Today heralds the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere. The last couple of weeks leading up to this seasonal turning point have been characterised, in eastern England at least, by unseasonally sunny skies and sunsets so magnificent they seem to be defying the script that dictates that late December should be grim, grey and gloomy. These are short days, certainly, but days that have been beautifully illuminated by a cool, low-slung orange sun. Oddly enough, this has put me in mind of another orange sun in an altogether more exotic place.
U Bein’s Bridge at Amarapura near Mandalay in Myanmar/Burma is a well-known tourist hotspot in that country. The 1300m-long footbridge is thought to be the longest teak bridge in the world but that is not really the reason why visitors flock here. The truth is: this particular bridge is so photogenic that if you have ever perused the glossy travel literature offered by tour operators that deal with Myanmar the chances are you will have already seen it. Tour companies tend to know what tourists want and U Bein’s Bridge is a prime example of how the iconic and visually appealing has been successfully commodified. If aesthethic capital were on par with economic capital then Myanmar would be a wealthy country.
Tour leaders tend to make sure that their foreign clients arrive here just before sunset – just enough time for a short boat excursion on Lake Taungthaman to get the best shots. While the sight of the bridge silhouetted by the setting sun is undeniably lovely, the experience can seem somewhat surreal as hordes of freshly arrived westerners eagerly snap the scene from gently bobbing boats rowed by local fishermen. The impoverished fishermen, who have never owned even the most rudimentary camera in their lives, are sufficiently familiar with the ritual to know exactly what to do and where to go. Meanwhile, the monks and villagers who obligingly cross the bridge and unwittingly silhouette themselves for the benefit of the foreign photographers seem oblivious of their walk-on role in this unfolding daily drama.