Traditional style, teak U Bein Bridge, stretching over scenic Taungthaman Lake, is one of Burma's most iconic sights. Mandalay and its surrounding ancient cities have an abundance of attractions and sunset views, but if you only have time for one in Mandalay, it would have to be this.
South of Mandalay’s modern city centre, U Bein Bridge leads the way to the former Burmese capital city of Amarapura. The ageing bridge stretches 1.2 kilometres to the other shore, making it the longest bridge of its kind in the world. Mayor U Bein is credited for the creation of the bridge in the 1850s, using scavenged teak pilings from the discarded palace of Amarapura when King Mindon moved the capital to Mandalay.
The bridge is now on the shaky side; it will sway, perhaps uncomfortably, as other people walk along it. Many portions of the bridge have no handrails and some planks lie quite unattached to the structure, but strategic spots have been reinforced with cement to keep it safe and usable. An overall overhaul was underway when we visited in mid-2016 but thankfully new teak rather than concrete was being used to replace old rotten sections.
During the dry season from February to May, the water level drops dramatically, allowing you to meander under the bridge and through small crop fields planted by farmers taking advantage of the rich soil. During wet season, the water level can reach the top of the bridge, and in some years has even covered the walkway.
The sunset draws the most attention to U Bein, when the sun slips behind hills and trees with vast farmlands and spires in the foreground; a low angle view creates the spectacular lake reflection and silhouette against the western sky. This is one of the most photogenic locations in all of Burma. Fishermen and other boat owners offer boat rides around and through the bridge. In high season there’ll be a wide arc of camera-touting tourist boats and indeed during busy months you’ll need to get there early to find a free boatman. They seat up to four foreigners and the going rate is 10,000 kyat.
You’ll find the boats aside the main carpark. A popular plan is to walk across, then boat back, while a set of wooden steps in the centre also allows you to pick up a boat halfway. In either case you’ll have to make prior arrangements with a boatman since they’re usually only available from the one side of the bridge.
During busy periods you might want to think about sunrise instead, when far fewer visitors are around. Early morning and late afternoon are the busiest times for the bridge’s local commuters, with a constant stream of trinket vendors, monks and local tourists crossing the bridge on foot or by bicycle. It’s not uncommon for foreigners to be approached by monks and locals and asked to pose for photos — they will likely be happy to return a pose and make some conversation.
Getting to the bridge a little before sunset is a great idea, as it gives you time to explore its shores. A souvenir market offers marionette puppets, wood carvings, local jade jewellery and art, and there's also a selection of well-placed cafes, which can get a bit grotty on weekends when hordes of littering locals descend. On the Amarapura side of the bridge, Taunthaman village has restaurants to recharge at after your walk over and exploration of Kyauktawgyi Paya. This paya was built in the same manner as the Bagan temples, but has a Tibetan-styled roof.
U Bein is best done in conjunction with other sites on the city’s south side such as Sagaingand Inva. Getting a couple of other people together and splashing out on a taxi is the best way but however you elect to do it, save the bridge visit for last.
How to get there
Lake Taungthaman and U Bein Bridge are around 10 kilometres south of Mandalay's city centre, to the east of the prolongation of 84th Street, which leads down to the Sagaing Bridge. Return taxi fare is around 18,000 kyat. There may be a ticket booth operational in which case you’ll need to show your Mandalay combo ticket.
By Mark Ord.
Last updated on 24th September, 2016.