The more you travel, the more you come to realize that often, the popular sights and destinations that you hear about in advance turn out to be, well, straight up disappointing. I find that often, these recommendations come from friends, family, and other sources who I would not consider “travellers”. The perspective of someone who goes to a city, region, or country for a week or two varies drastically from that of a person who spends months or years on the road at a time.
U Bein Bridge in Myanmar was one of these destinations for me. We hadn't necessarily been told by anyone we knew personally to visit the bridge, but it kept popping up in brochures, guides and websites as a cool place to visit for a few hours in the Mandalay area. The bridge is suspected to be the oldest and longest teak bridge in the world, built in 1850 and stretching for over a kilometer. It is still a vital pedestrian causeway and is supposedly a great look into the everyday lives of the monks and villagers who inhabit the island it connects with the mainland.
There's not much to do in Mandalay as it is, many visitors with pre-existing notions of the historic city are extremely disappointed to find that the modern city of Mandalay is an industrial dustbowl of a city, with little in the way of tourist infrastructure. I was arriving with zero expectations of the city, and found it pleasantly exotic in the way that – after spending 2 months in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia – I had arrived somewhere distinctly different, somewhere one step closer to the disorder and chaos of India.
So with little to do in the city itself after being there for a day or two already, my girlfriend Viv and I hired a couple of motorbike taxis and headed out to the bridge.
It was about a 20 minute drive from our guesthouse to the bridge, made longer by the fact that our drivers decided to first take us by their friends wood carving shop. The woodwork was incredible – and expensive – but we were not in the mood to shop so we urged our drivers to continue on. At this point we had lost one of our drivers though, having disappeared but left his bike out front, we later discovered that perhaps a secondary reason for this pit stop was that this driver had been badly in need of a toilet...
Back on our way, we were next taken to a pagoda that our drivers urged us to check out, but with some persistence we got the point across that we were really only interested in getting to the bridge. Reluctantly, they drove us through the pagoda complex, but unwilling to let us off the hook completely, pulled the bikes over a few km ahead at another pagoda, this one with a view of the famous bridge in the distance across Taungthaman Lake. This stop turned out to be a nice view of the lake, so after a short rest here, we got back on the bikes to finally complete the drive to U Bein Bridge itself.
Upon arriving, we immediately came to the realization that, while the bridge may still serve a vital function to the islands inhabitants, that function has perhaps become overshadowed by it's prominence as a tourist attraction. Food stalls, restaurants, trinket sellers and other micro-entrepreneurs had responded in great number to the opportunity presented by the hordes of tourists who come to see this supposedly authentic slice of Myanmar life. The result was a tacky collection of wood shacks, and locals who pester tourists incessantly to buy their goods, all clustered around the one end of the bridge.
As is so often the case, tourists had turned what was once an interesting view into a peoples way of life, into – well, pretty much nothing. The original draw of watching the monks and villagers come and go along this unique and ancient piece of architecture had now been turned into place where wealthy, mostly older, white tourists could crowd onto and congratulate themselves on witnessing some “local culture”, even though the locals were now outnumbered by the tourists 20:1.
I've since heard, that at sunrise, very early in the morning, the bridge still carries some of it's former mystique. Locals walk their bicycles across the bridge on the way to work, groups of monks make their way to the island pagodas, and most tourists are still asleep in their hotel beds. I guess it gives me hope that a part of the local life that has remained practically unchanged for hundreds of years is still able to carry on, despite the intense and overblown tourist interest. It's also just one of many warnings however, to be responsible in our travels, respect and observe cultural practices, but never interfere or disrupt.
I'd love to hear what experiences or places had been built up to you, but ended up being disappointments. Are there places you've travelled to that due to the volume of tourists, the whole experience had been negated? Let me know in the comments, I'd love to hear from you!