Two canoeists paddling forward under U Bein Bridge, Amarapura, near Mandalay, Burma. I love the hats that they wear – so effective against the sun.
According to the Lonely Planet Guidebook. to go over the river from Yangon to Dala and Twante still required a permit as of December 2011. When the restrictions were lifted, I still haven’t been able to find out, but as our guest house staff were adamant that tourists no longer required a permit, we decided to chance it. And I’m so glad we did – only an hour away from Yangon is a completely different world, not often ventured into by visitors…
Meet this child. I don’t know his name. I didn’t talk to him – I can’t speak his language. He’s a refugee. Whether he was born in Myanmar/Burma or in the refugee camp, I don’t know. He’s one of many. There are an estimated 160,000 refugees in camps on the Thai-Burma border, and 40-50,000 of those are in the largest, Mae La. All of those need food rations, bamboo rations, charcoal rations, drinking water, electricity, blankets, a home, somewhere to go when the camps are closed, an education, a teacher, a future. All of that costs money. It can be easy to think in numbers. But remember that each refugee is unique and has his or her own story to tell. What will happen to this little boy when the camps are closed?
About 7 miles from Mandalay is the world’s longest teak bridge at 1.2 km. We chose to rent bikes and cycle there, and I’m glad we did; it’s surprising how quickly the landscape, the atmosphere and the infrastructure change going from place to place in Burma. And despite the fact that we were cycling between two major tourist sites, we were off the beaten route as soon as we left Mandalay. The villagers who live alongside the lake clearly found it quite an unusual sight to see four tourists cycle past them. The kids ran out to see us; to point, to stare, to laugh and to giggle at the camera from behind their hands – something that didn’t happen once we reached the tour bus car park a couple of kilometers further. The majority of tourists clearly arrive by taxi or tour bus.
The Lonely Planet stated that we’d have to pay $10 per person (another of those unavoidable government fees) to walk along the bridge, but there weren’t any officials and there wasn’t anywhere to buy tickets. We took a boat across the lake on the way across – much the best way to view the bridge – and then walked back. The bridge itself is fantastic. It’s a tourist destination and has its fair share of touts and cafes, but there are still substantially more locals than tourists. It was, however, hard to visit without wondering what will happen to it as Myanmar opens to more and more visitors. It’s the sort of thing that won’t cope with a huge surge in footfall – and I can’t imagine enjoying walking along it if it ever gets that busy – but, used as a local bridge to get from A to B, I can’t see how the flow of people could legitimately be limited. It’s one of those places in Myanmar which really shows the potential the country has if it opens up, but also the possibility for its heritage to be damaged if the influx of visitors isn’t dealt with well.
My final half-day in Burma was Independence Day. Being that everything was closed, there was little for us to do but wander the streets of Rangoon. Throughout the city, roads were closed for children’s sports races, megaphones everywhere were barking the results, and there was a general party atmosphere across town.