Plans for Burma’s Longest Teak Bridge Spark Debate

By Zarni Mann 25 February 2014

MANDALAY — The Burma government is planning to repair the country’s longest teak wood bridge—a heavily trafficked, century-old structure with rotting pillars—but archeologists and historians are voicing concerns.

For safety reasons, repairs need to begin soon at U Bein Bridge in Mandalay Division, but a debate has arisen over the best material for the replacement pillars. While some have called for more teak wood, the government says concrete would be a longer lasting alternative.

“We do maintenance every year. The pillars are in terrible condition and we are considering substituting them with concrete pillars for better strength and durability,” Deputy Minister of Culture Than Swe told reporters at a press conference in Mandalay last week.

“But there are some complaints and disagreements from people who do not want to see a cement bridge. They want a wooden bridge, as it is.”

The 4.5-meter-tall bridge stretches more than 1,200 meters across Taungthaman Lake in Amarapura township, and the deputy minister said 984 teak planks would be required for repairs.

“It is really difficult for us to find these teak planks to replace the ruined ones,” he said. “Donors seem unable to donate them because this kind of wood is scarce in our country. We are still in discussions because we do not want to harm the original structure or detract from its style.”

Archeologists and historians have criticized proposals for cement pillars.

“This [bridge] is a major attraction in the region and a valuable part of our heritage because it is the oldest and longest teak wood bridge in the country,” Aye Myint, a veteran traditional designer, told The Irrawaddy. “If we substitute with cement pillars, it will be no different from bridges that were built to cross the Irrawaddy River.”

He added that smaller repairs to the bridge about 15 years ago were also criticized when concrete was used for pillars spanning about 20 or 30 meters. During annual repairs, new wooden boards have been used to upgrade the floor of the bridge.

Win Maung (Tampawadee), a traditional architect and archeologist, said he did not understand why the government was struggling to replace the wooden pillars.

“If they really want to maintain the original structure, it would be very easy for them to find the required teak planks because our country is famous for teak wood,” he said. “If it is really difficult to find new teak planks, that would be a pity. It would indicate that our country cannot use its own teak wood to preserve our heritage because we are selling it to foreign countries.”

Built over 160 years ago, U Bein Bridge is an important route for hundreds of commuters who travel daily from an islet in the center of the lake to Amarapura, but rotted wood has led to holes at the bottom of several of the bridge’s teak planks. In addition to natural wear over time, experts have suggested that government decisions contributed to the decay.

Islet located in the center of the lake, need to go to amarapura by crossing the bridge, schoolchildren and workers. Also some tourists, local and foreigner, they are working along the bridge.

Historically, Taungthaman Lake naturally dried up during the late winter and summer seasons. At this time, people who fished during the rainy season turned their attention to farming, using the lake area to grow crops peanuts, beans and corn.

Starting in the early 1990s, the former military regime ordered the construction of an embankment to maintain high water levels during every season. Since then, historians, archeologists and local residents have complained about possible damage to the bridge.

According to the Ministry of Culture’s department of archeology in Mandalay, which is responsible for the repairs, experts have called for an end to this control of the seasonal water drainage system.

The bridge was built in 1849 by U Bein, a local resident who was known to have received favors from a Bagan king and was later appointed as mayor of Amarapura. Most of the teak planks were reportedly taken from old monasteries in the area, with permission from the king.

The bridge was intended to allow for easier transportation for people who lived on the islet, especially during the rainy season when the lake filled with water. However, legends say U Bein built the bridge for more selfish reasons. These stories hold that the mayor mistreated the residents of Amarapura and was looking for a way to escape to the islet quickly if a rebellion ever seemed likely.