GOLDEN SUNRISE AT U BEIN BRIDGE
One of the most photogenic and photographed spots in the whole of Myanmar is U Bein Bridge, the world’s oldest wooden bridge. Situated an hour’s drive South of Mandalay, en route to the town of Sagaing, U Bein Bridge makes for a wonderful spot to watch sunrise. Which is what got us up and out of bed at 4:30am, and out the door at 5:00am.
The drive out of Mandalay took us through dusty streets just awakening. We quickly left the city behind and crossed into rural Myanmar. It was fascinating watching people start their day and seeing the beauty of the landscape gradually revealed.
We got to the U Bein Bridge just as the sky was lightening. As soon as we stepped out of the car, the mosquitoes descended, but fortunately we had super-strength bug spray with us. Bities kept at bay, we set off to cross the ancient wooden crossing. It was a hazy morning (as is typical at this time of year), making it a muted sunrise, but still beautiful.
U Bein Bridge spans Taungthaman Lake and connects the townships of Amarapura and Sagaing. The 1.2-kilometre long bridge was built around 1850 using wood reclaimed from a former royal palace, and is actually still in use. We expected to come and see a tourist attraction bust instead found the bridge packed with locals, going out for a morning stroll or using the passage to get from one side of the lake to the other.
The highlight of the morning was watching a hot air balloon depart from the banks of the lake, and seeing how excited all the locals got seeing the balloon take off.
Everyone was taking photos of the balloon as it took off, at which point WE became the star attraction! We’ve been asked repeatedly since we arrived in Myanmar to have our photo taken with the locals – seems Caucasians are still a rare enough sight here that we’re fascinating! I guess it’s no different to us being mesmerized by the sight of monks and nuns and wanting to take THEIR photos. It has struck us as fascinating how ubiquitous mobile phones are here. The country has only been “open” for a little over a decade; they still don’t have consistent electricity supply, drinkable running water, or basic sanitation; and barely any one knows how to use a computer – but virtually everyone has a mobile phone! It’s just interesting to see how some developing countries are skipping over decades of technological developments and jumping straight to modern contrivances.
Once the sun had risen we got back in the car and drove the rest of the way to Sagaing, a small town famous for its crafts and 200 Buddhist monasteries and nunneries (Sagaing is home to about 10,000 monks and 4,000 nuns). We spent the morning visiting craft workshops, seeing how the skilled artisans made their wares using centuries-old techniques. Amongst the craftsmen we visited were a traditional wood carving center and an alabaster carving workshop. It was amazing seeing how intricately detailed their work was.
We also stopped by a potter’s workshop where clay from the Irrawaddy River was thrown on a foot-powered wheel and turned into pots of all shapes and sizes. The potter herself demonstrated her skills for us, including how she carries pots on her head for sale at the market.
Last but not least we saw how they make gold leaf by hand. Gold leaf is highly prized in Myanmar for use in religious ceremonies and to gild images of Buddha. The process involves sheets of gold to be beaten into gossamer-thin sheets which are cut into squares which are typically measure just 0.0001cm thick (i.e. thinner than paper). To achieve this feat, small pieces of the precious metal are placed between sheets of parchment and pounded repeatedly with wooden mallets. It looked like an incredibly labour-intensive process!
By this stage it was late morning – time for the second (and final) meal of the day for all Buddhist monks. As is traditional in Theravada Buddhism, monks in the Sagaing area all get fed through donations. Some of the local monasteries are happy for tourists to come and watch their twice-daily alms-giving procession*, as long as you’re respectful. And so, thanks to our local guide, we had the privilege of visiting the Myasekkya Monastery for a tour of their grounds and to witness their lunchtime procession.
*The alms ritual is one of the most important practices in Theravada Buddhism. Traditionally, Buddhist monks must receive alms only in the form of food and other basic needs such as robes, sandals, etc.
Renown for the excellence of its academic and religious teachings, Myasekkya Monastery is home to 400 monks and novices, aged from 9 to 79 years old. We saw all the residents of the monastery silently and humbly queuing for their lunchtime meal, all dressed in their simple maroon robes and leather slippers. It was a very touching sight and really made us wonder how different our view of life would be if we had to rely on the generosity of strangers for every meal and possession.
Before heading back to Mandalay we made a brief photo stop at the U Min Thonze Pagoda, situated at the top of Sagaing Hill. Its Burmese name, U Min Thonze, translates to “30 Caves” because of the 30 entrances into the pagoda. Inside this crescent shaped pagoda 45 Buddha statues sit next to one another, serenely staring out across the monasteries and nunneries of Sagaing.
Our day of sightseeing ended there, with lunch and the drive back to Mandalay followed by a relaxing afternoon in our hotel room, resting after our early start.
In the evening we went to see a traditional Burmese puppet show. Puppetry was a form of royal entertainment for centuries, from the 11th century to the end of the Burman royal line in the 19th century. Traditional Burmese puppet shows have 28 main characters, ranging from gods, animals, monsters and royals. The puppets are carved from wood and dressed in colourful costumes, all skillfully controlled by the puppeteers using a complicated array of strings. The accompanying music and singing was a little abrasive for our liking, but it was still interesting to see this traditional art form on display.
We’ve had an amazing few days here in Myanmar so far, especially because it’s so apparent that this is a country on the cusp of change. This is currently the poorest country in Asia with a GDP per person lower than even that of Bangladesh, and development is inevitable. We can only hope, however, that as modernity and all its benefits reaches Myanmar, the uniqueness of its culture, the authenticity of its sweet people, and its natural beauty is protected and retained.