Burma’s Most Famous Bridge Soon Irreversibly Lost

The story of the bridge in question begins 10 years prior to its actually being built with a natural disaster of hitherto unseen scale.

Owing to the long period of 10 years between the disaster and the bridge’s being build these two events do at first glance not seem to be directly connected but this is not so; they are. Without the particular event the bridge would not have been build – especially not with the material it was built with – and in so far it is safe to say that the event in 1839 and the beginning of the building of the bridge in 1849 are closely related. That is why I say that it is the year 1839 in which the disaster took place and not the beginning of the construction of the bridge in 1849 that constitutes the very beginning of the history of the bridge. This bridge would later be an important traffic connection between the shores of a lake and for both city and region a very important major tourist attraction and significant source of income with tens of thousands of local and foreign users and visitors per year.

The tragic part of this story is that the bridge is exposed to the very real and serious threat of vanishing. Not as a bridge but as an important piece of historic heritage and unique contemporary witness of Burma’s royal past. Why is this so? This is so because the very purpose this bridge was built for in combination with the facts that it has become a major tourist attraction is both blessing and curse; and currently it seems to be much more curse than blessing.

Viewed from a purely objective point of view the bridge as such is not much to write home about for it is not exactly what can be called beautiful and it is no architectural masterpiece either. It could easily be just another wooden bridge would there not be some very particular features namely its considerable age, its historical value, the very special source of the material it was built with and its remarkable lengths. These especially noteworthy characteristics are those that elevate the bridge from the level of ‘just another ordinary wooden bridge’, which it was to the level of ‘valuable and irretrievable historic heritage’, into what it has developed. The latter i.e. ‘valuable historic heritage’ is, alas, for most of the local population not important. To them it is indeed only the bridge’s function as passageway, the initial and only purpose it was to serve that counts. At the time the bridge was build no one wanted to build ‘the world’s largest teak bridge’, or a ‘cultural heritage’ or a ‘major point of interest’ or an ‘important source of income’.

When looking at and thinking about this bridge we have to take a different approach and look at it from another angle. We have to take the pre-bridge time view and not the current time point of view. In other words we have to be aware that the aspect of ‘point of interest, cultural heritage, etc’ became important only later with the passage of time and the development of tourism. However, there was no tourism at all in 1849, no tourism worth mentioning before 1962 (General Ne Win’s coupe d’etat and the military junta’s taking over the country) and virtually no tourism at all between 1962 and 1996 when the country was practically closed to foreigners. This means for a period of 34 years – almost half of a human’s lifetime there was almost no foreigner in this region and, subsequently, it was for the local population nothing more than what it was meant to be; just a wooden bridge that constituted a convenient way of reaching the other side of the lake.

This point of view is still dominant in those local peoples’ minds that do not need the bridge as a source of income and do not see bridge against its historical backdrop. It takes time to rise particularly among the young people awareness for the historical significance of the bridge. By the by, the lack of appreciation of the historic value of the bridge is also the reason for its not being kept in proper conditions; more to this a few lines further into the article.

Enough of secrecy, now! So, what exactly is it that I am talking about? I am talking about an at the time in question unprecedented natural disaster in 1839 and the from 1849 to 1851 built U Pain Bridge (in the following referred to as U Bein Bridge) that connects the western shore area of the Taung Tha Man Lake with the nearby Maha Gandar Yone Kyaung (monastery) and the Taung Ming Paya (pagoda) at the lake’s narrowest and shallowest part with its eastern shore area with the nearby Kyauktawgyi Temple and Yadanabon University in the former Royal Burmese capital Amarapura.

The Taung Tha Man Lake is in a manner of speaking only a ‘part-time’ lake because only in the period from roughly July to October (rainy season) it is filled with water and serves as source of freshly caught freshwater fish whereas in the period from about November to June the shallow lake is practically dried up and its fertile bottom is used for growing vegetable and turned into a source of garden fresh vegetables and herbs.

In the following I will – briefly putting it in its historical context – write the U Bein Bridge story from what I deem to be its very beginning to the present.

Both natural disaster and the building of the U Bein Bridge took place in a period in which kings used to move their capitals back and forth between Ava/Inwa and Amarapura, a time of rapid changing of rulers and a time of destroying and rebuilding. A period of only 75 years within which 5 kings, namely King Bodawpaya, King Bagyidaw, King Tharrawaddy, King Pagan and King Mindon moved 4 times their capital from Ava to Amarapura and vice versa before king Mindon finally moved his capital to Mandalay and Amarapura – known as the ‘City of Immortality’ – as well as Ava/Inwa – known as ‘Rathapura’, ‘The City of Gems’ – lost their statuses as royal capitals for good and fell more or less into oblivion.

Now it is time to come to the natural disaster that in a manner of speaking got the ‘U Bein Bridge’ ball rolling and the bridge itself, in this order.

It happened in the wee hours of Saturday, the 23rd of March 1839, at about 04:00 am and is in written records described by immediate eye witnesses as something comparable only to doomsday. With a large part of Ava’s population still blissfully sleeping the people were totally unaware of what was about to happen and many of them would never know what had hit them. The ground started to shake heavily and wave-like with everything on it bobbing up and down. Water from the nearby Ayeyawaddy River rose in a massive wave and flow back, like being hit by a giant fist the earth opened up and huge gaps appeared swallowing everything and everyone that happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Buildings toppled, walls tumbled down and massive clouds of dust rose upwards and darkened the sky that was just about to lighten up. What had just happened was the Sagaing Fault – also called Ava or Amarapura – earthquake of a till then unknown magnitude that is described as ‘massive’ and ‘major’. The rumble was heard and the vibrations were felt throughout the entire country. After 2-3 minutes it was all over. The earthquake had reduced most buildings in the entire region including Sagaing, Mingun and Ava to rubble, left very deep and wide fissures in the ground and up to thousand people dead and injured many of them seriously. It was hell on earth. The royal palace did not remain untouched; it too was heavily damaged. When the dust had settled and the enormous damages the earthquake had caused became visible king Tharrawaddy instantly decided to leave and begin to move his capital from Ava back to Amarapura on the opposite, the western side of the Myitnge River.

Ava and its wider surrounding have never been quite the same ever since then and the scars covering the wounds the earthquake has inflicted on the region are still visible today. Only a few historically very valuable buildings such as the Nanmyin Watch Tower, the Maha Aungmye Bonzan Kyaung and the Maha-wei-yan-bon-tha Kyaung (Bargayar Monastery) just to name a few have survived the earthquake some of them heavily damaged and later repaired or rebuilt.

Only 2 years after the earthquake that went down in Burma’s history as one of its heaviest, in 1841, the new capital was ready, the new palace was build and the royal court’s move to Amarapura, which remained Burmese capital till 1861, was completed. King Tharrawaddy ruled till 1846 and was succeeded by his son, the very cruel King Pagan, who remained all the time of his short reign of 8 years from 1846 to 1853, in Amarapura. During his reign the bridge was build.

In connection with the U Bein Bridge it is helpful to know about the small but deciding detail that in all kingdoms that existed in the area of what is nowadays called Burma (since 1989 also called Myanmar), from the first, the Mon, to the second, the Pyu, to the last, the Bamar/Burmans and thereafter during the British colonial time, Muslims have always been well liked and respected and played important roles in high positions at royal courts, in the military and otherwise. This was the same in Amarapura. Muslims, many of whom were soldiers and high ranking court members made up a sizeable portion of Amarapura’s population.

King Pagan had appointed the Sunni Muslim Sri Bai Sab (Burmese name U Shwe Oh) Governor of the new royal capital Amarapura and U Pain, like Bai Sab Muslim, was promoted to the position of Personal Assistant to the Governor. It is often said and written that the U Bein Bridge was built by Amarapura’s Major U Pain (Bein); this is not correct. U Pain was not major but Personal Assistant to the Governor and the so-called major was actually Governor. He was a Muslim with the Burmese name U Shwe Oh and the bridge was not built by him on his order, respectively, but by his assistant U Pain with the approval of King Pagan and Governor U Shwe Oh. U Pain had suggested connecting the western part of Amarapura with the eastern part by a bridge, re-using the teak pillars, beams, planks and other needed wooden pieces from the old and badly damaged royal teak palace in Ava/Innwa. That they did, starting to build the bridge in late 1849 and completing it in early 1851. By then the bridge had reached a total lengths of 3.967 ft/1.209 m and a width of 9 ft/3 m.

Atop the bridge’s platform were 4 pavilions built as shaded resting places of equal size and placed in equal distance from one another. Because the two approach bridge were originally made of bricks the wooden part of the bridge was shorter than today and a total of ‘only’ 984 vertically in equal distance placed and 7 ft/2.3 m deep dug in pillars with conically shaped tops were used to safely support the platform (walkway) with pavilions and to sufficiently stabilise the bridge sideways. The average height of the pillars is 22 ft/7 m. Later the brick-made approach bridges were replaced by wooden bridge approaches what increased the total number of teak pillars used to 1.086.

And this historically valuable relic of bygone times, arguably the world’s largest and oldest teak bridge is now on the verge of being irreversibly destroyed if nothing substantial is done in the immediate future. The bridge will most likely survive as bridge even when parts of it collapse. It will be repaired and put back into operation for it is needed as passageway but it will lose all of its historical value and significance and be downgraded to ‘just another wooden bridge’. That bridge will then have nothing in the way of historic value or cultural importance left. Then the point of interest ‘U Bein Bridge’ will be no more and tourists will have no reason to come here anymore; a huge loss for Amarapura and its economy and equally, if not more important even, a crime in terms of Amarapura’s history.

When I compare the bridge and its environment that I have seen 26 years ago with the current one that is struggling to survive I am plain speechless. Even without taking a second, closer look at the bridge in its present conditions it is immediately obvious how time has unimpeded and slowly but unremittingly and inexorable ravaged this important landmark of Amarapura and highlight of its history. Time did not pass by without leaving clearly visible traces and the U Bein Bridge has already lost much of its original appearance and charm. But what exactly was and is it that has left and is leaving the bridge so badly scarred?

It’s a complex matter that goes beyond one single reason. The main reason is – never mind the repeatedly given contrary statements, assertions and promises on the part of those authorities from top down that have been responsible for the proper maintenance of the bridge – an almost unsurpassable measure of ignorance, indifference, insensitivity and inaptness with respect to the correct handling of the cultural heritage ‘U Bein Bridge’.

The total lack of respect for the historical value of this teak bridge reaches its climax when modern metal nails and screws, concrete (yes, concrete pillars to replace teak wood pillars of an historic wooden bridge, come to think of that!!), wood of lesser quality as well as modern tools and techniques are used for the purpose of repairing (mind you, repairing, not restoring!!) this historical heritage as it happened in the past, still happens and I am afraid will also happen in the future. As if this would not be bad enough we will also have to add political passivity and unwillingness to spend money for a thorough restoration of the bridge; it’s a shame.

Other reasons that reveal a severe lack of awareness or indifference combined with self-interest on part of Amarapura’s administration, commoners and business people are – among other – decade long traffic with bicycles, pushcarts and even motorbikes (the latter was forbidden in September 2012 but practically no one is despite the presence of police abiding by it), throwing trash into hollow teak pillars what speeds up rotting of the wood, throwing burning cigarettes into hollow teak pillars what has several times set parts of the bridge on fire, wilful shaking of the bridge by larger groups of drunken people (especially during Thingyan, the Burmese New Year/Water Festival) what has caused serious damage to the teak pillars (some are actually broken at their base), the breading and farming of fish during rainy season in consequence of which the water becomes stagnant what causes underwater erosion of the teak pillars’ bases (actually, the base of a large number of pillars has already rotten away so that the pillars cannot longer support the bridge. On the contrary, what keeps these pillars from simply toppling and falling into the water or to the bottom of the lake (depending on whether it is rainy or dry season) is that they are with their upper parts connected to other parts of the structure as well as massive daily pedestrian traffic. All of these combined with the existence of voracious termites leave their traces, as does the ravage of time.

What has so far been done in terms of maintenance and repair of the bridge has been very sporadic, limited to the absolute necessary and rather sloppy. It can – against the backdrop of its age of 165 years, the extreme wear and tear it was and is exposed to and the subsequent continuous maintenance it would have needed – be called almost negligible what has, finally, led to the extremely deplorable state of advanced decay the U Bein Bridge is currently in.

I have tried to find out about what has been done in the past in order to keep the bridge in good conditions and protect it from greater damage and found out that proactive measures have never been taken. Showing a total lack of respect for the historical value of this cultural heritage repairs (and not professional maintenance!) took place only when it had become really unavoidable and in ‘patchwork style’. Also, there is no complete and/or detailed list of records of maintenance and/or repairs that have been performed in pre-2004 times although it is known that there have been 11 repairs at the bridge between 1946 and 2004. As far as repairs during British colonial times and pre-British colonial times are concerned I did also not find anything at all. The following list shows what meagre information my research has so far yielded with respect to bridge repairs and cost (MMK=Myanmar Kyat) in:

2004 35 million MMK, USD?

2005 17 million MMK, USD?

2008 4.8 million MMK, USD?

2013 13 million MMK, (1 USD = 925 MMK = total USD 14.054)

2014 13 million MMK, (1 USD = 1.000 MMK = total USD 13.000)

2015 227 million MMK, (1 USD = 1.137 MMK = total USD 199.648)

2016 240 million MMK, (1 USD = 1.187 MMK = total USD 202.190)

In view of these modest – to say the least – sums it is obvious that the U Bein Bride is doomed to collapse for these sums do by far not meet what is needed to not only restore the bridge true to its original but also to keep it that way in the future.

The measures that do now need to urgently be taken are to have a complete restoration of the U Bein Bridge approved by all authorities on City Development Committee level, Divisional Government level and State Government level concerned, to ensure that the needed funds will be available as and when required, to make a proper planning including timetable based on thorough survey and research and to execute the restoration and conversation measures under the supervision of a team of qualified historians and archaeologists within the framework of coordinated measures. These need to be based on an overarching holistic restoration plan using contemporary materials, tools and techniques to restore and keep the bridge as authentic as possible. If need be advice and practical support of foreign restaurateurs should be requested not only in order to take an active part in the conservation work but also to provide proper vocational training in conservation work to local artisans.

Additionally to the work that needs to be done on the bridge it is advisable to create an environment that is conducive to the preservation of the bridge (e.g. no water pollution) and pleasant to the visitors eye.

People have to understand that the ordinary, less expensive carpenters that are usually hired to keep the cost low do not have the special skills needed to preserve this cultural heritage. Restoring this historic bridge is not like knocking together a wooden house or repairing it or making wooden door blades and window frames. This lack of preservation-oriented professional expertise is another major obstacle to the restoration and conservation of the bridge. The task of preserving the U Bein Bridge requires experienced and highly skilled carpenters with firsthand experience in performing restoration work. The authorities concerned who have so far badly failed to do what was and is their duty (restoring and preserving the bridge) and the people using the bridge as source of income will have to chose between the loss of maybe one annual income from the bridge or all of the potential future income from it because the cultural heritage will if nothing is done now not exist anymore; it’s that easy.

By the way, in order to get a continuous inflow of money that can be used to finance a part of repair maintenance measures it is certainly possible to commercialise the bridge in that tourists are charged a fair entry fee of, say, 2.000 MMK or 2 USD; just a thought.

Let’s wait and see what will happen. I am not very optimistic but hope that the future will prove me wrong.