Sangkhla Buri is located on the Thai-Burmese border about a 5 hour drive WNW from Bangkok. It is famous, amongst other things, for its wooden bridge which was built some two decades ago by its, largely, Mon inhabitants. I think it was a reasonable effort and impressive but I can’t help but feel that the Romans might have done a better job.
It is a real working bridge (and the Romans didn’t have motorbikes) however and, visible ongoing repair work notwithstanding, it is beginning to show its age. It is the longest wooden bridge in Thailand at ……well I’m not sure how many metres. I have seen claims ranging from 400 to 850 metres. I really didn’t get the feeling it was as long as the latter though. If I knew I was going to write this post I would have taken the trouble to pace it out myself. I would go along with 400+ metres. Anyhow it got me thinking about other wooden bridges.
For example; what is currently the longest wooden bridge in the world?
A Royal Geographic Society Gold Medal if you answered the Hourai Bridge in Japan. This beautifully understated and elegant bridge at 897 metres long, was built in 1869 during the Meiji Era. The era is important for the history of Japanese bridge building. During the earlier Edo Era the ruling powers wished to tightly control the movement of people and this involved restrictions on bridge building and who could actually use them especially those located on strategic routes like the famous Tokaido – generally just the military, the ruling class and their entourage. The hoi polloi, in the main, had to cross when and where river water levels were low enough – like this:
Now I have to point out that I haven’t actually visited the Hourai Bridge (it is now on the list!) but I have read that it lies on the aforementioned Tokaido (road) running between Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto. It used to take about 14 days to travel this route generally by foot (now it takes only a little over 2 hours by Shinkansen – the high-speed railway). Anyway this got me thinking further because, one of my favorite of all artists, Utagawa Hiroshige illustrated the Tokaido in his series The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido. Could he have depicted the Hourai Bridge? Alas no for he travelled the Tokaido in 1832 some 37 years before the bridge was built and died in 1858. However just look at some of his stunning woodcut-prints of Japanese wooden bridges:
Other remarkable famous bridges? Well one would be the Hampton River ‘Mile Long’ Wooden Bridge that stood between 1900 – 1949. Actually it was 540 feet short of a mile but nonetheless pretty impressive and during the time it stood it was reported to be the longest wooden bridge in the world (1,440 metres). The below photograph depicts a Model “T” about to cross the bridge which is somewhat ironic as the automobile, and increasing traffic thereof, ultimately “did” for the bridge which was originally designed for pedestrians, horse-drawn carriages and a trolley bus system (see the track remnants in the centre).
Back further in time the Persians, under Darius, built a famous bridge in 490 BC, which spanned the Bosphorus. This was really a pontoon bridge and constructed by linking boats together. This enabled Darius to move his huge army towards Athens and Sparta – you know what happened then – we haven’t learnt anything since – another disastrous foreign excursion.
“And what did the Romans do for us?” Well for one they built great bridges as exemplified by the great bridge over the Rhine that was built in one week by Julius Caesar. He wished to display a show of strength to the Germanic tribes (his army was outnumbered 6 : 1) massed on the other side of the river so he ordered his engineers to build a wooden bridge. He certainly knew his enemy for the Germans were completely awe-struck as they had never seen anything quite like it before. As it came closer and closer to their bank they panicked and ran. The Romans had free run over the vacated territory and were never attacked. When they left they dismantled it. This bridge was truly one of the marvels of ancient times. I think “Health & Safety Regulations” and “European Time Directives” would almost certainly put paid to our duplicating this feat today.
Anything other remarkable wooden bridges I have not covered? Well before anyone reverts the Kintai Bridge in Japan (originally built in 1673) and Trajan’s Bridge across the Danube (built in 105 AD now no longer standing) both comprise(d) wooden arches set on stone pillars – so I’m not counting them. How about the Bridge on the River Kwai?
Well that impressive wooden cantilever structure you see on the film was constructed in Sri Lanka where the entire film was shot. In fact, two bridges were built on the Kwai (col. Kwae Yai): a temporary wooden bridge and a permanent steel/concrete bridge a few months later. Both bridges were used for a couple of years, until they were destroyed by Allied aerial bombing. The materials from the original steel bridge were partially recovered and used in the bridge over the Kwae that we see today, some 5 kms from Kanchanaburi town.
Back to the future and the Mon bridge at Sangkhla Buri.
Having walked over this bridge to find our early morning breakfast I did find it a surprisingly pleasurable undertaking. It seems alive, certainly thrilling (were we going to fall through?), living, tactile, imperfect, beautiful underfoot and well just forgiving.
It just seems in fact to mark a passing of a more leisurely way of life.