting dangerously worn out. There are still usually more locals on the bridge, going on their own business than travelers, at least in the morning before the tour groups arrive. Sunset an sunrise views both from the bridge and with it, from either of the shores, are inevitably beautiful, and if the antics of selfie-obsessed tourists annoy you overmuch, the local palm wine sold in at tapa huts on the east bank should relieve the irritation.
The bridge in U Bein is long. While its status as the longest teak bridge in the world is disputed, 1200 meters of antiquity still standing and supporting massive pedestrian traffic is impressive. Its age is less awe-inspiring, although, again, it is often claimed to be the oldest such structure in existence. However, it was only erected a modest century and a half ago, after the capital of Burma had been moved from Inwa to Mandalay in 1857. The teakwood from the disassembled royal palace in Inwa was then used to build this bridge, spanning the width of Taungthaman Lake. Aside from connecting a number of settlements, it provided monks with easy access to important monasteries on both sides of the lake. Up until now large groups of saffron-robed Buddhist monks can be seen crossing the bridge, mostly heading to or from the large Mahagandayon monastery on the west bank. This is a spectacular sight, although too commonly photographed to be considered original. The monks seem to be pretty tired of camera-wielding tourists, too.
The bridge in U Bein is very easy to reach from Mandalay – any songtaew (a passenger pickup truck) heading to Sagaing or Amarapura will drop you on the highway about 1 km west of it. There are ticket booths at both ends of the bridge charging a hefty entrance fee, ostensibly for the preservation of the ancient teakwood structure. Restaurants and food stalls line both shores of the lake. Those on the western bank are more foreigner-oriented, while the eastern side seems to cater mainly to the domestic tourists. This is also where you find lakeside huts serving local palm wine – sweet, cheap, and mildly inebriating. For the most atmospheric photographs, try to beat other travelers by arriving very early, at sunrise. Sunset views are equally impressive, but a photographer may be disappointed to see the bridge crowded with tour groups.
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