Building Bridges

175 years ago, a man named U Bein built a bridge for his son outside of Mandalay, Myanmar. This is the story of where that bridge carried me.

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By helping others, you will learn how to help yourselves.
— Aung San Suu Kyi

A short car ride outside of Mandalay lies one of the most spectacular sights I’ve had the privilege of visiting. All the guide books & websites say the best time of day to see U Bein’s Bridge is sunset. 

We went at sunrise.

The year was 1850, or thereabouts as the legend goes, and a man named U Bein (or Oo Pain, if you prefer) was the mayor of Amarapura, one of Myanmar’s former capital cities. His son was a student in the monastery across Taungthaman Lake, about 13 circuitous miles away.

Education matters now and it mattered then, as this visionary man understood. In a place like Myanmar, monastic education is not only free, it offers many kids opportunities that open once impossible futures.

U Bein believed in making those futures possible, but thirteen miles every day, no matter the doors open at the end of such a journey, was too great an obstacle for so many. So, using reclaimed teak wood from the royal palace in neighboring Inwa (which had been home to 6 centuries of Burmese kings before they moved the capital to Mandalay) he built a bridge. This bridge — the longest of it's kind in the world.

This bridge that I found myself standing on 175, or so, years after it's construction.

More than a thousand pillars stretch out of the water bisecting the lake. The site would be breathtaking in any light, but at dawn? There aren't words, though it is not searching that keeps my mind coming back to this particular morning above all other moments in a trip full of unforgettable moments. Rather, it is a revelation dawning on me:

Today, on cross timbers fit for kings, uniformed students and saffron robed monks travel the same 1.2 kilometer path of U Bein’s son. 

Talk about a legacy.

Not only has U Bein’s bridge carried Burmese kids to school for almost 200 years, it has stood as a silent lecture in the classroom of life for those of us who visit from places he never knew.

Might we all hold education in such high regard.


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