Once the rickshaw journey from Mandalay has been completed, the driver presents us with the final destination already settled with another long wait. “I imagine they want to stay until after sunset, right?, just ask us as a discharge of conscience.
We can still see him settling on a terrace run by acquaintances but we soon get lost in the profusion of crowded restaurants on the edge of the lake.
It had been two months since the monsoons had brought peace to Myanmar. Subject to the vagaries of weather, Lake Taungthaman was shrinking by the day.
We saw a line of colorful craft vessels, with curved keels that seemed to point out the responsibility of the always clear sky.
“Boat ride?”, “A boat ride?” distinguished hosts ask us over and over again with the gentle persistence because the Burmese rule.
For a change, we had prepared the visit. We knew it wasn't time to give in yet. We calculate the length of the bridge and find its immediate end hidden behind other establishments.
The preface of that incursion to Amarapura was already long. Without the patience to prolong it, we make the crossing. Around 1859, U Bein, a sort of magistrate from the kingdom of Inwa responsible for the bridge project, had no time to waste.
The Longest Wooden Bridge in the World Unraveled
At that time, the capital of Inwa oscillated between a village of the same name and Amarapura. A king by the name of Tharrawaddy decided to return her to the last. He also declared that the subjects' access to the opposite ends of the lake should be facilitated.
With the kingdom's treasury diminished by the Anglo-Burmese wars, U Bein had to resort to pragmatism. He resorted to the remains of the abandoned royal palace.
An estimated 10.000 men transported the timber along the Ayeyarwady River. Meter after meter, we advance through the nearly 1100 logs employed and see life unfold over that improbable structure.
Side by side, the fishermen insist on casting the lines, despite already having their wicker baskets half-full and holding large bunches of fish around their waists.
We came across groups of Buddhist monks and nuns.
We give priority to successive dismounted cyclists and peasants afflicted with the weight of their agricultural and even livestock loads.
A century and a half later. The U Bein Bridge Shines with Life
The U Bein bridge is secular. Accordingly, for many hundreds of its basic pillars, we did not detect any sign of modernity. men and women wear longyis typical and colorful, combined with simple shirts or coats.
Other passersby emerge protected from the tropical sun with traditional hats or heavy trays on which they balance pots and pans with aromatic meals. The bridge itself spares the inhabitants the fatigue, heat and monsoon rains that make the lake overflow.
It was equipped with side porches raised at intermediate points and equipped with seats. Young people who are already free of school use them for socializing and flirting on occasion. One or another seller has also settled there and is trying to ship their merchandise.
We stopped at one of these extensions. Safe from disturbing traffic, we examined the surroundings and spotted a colony of caricature lake beings, fishermen stuck in the water up to mid-trunk or, in some cases, up to their necks with their bamboo poles in hand.
Farming and Fishing for Every Taste on Lake Taungthaman
We increasingly confirm the dependence of the Burmese on these parts of both the bridge and the lake. And your ingenuity to take advantage of them depending on the seasons. A farmer leads a pair of buffaloes. Thus, he tills back and forth an isthmus of land recently dispensed with by the dry season.
In amphibious areas, other entrepreneurs maintain fish ponds and duck farms.
Troubled neighbors and, in recent times, also the authorities believe that the first activity is responsible for the degradation of the lake's water and also for the worsening of the bridge's condition.
U Nyein Win, owner of one of the riverside restaurants we came from, Zegyo Thu, was so sure of this that he recently shuddered to complain to the Myanmar Times: “In recent decades, farmed fish has caused the decline of the diversity of aquatic species, vegetation and the beauty of the lake.
Before there were many species of fish, they weren't just voracious tilapia as they are now. Furthermore, the water is increasingly stagnant and the pillars rot. Many have already lost their foundations.
They only remain in the structure because they are connected to others by sidebars. The bridge is still secure but that may not last.”
The New Era of the U Bein Bridge: Nurseries, Pollution and Mass Tourism
Last February, the Mayor of Mandalay, he counter-declared, without ceremonies, to journalists that he had no intention of dealing with cleaning the water, so that the residents and most of the lake's workers were left to hope that the Ministry of Culture would intervene more assertively.
Meanwhile, they are dedicated to collecting as many kyats as possible. Practically on the opposite end of the bridge, some of them were counting on our contribution.
The mainland of this bank is also occupied by small terrace restaurants. Since the sun had gone down drastically, we only had time to refresh ourselves in them with fresh coconut water and follow the first boatman who had approached us.
Unfortunately, the oars of your boat squeak without appeal and corrupt the magical near-silence around you.
The Twilight Rowing on This Side of the U Bein Bridge
But the great star had painted the western sky a bright orange that was still reddening, and the U bein bridge and all the passers-by who crossed it stood out in stark black against the fiery firmament. We give directions to the boatman to go through it according to the frames we are pursuing.
In addition to the sizzle, you can now hear the clicks of the chambers like a machine gun, the technical resource we are forced to resort to in order to make the monks and other pedestrians stand out in the small gaps between pillars.
The boatman who propelled us spoke almost no English, he was limited to interpreting our wishes. On the verge of the opposite bank, short-term tourist excursions had chartered all the boats, and the waters in the vicinity of the bridge were more disputed than ever.
Coerced by patrons to forget his manners, another rower comes too close to the bridge. It infuriates part of the boatmen and visitors who kept their distance.
To our amazement, our quiet rower exalts himself. He lashes out at his rival in Burmese, until he finally surrenders to the evidence.
Oblivious to these worldly disputes, the ball of the Sun fits between the pillars. It soon disappears to the other side of the world. Meanwhile, the dozens of boatmen who avoided each other on the lake had already transferred their passengers to the waiting buses.
With the complacency of ours, we were alone on the Taungthaman watching the wooden structure disappear into the shadows. Until the native decides to shorten his sentence and that of Mandalay's desperate rickshaw driver.
Speed up the disembarkation and farewell to Amarapura and the U Bein bridge.