Sunrise at U Bein Bridge is one of the most magical experiences in Myanmar.
We were all eager to see the famed sunrise over U Bein Bridge. As eager as we could be as we departed our hotel at 4am hoping we wouldn’t be splashed that early by the Thingyan water festival onslaught. We had all seen photos and gasped with an “ooo ahh” at the Instagram photos. In truth, I hadn’t ever seen photos or heard of U Bein Bridge, and I would have most likely passed through Mandalay and moved on had it not been for Jean.
Our group for part of the travels through Myanmar consisted of my great friend Zach, who has accompanied me on wild adventures through Thailand and Cambodia, and Jean of Traveling Honeybird, who was thankfully much better at planning than Zach and I. Because of her, we found out about this UNESCO World Heritage site after she showed us some of the photos during a rare dry spell in Mandalay.
Without the oh so delicious instant coffee from the prison-like cafeteria of our hote,l I was a bit groggy in the twilight. Soon after dozing in the taxi, Jean woke me as we approached Taungthaman Lake and the sun began to break over the horizon. Silhouettes of trees lining the lake ignited in the first of dawn’s light.
The World’s Oldest Teak Wood Bridge
It isn’t the oldest bridge in the world, but U Bein Bridge is the oldest and longest teakwood bridge in the world. It wasn’t going anywhere, after all it’s been there since 1851, but nonetheless, I stumbled out of the car and along the gravel as fast as my still asleep legs would wobble.
When you first approach, as is the case with most attractions pretty much anywhere, souvenir stands line the entrance and hawkers try to sell you every kind of trinket. I didn’t need any coconuts carved into the shapes of faces, nor did I need any croaking frogs of various shapes and sizes. I’m still haunted by that never-ending “ribbit” noise as they follow you stroking the rigged wooden frog with a grin. I’m not lying, I have nightmares of that sound.
By the time we made it to the beginning of the bridge, the sky had already turned from blackness, to a deep silver, and now was turning molten gold. As we stepped onto the bridge we passed a “monk” that sat near the entrance and held out his hand. When we made eye contact, he called out “money” and pointed in his hand over and over, but I’ve been through most of Southeast Asia, and I know the those trick monks.
We followed the other monks that passed by him, and soon I had my first of many trips over the uneven wood planks.
SUNRISE OR SUNSET AT U BEIN BRIDGE?
Personally, we think sunrise is best. The landscape seemed to hold its breath as the sun rose higher. The birds ceased chirping. The distant prayers drifted away. Footsteps silenced. Everything seemed to freeze for a few seconds. The lake shone like a dark mirror with the silhouettes of canoes and trees reflected on the surface so still, the world could have been turned upside down and nobody would see the difference.
After the seconds of stillness passed, the sky was full of light and the landscape glowed. Everything came back to life. Early fishermen cast nets in the lake. Birds glided over the now rippled water. The footsteps of tourists began to clip-clop across the smooth wood. Prayers could be heard echoing across the lake. Farmers carried sacks across. More monks in large groups passed over U Bein Bridge. going to prayer, or stopping to take selfies like the rest of us. Who am I kidding, I don’t take selfies.
As one group of overly dressed tourists stopped a monk near us to take a selfie, the moment had faded. Somehow these ladies had managed to not just walk, but survive the distance, in 3-inch heels across crooked planks spanning 1086 pillars. I couldn’t even do that without stumbling a handful of times. After we walked to the end of the bridge, we all turned around. I know I could have stayed all morning taking photos from every angle but we were tired, hungry, and U Bein Bridge would soon be overflowing with people.
For a few seconds there, the three of us had been alone on that section of the bridge for that moment of stillness. And it was one of the best sunrises I’ve experienced.
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THE REALITY OF VISITING U BEIN BRIDGE
The real story of U Bein bridge is that it is definitely breathtaking and worth seeing above most other things near Mandalay. I believe the true magic lies in experiencing U Bein Bridge at sunrise. As you can see from the photos the lake itself is beautiful, and watching the monks wander across in their crimson and orange robes is simply a different and more meaningful look at the culture than what you see at many temples. Here they were strolling and laughing and having a good time as they crossed.
The downside is that yes, you do have the false monks you run into on occasion asking for money or trying to sell you something. There are souvenir stands right at the entrance and people will try to sell you things. Just ignore them and try to soak up the scenery and moment.
Another reality is, just like many Southeast Asian countries, the trash problem is apparent. When we showed up, there was a young man below sweeping litter from the shore and getting nowhere with it. Below in the grassland, as the sun rose full, you could see bottles and trash dotting the landscape. Hopefully, UNESCO will follow up with maintenance and upkeep of certain Heritage sites, but this is a problem all across Southeast Asia. It’s still worth a visit. Just make sure that any rubbish you bring, you take back out.
TIPS FOR VISITING U BEIN BRIDGE
- Get there early, leave your hotel by 4-4:30am
- Book your taxi through your hotel, they will usually have a set rate for the drive there and back. Do not take a taxi off of the street, they will overcharge, and more for return.
- Bring water and snacks. We left in a hurry, but by the time the sun was fully up, we were already cooking and feeling dehydrated. There are snack stands there, but most of it was chips and candy. Bring something like nuts or fruits with you.
- Wear sunscreen. If you stay long past sunrise it will get hot quick, and there isn’t much shade. Plus, the reflection of the sun on the water can cook you faster.
- Watch your step. And please don’t wear heels! That should be a given, but I saw it happen. The boards are slick and uneven so be careful.
- Don’t give money to the monks demanding payment at the entrance to the bridge. All around Southeast Asia you have what I consider false monks, those who try to get tourists and travelers to give money or pay for blessings. That isn’t at all something that a dedicated monk would do.