Bangkok, 29 March 2015

In an earlier post, in which I wrote about a short trip my wife and I made to Dubai, I mentioned that we had visited the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. What I didn’t mention – because not pertinent to the subject of that post – was that our guide had exceedingly strong, straight eyebrows. I tried not to stare at her too insistently because that is rude, and I would imagine that staring at women in Muslim countries can also be a dangerous habit. But I did find it quite striking. My surreptitious peeking allowed me to conclude that this was not a gift of nature but a gift of the cosmetics industry. Something like mascara had been applied to our guide’s eyebrows. They looked something like this, although our guide wasn’t quite as glamorous as this lady.
middle eastern lady
In any event, as our guide talked about this, that, and the other, I wondered to myself if this was some sort of new fashion statement in the Middle East. After the tour was over, I was pleased to hear that my wife had also noticed it; I wasn’t imagining things, then.

Our trip completed, we went back to Beijing and I forgot about the eyebrows thing. But I was suddenly confronted again with this fashion statement the moment we arrived in Bangkok. It seemed that every young woman in the city had these exaggeratedly strong eyebrows. I’ve not found a photo on the internet and I haven’t dared to openly take a photo myself of one of these young women, but I guess that advertising on the street is a good indicator of trends. Here’s a photo that I took of billboards in one of the smarter shopping areas of a Bangkok.
bangkok billboard-1
What my internet searches did show up is that the Thai consider such eyebrows to be Korean eyebrows, and this photo of a Korean lady actually nicely captures what I am confronted with every day on the streets of Bangkok.
korean lady
Whose eyebrows the Koreans believe these are is unknown to me – certainly not Japanese; the web-site from which I borrowed the photo above makes a distinction between Korean and Japanese eyebrows, the latter being more arched if I understood correctly. My daughter, who knows more about these things than I do, puts a famous model as the ultimate source.That sounds reasonable. In the old days, Queens and their aristocratic hangers-on were arbiters of fashion; in this more democratic age of ours, models are.

bangkok billboard-3

(the comment below suggests that the model Cara Delevingne is the Ultimate Source – no doubt those below the age of 30 know who this Ms. Delevingne is, and no doubt she is as rich as Queens once used to be)

Talking of Queens, my trawls through the internet also snagged a couple of sites which discussed the history of female eyebrow fashion, one starting from as far back as Nefertiti, who was Queen of Egypt three thousand years ago, and who – if this bust of her in a Berlin museum is to be believed – seems to have favoured more pronounced eyebrows.
queen nefertiti
My own recollection of female eyebrow fashion starts with a time when quite a number of women favoured instead pencil-thin eyebrows, the time in question being, I suppose, the fifties and sixties (although as this photo shows, these eyebrows were already popular several decades earlier).
greta garbo
My wife, I have to say, was among this group when I first met her. Luckily, I managed to dissuade her from continuing the habit, and she has spent the rest of our marriage sporting a fine set of no-nonsense eyebrows.

My wife’s abandonment of pencil-thinness coincided with a general return to thicker eyebrows, but sculpting of the eyebrow was still common. I still remember how much chatter was generated in the late seventies-early eighties by the young Brooke Shields’s thick, apparently unsculpted, eyebrows.
brooke shields
They caused quite some emulation for a while (any reader who is younger than 30 and therefore who probably has never heard of Brooke Shields can go the Wikipedia site on her to read more). I feel that what I am seeing now on the streets of Bangkok is really that style, helped along with a pencil or, if I am to believe the internet, some sort of felt pen. Well, styles go in and out of fashion like Swiss trains go in and out of Alpine tunnels. But I hope never to live to see pencil-thinness again.


Middle-eastern lady with drawn in eyebrows:
Billboards in Bangkok: my photos
Korean eyebrows:
Queen Nefertiti:
Pencil thin eyebrows:
Brooke Shields:


Bangkok, 19 March 2015

Every morning, when my wife and I have breakfast on the balcony, I am faced with this.

Rama VIII bridge

“This” is Rama VII Bridge, which crosses the Chao Phraya River, linking Thonburi with the more central parts of Bangkok. It was opened in 2002.

I don’t like this bridge. I don’t exactly know why. After discussions with my wife, I have come to the conclusion that I find the number of cables excessive, the colour scheme – sickly yellow on grey concrete – quite off-putting, and that conical thing on top of the bridge’s single pylon – seemingly a lotus bud – faintly ridiculous.

My meditations on what I didn’t like about the bridge led me to ask myself what I did like in bridges. After surfing through any number of sites claiming to list the 10, or 20, or 30, most beautiful bridges in the world, I have concluded that what gets me going in a bridge’s design is the play between simple geometric forms. Not any forms, mind you: the circle – or rather the semicircle – and its interplay with the line, preferably curved, is the best. And balance is required.

Let me start with the semicircle and shallow trianglesemicircle and triangleor shallow parabolasemicircle and wide parabola(Please excuse my rather basic sketches. I’m not an expert in the use of Paint)

The most beautiful bridge in this class must be the Rakotz Brücke in Germany

rakotz bridge

But this bridge, the Ponte della Maddalena in Italy, is a near second.

ponte del diavolo

I particularly like the three little skips which the bridge makes before it makes the final jump across the river. And it’s a real bridge, built to bring people and their goods and animals from one side to the other, rather than the Rackotz Brücke, which was just built for show.

I really feel I should add a picture of the Mostar Bridge.

mostar bridge

It looks a bit heavy, especially because of the building accretions on either end. But the bridge itself is a very nice example of the semi-circle-plus-triangle genre, and the white stone it is made of is really lovely. It’s also highly symbolic of the wars in ex-Yugoslavia. The bridge is in what is now the country of Bosnia-Herzegovina. During the wars, it was fought over repeatedly, and this beautiful bridge was among the many old buildings in the city which were destroyed. After the wars, it was rebuilt exactly as it has been, a triumph of hope over hate.

The Chinese also liked to build such bridges. They call them moon bridges. This one, the Jade Belt Bridge in the Summer Palace Park in Beijing, must be the best-known of this type.

jade belt bridge

But like the Rakotz Brücke it’s just for show. I prefer this bridge, the Liija Bridge, thrown over a canal in Jiangsu province, because it is a real working bridge – or at least it was.

liija bridge

Alas, in this day and age where the car reigns supreme over our roads, humped bridges like these are not “user friendly”. That curved line needs to be straightened so that cars can cross without a second thought.semicircle and lineA very pretty bridge in this class, opened in 1932, is Bixby Creek Bridge on California State Road 1 through the Big Sur, although the semicircle has become a parabola, no doubt to make the bridge stronger.

Bixby Bridge

I guess we must have passed over it 20 years ago – without a second thought – when we drove down this road from San Francisco to Los Angeles on a wonderful summer holiday we had with the kids … But I digress.

A lovely bridge in the same class, opened only six years ago, is the Hoover Dam Bypass Bridge, which spans the Colorado River.

Hoover Dam bypass bridge

I normally dislike bridges or anything else made of metal trusses. They look so much like the clunky awkward things I used to make with my Meccano set when I was young: all engineering and no beauty. But this train viaduct, the Garabit Viaduct in France, opened in 1884, has great visual appeal.

garabit viaduct

It may come as no surprise to the reader to know that the bridge was built by Gustave Eiffel, he of the Eiffel tower in Paris (I think the family resemblance between the two constructions is obvious).

That straight line sitting atop the parabola can also float downwards and lie across it, like so, with the parabola getting shallower.

parabola cut by lineThis bridge, the Lupu Bridge in Shanghai, is a nice example of the type.

Lupu Bridge

The line can float all the way down

parabola on lineas it has with this bridge, the Apollo Bridge in Slovakia’s capital, Bratislava.

apollo-bridge Bratislava

Now that the line has floated all the way down we can flip the parabola, like so

suspensionand we have the suspension bridge!

I have a very soft spot for suspension bridges, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post. It has something to do with the sheer etherealness of these bridges, the feeling they give of just a few strands thrown over a wide, empty, normally watery space. My favourite in this class has to be the Verazzano Narrows Bridge in New York.

Verazzano Narrows Bridge

Many people – and many web sites – say the Golden Gate Bridge is a beautiful suspension bridge. But I’ve always found it clunky, and I have to say I dislike its colour scheme.

I also want to throw in a picture of the Humber Bridge in northern England. It seems to be the most stripped down of all suspension-bridge designs I’ve ever seen. I can hardly believe it stays up.

Humber Bridge

And now I have to come full circle, as it were, back to the King Rama VII Bridge with which I started this post. I’ve learned as I’ve researched on bridges that the fundamentally triangular design of this bridgetrianglesis popular in many modern bridge designs. Studying these, I have grudgingly come to the conclusion that the design is not bad looking as long as equal-sided triangles are used. Looking back at the picture which started this post, the reader will see that in the case of the King Rama VII Bridge, the triangle is not equal-sided, which gives me a displeasing sense of imbalance; I add this to my list of dislikes about the bridge. Imbalance is also the reason why I do not like the Puente del Alamillo in Seville, Spain, even though this is a great favourite in posts dedicated to beautiful bridges.

Puente del Alamillo

All that straining backwards makes me feel quite exhausted.

After these harrumphs of disapproval, it’s time for me to throw in a few pictures of bridges that are stars in this class. The Millau viaduct, which soars over the river Tarn in southern France, must surely be the superstar in the category

millau viaduct

but I think this bridge, the Cooper River Bridge in South Carolina, is just as graceful on a more modest scale.

cooper river bridge

Well, that was a pleasant tour of the internet. I must say, it’s nice to see that those painful classes of geometry which I endured when I was young have finally come in useful after 50 years.


Rakotz Bridge: (in
Ponte della Maddalena: [in
Mostar Bridge: (in
Jade Belt Bridge: (in
Liija Bridge: (in
Bixby Bridge: (in
Hoover dam bypass bridge: (in
Garabit Viaduct: (in
Lupu Bridge: (in
Apollo Bridge Bratislava: (in
Verrazano Narrows Bridge: (in
Humber Bridge: (in
Puente del Alamillo: (in
Millau viaduct: (in
Cooper River bridge: (in
All other photos are mine


Bangkok, 14 March 2015

I don’t know why, but yesterday the tune of a song which my mother used to sing popped unbidden into my head. As I hummed along, I was trying to remember the words. Snatches came back but there were frustratingly large holes. I decided it was now or never: either I dredged up the words today or they would be lost to me forever. Well, my memory is shot, but there is the internet. As I have had cause to mention before, the internet really is a wonderful thing. There is a lot of rubbish, but there is also a veritable treasure trove of stuff ready to be mined, put there by devoted souls. In this case, the devoted soul turned out to be Google, for after trying out a few key words and remembered phrases of the song, I finally found a book from 1843 entitled “Chants et Chansons Populaires de la France”, which Google had scanned as part of its Google Books initiative. There, tucked in among lots and lots of songs that I had never heard of, was mine.

The authors of the book are vague about the date of the song, but I reckon from some words it uses that it was written in the sixteenth century or thereabouts. Its title is “La Vieille”, which can be loosely translated “The Old Crone”, and it is a deliciously malicious take on the foolish desire of some old people to stay young and on the power of money. In a few words, the song tells us of an eighty-year old woman who wants not only to join the young people in their dance but also to be coupled with the youngest and handsomest man there. Not surprisingly, he tells her to go away, adding that she is far too poor for him. After she intimates that she is actually very rich, our young man immediately changes his mind and calls her back to the dance. In fact, he rushes her off to a notary public to be married and no doubt to make sure that a will is prepared leaving all her wealth to him.

la vieille 001

He then takes her back to the dance, where she dances so energetically

la vieille 002

that she expires.

Unceremoniously, her young husband and his friends look in his dead wife’s mouth, no doubt searching for her gold teeth, but find only three teeth, “une qui branle, une qui hoche, une qui s’envole au vent”, one which moves, one which wobbles, and one which is ready to blow away on the wind. They then look in her pockets and find only three small coins: “Ah, la vieille, la vieille, la vieille, avait trompé son gallant”, the song concludes; ah, the old crone had fooled her young paramour. Anyone who is interested in the original words can find them at the end of this post (although in the interests of brevity I’ve cut the repetitions of which the song is full).

My mother loved to sing, and had a really quite beautiful voice (whereas when my father – blessed be his memory – sang, it resembled the croaking of a crow). By the time I knew my mother – that is, by the time I was old enough to judge her – she was of course a decorous middle-aged matron, but also one who had had to endure the slings and arrows of life’s misfortunes. So, apart from the hymns in Church which she delivered with gusto, the songs she sang tended to be soulful and mournful. Edith Piaf was a favourite: “Ils sont arrivés se tenant par la main, l’air émerveillé de deux chérubins”, “they arrived holding hands, with the look of wonder of two cherubs”. But then they were found dead, together, in the hotel room they had rented to make love for the last time. There was another, a haunting lament, about a wife waiting for her husband knight to return from the wars so that she can announce to him that she is with child. He comes back, but only to die in the same bed where the child was conceived, of his wounds. There was also “A la claire fontaine”, which is a somewhat trite song about lost love, but has a beautifully quiet melody.

But when my mother sang “La Vieille”, a mischievous glint would come into her eye and I could see the young, cheeky girl which, in the autobiography that she wrote for us children, she confessed to having once been. The same glint would come into her eye whenever she told droll stories of her family. There were the two brothers, for instance, great-uncles, who were “of the left”, and fervent anticlericals (we are talking of the great anticlerical moment in French history during the late 19th Century). Every Good Friday, they would take a table at the window of a restaurant close by the cathedral and make sure to be eating heartily and mightily when the poor souls came out of Church hungry from their Lenten fasting. One of these same brothers indicated in his will that when he died he wished to be buried in a simple pine coffin like a man of the people. But his daughters, whom I have mentioned before, were having none of that. They found their father embarrassing enough in life, they were not going to be embarrassed by him in death in front of their bourgeois friends. He was buried in a sumptuous coffin, and with a church ceremony to boot. Then there was the uncle, Oncle Jacques, who had been a dashing rake in his youth. Why, he had even been a daredevil pilot, this at a time when it was lucky if planes stayed together in the air. A somewhat older woman, Renée, had fallen hard for him, and in a standard tactic announced that she was pregnant, a pregnancy which mysteriously vanished when he did the Right Thing and married her. In the event, the marriage held and they did eventually have children. But Tante Renée shed many a bitter tear during the marriage over Oncle Jacque’s serial infidelities. This last set of stories were delivered the day before Oncle Jacques and Tante Renée came to make one of their annual visits to my grandmother, using the little train which I’ve mentioned in an earlier post. I still have a memory of the pair, arriving in the garden to effusive welcomes after the walk up the long alleyway from the train station. Tante Renée was hideously made up with pink powder, bright red lipstick, and rinsed hair, and as she bent over to give me a peck on the cheek I was drowned in the overpowering scent of a very sweet perfume. Oncle Jacques, on the other hand, stood there looking distinguished in his old age and with a mischievous glint in his eye.

Ah, memories, memories. Come, let’s finish with the refrain from another old French song, this one about the capture of an English ship by a smaller French ship in the early 1800’s during the Napoleonic wars:

Buvons un coup, buvons en deux
À la santé des amoureux
À la santé du Roi de France
Et MERDE au Roi d’Angleterre
Qui nous a déclaré la guerre.

Let’s drink a cup, let’s drink two
To the health of all lovers
To the health of the King of France
And BUGGER the King of England
Who went and declared war on us.


photos: taken by me from’autre+qui+s’envole+au+vent&source=gbs_navlink_s



A Paris dans une ronde
Composée de jeunes gens
Il se trouva une vieille
Agée de quatre-vingt ans!

Elle choisit le plus jeune
Qui était le plus galant
“Va-t-en, va-t-en bonne vieille
Tu n’as pas assez d’argent!”

“Si vous saviez c’qu’a la vieille
Vous n’en diriez pas autant”
“Dis nous donc ce qu’a la vieille?”
“Elle a dix tonneaux d’argent”

“Reviens, reviens bonne vieille
Marions-nous promptement!”
On la conduit au notaire
“Mariez-moi cette enfant”

“Cette enfant”, dit le notaire
“Elle a bien quatre-vingt ans”
Aujourd’hui le marriage
Et demain l’enterrement

On fit tant sauter la vieille
Qu’elle est morte en sautillant

On regarda dans sa bouche
Elle n’avait que trois dents
Une qui branle, une qui hoche
Une qui s’envole au vent

On regarda dans sa poche
Elle n’avait que trois liards d’argent
Ah la vieille, la vieille, la vieille
Avait trompé le galant!

What follows is a quick-and-dirty translation:

In Paris, at a round dance
Composed of young people
Arrived an old crone
Of the venerable age of eighty

She approached the youngest man
Who was also the most handsome
“Leave me be, you old crone
You’re far too poor for me!”

“If you knew what the old crone has
You wouldn’t say as much”
“Tell us then how much she has”
“She owns ten barrels-full of money”

“Come back, come back, you old dear
Let us marry forthwith!”
They took her to the notary
“Marry me to this child”

“This child”‘ intoned the notary
“Is not a day younger than eighty”
Today the marriage
Tomorrow the burial

They made the old crone dance so hard
That she died mid-hop

They looked in her mouth
She had but three teeth
One which moved, one which wobbled
One which blew away on the wind

They looked in her pockets
They found but three farthings
Ah the old, old crone
She had fooled her handsome boy!



Bangkok, 8 March 2015

It was this photo that brought us to Myanmar.
Shwe Indein Pagoda, Inle Lake, Burma
My wife said, “We are going to Myanmar, and we are going here!”

“Here” was Inn Dein, a village on the edge of Inle Lake, in Shan State, which is why we found ourselves staying at a hotel on the lake

06-inle lake-inn dein-flav 003

ready to take one of these boats to the village.
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In truth, our travel was a little different that day, because Inn Dein is actually on the old edge of the lake. Over the last fifty years or so, that edge has been creeping forward as farmers have created floating gardens on the lake’s edge

06-inle lake-day 2-flav 021

which after a while have become solid land, leading the farmers to create yet more floating gardens further out. So to get to Inn Dein, we had to travel up a shallow canal, the artificial continuation of the stream that runs through the village, which meant our travel was more like this.

06-inle lake-day 1 002

After we disembarked, we crossed Inn Dein’s one and only bridge and soon found ourselves wandering through a field of neglected, mouldering stupas.
06-inle lake-inn dein 007

06-inle lake-inn dein 009

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To some still clung fragments of their original ornamentation

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while others housed Buddhas in varying states of repair.

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Though beautiful in their neglect, my wife and I agreed that this was not where the photo which had brought us here was taken. So we started walking up the hill behind the village, following the hand-drawn map we had been given at the hotel.
hand drawn map
To get out of the sun’s glare, we ducked into a covered walkway that leads up the hill. It was cooler but it exposed us to stall after stall of hideous tourist tat.
06-inle lake-inn dein-flav 058
To console ourselves, I reminded my wife of a similar covered walkway which we had seen in Bologna in Italy, which leads up to the Sanctuary of Saint Luke on a nearby hill.
bologna santuario di S.Luca
No doubt, I told her, when in the old days pilgrims wended their way up the walkway to the Sanctuary (nowadays only tourists do so), there were similar stalls along the side selling hideous religious tat.

When we reached the top, we were greeted by a veritable forest of stupas.
06-inle lake-inn dein 040
The first were mouldering away as romantically as the ones down the hill
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with some of the decoration clinging on

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Very beautiful, but not, we agreed once more, the place where the original photo which brought us here had been taken.

We began to walk up the hill, and soon found ourselves only among renovated stupas. My wife and I had mixed feelings about this wave of renovation that had washed over the hill. The decaying stupas are impossibly romantic, but we can understand that to devout Buddhists it must be dismaying to see such neglect. I suppose the only criticism we have (but it is a large criticism) is that it would have been good to renovate the stupas to their original form, something which quite obviously is not the case. We were so unenthusiastic about these renovated stupas that neither of us took a single photo of them, so what follows comes care of the internet.
Shwe Inn Thein stupas at Indein, Inle Lake
After threading our way, disconsolate, through the packed crowd of renovated stupas, we climbed a nearby hill to get an overview of the stupa forest.
06-inle lake-inn dein 070
Even from here we could not really understand from where the fateful photo had been taken. So we went back down, walked through the temple at the centre of the forest, and visited the stupas on the other side. These were once again pleasingly decrepit, so we pleasurably ambled our way down the hill through them, picking our way over broken brick and stucco and around bushes and weeds which had taken root in the brick dust.
06-inle lake-inn dein 075
When we broke out of the forest and turned around, there at last we saw the view which had brought us here. Finally …

06-inle lake-inn dein-flav 086a


Bologna Santuario san Luca: (in
Renovated stupas: (in
All other photos: ours


Yangon, 7 March 2015

In 1430, King Saw Mon founded a new capital at Mrauk U, in what is now the State of Rakhine, for a Kingdom of Arrakan of which he was the first ruler. Mrauk U lay at the head of several navigable tributaries of the Kaladan River, and so could command the trade routes in the Bay of Bengal, on which the kingdom’s wealth was founded. It became a transit point for goods such as rice, ivory, elephants, tree sap and deer hide from Burma, and of cotton, slaves, horses, cowrie, spices and textiles from Bengal, India, Persia and Arabia. It also lay at the edges of a broad plain, where abundant rice could be grown to feed the city’s population. The area was dotted throughout with hillocks, ideal for capping with splendid pagodas which earned their founders much merit, but also for acting as watchtowers in strong defensive walls which linked hillocks together and could keep the kingdom’s jealous or rapacious neighbours at bay. It was, in all senses, a happy choice for the new kingdom’s capital.

Exactly two hundred years after the city’s founding, a Portuguese monk, Fray Sebastian Manrique, who was to live in India for forty years, visited Mrauk U, as part of an official mission. In a book he wrote about his time in Asia, “Itinerario de las missiones del India Oriental”, he dedicated several chapters to his visit to Mrauk U. “This great city”, he starts, “stands in a lovely valley, some fifteen leagues wide, wholly enclosed by high rocky mountains, which serve as natural fortifications”. The city was bisected by a network of waterways linked to the nearby river, which were “the principal means of traffic, both public and private”. Most of the houses were thatched bamboo and wood structures, held together by “Bengal cane, as we call it in Portugal”. Even the palaces “are made of these reedy materials”. The size and ornamentation of the houses, and not their materials of construction, were what proclaimed the station and wealth of their owners. Inside, wall mats were hung “of the finest texture and of many colours”. No doubt, the richer and more important the owner, the finer and more elaborate the wall mats. The better houses and the palaces also had rooms of wood “ornamented with carving, gilt mouldings, and enamel work in various tints”. Some of the palaces went one further, having rooms of sandalwood and other aromatic woods. One of the richer palaces included a “House of Gold”, a pavilion decorated from floor to ceiling with gold, which housed golden statues, dishes and other vessels. The royal palace boasted a ceremonial hall, with a golden roof “ornamented with flowers of different colours”, supported by thirty gilded wooden pillars. The monks didn’t do too badly for themselves either. A number of the temples and monasteries in which they lived were as sumptuous as the palaces, richly endowed as they were by their wealthy and important founders, who were seeking thereby to gain merit. Most of the temples were “pyramidal in shape”, with a spire that ended in a gilt metal globe on which small bells hung that tinkled in the wind (I presume the good Friar was referring to the stupas, which sit at the centre of temple complexes). The temples’ interiors were decorated with “frescoes done in gold and colours”. Several years later, he again visited Mrauk U on an official mission, and this time he was lucky to be there when the king was crowned. He described in breathless detail all the pomp and ceremony which accompanied the crowning. This print, by the Dutchman Wouter Schouten, gives an idea of what Mrauk U looked like at this time.

mrauk u old print

The happy times did not last. Warfare between the local kingdoms was endemic, as each king tried to grow at the expense of his neighbours. In one of these local wars, King Bodawpaya of the neighbouring kingdom of Burma got the upper hand, helped along, it must be said, by vicious internecine struggles, all worthy of a Shakespearean history play, that were being played out between Arrakanese kings and their impatient heir-apparents, and between them and various usurpers. In 1784, the Burmese army attacked

war elephants

and eventually took the city, razing it to the ground. They took care, though, not to destroy the stupas and associated temples; the soldiers did not want to lose merit. But they stripped them and the rest of the city of all the movable loot they could lay their hands on. What part of the population they did not kill, they enslaved. And so, laden with vast quantities of booty and 20,000 slaves, King Bodawpaya and his army returned home to celebrate, leaving death and desolation behind them. The kingdom of Arrakan and its capital city were no more.

The site was too good to abandon completely. Gradually, people moved back into the city and partially repopulated it. But now it was just a small market town, with the modest lives and modest dreams and modest destiny of such towns. Its citizens lived out their lives in the shadow of monuments from Mrauk U’s royal past, which slowly crumbled away and were overgrown by vegetation.

But Mrauk U’s glorious past was not completely forgotten. Echoes of its history were passed down. Now that Myanmar has come out of its self-imposed isolation from the outside world, and the world has accepted the country back into the community of nations, Mrauk U has become a tourist destination. Not like Bagan, which hosts the ruins of another vanished kingdom, nor like Inle Lake, another popular tourist destination, nor even like the capital Yangon. A much more modest destination, because it has little tourist infrastructure and is hard to get to: seven hours by private boat from Sittwe, several more by the public boat; six hours by car on a spine-crushing road, several more by public bus. But a trickle of tourists do make it through.

We have just been part of that trickle. We hired bicycles, a wonderful way to move around this town whose dimensions are small and whose traffic is contained, and we slowly criss-crossed it, riding down potholed roads, side streets of beaten earth

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half-finished roads on which toiled labour gangs of women

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even across desiccated paddy fields when the half-finished roads were impassible

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observing all the very rural life that passed us by. Most of the houses are still made of wood and “reedy materials”

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but from the few modern houses we saw brick and concrete are clearly now the building materials of choice for the wealthy. The network of waterways are still being used, although now sadly choked with plastic and other debris of modern life.

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Bicycles and motor bikes are the mode of transport of choice

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with two-seater bicycle rickshaws playing the role of local taxi

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and ten-seater tuk-tuks playing that of local buses (ten seats is a nominal number; the drivers seemed to be able to squeeze twice that number into them).

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As in all ages and in all places, the wealthier disdain these proletarian forms of transport, although they now favour four-wheel drive cars with tinted windows rather than the palanquins and elephants of old. On the edges of town (which were reached after no more than ten minutes by bike from the town centre – and we rode slowly), chickens, pigs, and the odd cow join the human melée. And everywhere, young girls and women (never men and very rarely boys) are walking slowly to or from the wells and reservoirs which dot the town, ferrying the households’ water, no doubt as they had been doing nearly four hundred years ago when Friar Manrique criss-crossed the town – such a waste of women’s time! And the water they were collecting fitted no definition of “drinking water” that I know of.

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The town has schools, but all in a shocking state of decrepitude

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and in any case many children were put to work in various trades: child labour seems the norm here, not the exception. This country’s military dictators have much, much to answer for.

And so it was that we rode and we observed, and we meditated on what we observed, until the next stupa, or temple, or ordination hall from Mrauk U’s past loomed out in front of us. We visited many during our two days, but I will mention only three. The first is Mro U-hnauk Phara
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because it was the first temple we visited, but also because we were intrigued by the very ornate edifice constructed out of galvanized corrugated iron sheets that preceded the ancient stupa.

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The materials of construction may be humble but the designs are really quite complex. We got used to seeing these structures in front of many of the stupas in town. Both my wife and I immediately remarked on how much these constructions reminded us of the stavkirke in Norway.
The second site I will mention is Koe Thaung temple, which sits out in the middle of paddy fields a little way out of town.
koe thaung temple
Its design is said to be based on Borobudur in Indonesia. We wouldn’t know, not having been able to visit Borobudur because of a volcanic eruption. But Koe Thaung certainly has charm, what with the serried ranks of stupas lining its terraces


and the hundreds of Buddhas, each with a different face, lining the galleries that encircle the edifice.

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When the rice paddies around the temple are planted and green, it must be very beautiful.

The third is actually a grouping of temples and stupas, all situated in a large open space. From the vantage point of the high terrace of one of these, I could see most of the group laid out before me.

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Immediately ahead is the Laymyekhna, with the four Buddhas in its internal gallery facing the four cardinal points, and its attendant Nyidaw Phara. Just behind it the Htukkanthein, a fortress-monastery.  At the base of the hill in the background, is the Shite-thaung temple, the most important religious edifice of the old city and known for its three encircling galleries with Buddhas and friezes.  This is where the coronation during Friar Manrique’s second visit took place. Over to the left is the Ratanabon Temple.

But what also struck me was the apparent indifference of the townsfolk to these venerable monuments. The open space was turned over to the growing of rice and vegetables. There was constant traffic along the roads and tracks which crossed the space as people went about their business. There were goats and cows cropping the grass around the edifices. And I was suddenly reminded of those paintings from the 17th and 18th Centuries, which were also recording the remains of a fallen city, ancient Rome in this case, mouldering slowly away as a new city lived its life around them
Roman forum Claude Lorrain
This particular painting, by Claude Lorrain, is a view of the Forum, with the arch of Septimus Severus in the left foreground, the three remaining columns of the Temple of Castor and Pollux in the middle ground, the arch of Titus in the background, and at the very back the Colosseum. And all around these ruins, the Romans are leading their lives.

Now I don’t want to make too much of a parallel between Rome and Mrauk U. Rome had been a huge city, many times bigger than Mrauk U had ever been. It had also held sway over a much larger territory than Mrauk U had ever done. On the other hand, the collapse of Rome, although over a longer period, was probably as total as Mrauk U’s. Medieval Rome, and perhaps even Baroque Rome, was probably no bigger than Mrauk U is today and just as backward. If it hadn’t been for the Pope, there are good chances that Rome would have disappeared. The Pope kept Europe’s attention on the town, while the pilgrims were a handy source of income, along, later, with the sons of Europe’s aristocracy. They flocked to Rome in the 18th and 19th Centuries because it was the thing for an educated young man to do, and paintings like the one above were produced for them by the hundreds.  Rome was also lucky to have become the capital of the newly unified Italy, which brought it the power (and wealth) of national government. In contrast, Mrauk U seems to have been forgotten by all once its last king fell. If the new government of Myanmar can ensure that Mrauk U shares in the country’s upcoming economic development, then it has the chance to become a prosperous little town.


Mrauk U old print:,_ou_Arrakan_%28cidade_de_Arrac%C3%A3o%29_no_primeiro_plano_o_bairro_portugu%C3%AAs.jpg (in,_ou_Arrakan_%28cidade_de_Arrac%C3%A3o%29_no_primeiro_plano_o_bairro_portugu%C3%AAs.jpg)
War elephants fighting: (in
Stavkirke: (in
Koe Thaung Temple: (in
Koe Thaung temple stupas: (in
Claude Lorrain view of the Roman Forum:,_Rome_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg (in,_Rome_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg)
All other photos by my wife


Yangon, 7 March, 2015

We slipped our moorings at half past three in the afternoon, two hours late – the flight from Yangon to Sittwe had left very late. As we drove from the airport to the jetty, our guide told us apologetically that the tide was running out now. This, coupled with the strong current down the Kaladan River, meant we were facing a seven-hour journey up to Mrauk U – if the boat’s engine didn’t break down on the way. Accepting the inevitable, we settled down on the boat’s small focsle, as far away as possible from the engine, which was knocking hard and strong, while the boat chugged its way down the busy creek. It was a beautiful afternoon, cloudless, slightly hazy, not too hot; it was going to be a good ride.

We exited the creek into the mouth of the river, so big that at first we thought we had entered the sea. Surprised, we looked around us as the boat turned northward and started following the shore closely, skirting small fishing boats and their nets. Out to sea, some islets, or maybe headlands, lay humped on the horizon, while to our left extended a grassy plain

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on which stood a few small lean-to’s for the fishermen and some fishing boats, sitting upright, waiting to be dragged down to the shore.

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We waited for something more riverlike to appear. And gradually, without us noticing it, a low bank crept up on our right, far away in the distance. And so we realized that we had finally entered the Kaladan River. But such a wide river! The far bank kept following us, but always at a respectful distance.

The boat continued crawling up the shore, no doubt to keep out of the strong currents. A flock of birds, sand martins perhaps, dived and swooped close to the water’s surface, flashing from brown to white and back to brown as they rolled and wheeled in tight formation, before settling on the mud of the river bank. Another flock of birds flapped quietly over us in formation, homing in on some faraway destination.

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Now and then, a boat would pass us or we would pass one

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otherwise we had the river in all its wideness to ourselves. The same flat deserted plain kept us company to our left, but by now the grass had narrowed to a strip of emerald green along the shoreline, backed by a vast expanse of dry paddy fields, dotted with rice-hay ricks.

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The flatness was broken now and again by a tall tree standing guard over the landscape.

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For a brief moment – but only a very brief moment – I imagined ourselves to be chugging along some river in the Netherlands, scanning the flat Dutch farmland. But then a range of small hills hove into sight, with two of them topped by gold-covered stupas and the image of Holland faded.


As we approached, the sun began to set, slowly at first and then ever quicker, reddening the stupas’ gold to copper.

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At last, the sun sank below the horizon, leaving us in the moon’s company. She had been waiting quietly for her moment. She was waxing crescent, having reached her dark point a week before. Although only a small sliver was shining down on us, we could make out the ghostly outline of the rest of her lying in that sliver, “the new moone wi’ the auld moone in her arme” as the Scottish ballad puts it.


We sat there, enjoying her company, but she was already a spent force when she became visible to us. She stayed with us for just an hour before she too sank below the horizon.

Venus, the star of the evening, had been keeping the moon company, along with some of the brighter stars, but now, with the extinction of the last bright light in the sky, the full panoply of stars was able to appear in all its glory. Such a spectacle! The sky’s dome was studded with stars, some bright, some dim, some big, some small, some quarters of the sky were dense with stars, others were pools of darkness. And arcing across the sky from end to end was the Milky Way


created by the drops of milk, so the Ancient Greeks averred, that sprayed from the breast of the Goddess Hera when she snatched it away from baby Hercules’s mouth, who was suckling her while she slept, put there surreptitiously by Zeus.

milky way tintoretto

We sat entranced. How rarely we see the stars now! The strong lights of our modern life block out all but the brightest stars. Neither my wife nor I know our constellations at all well, but we could make out the three stars in Orion’s Belt


part of a much larger set of stars denoting Orion fighting the heavenly bull in the constellation Taurus

OrionLower on the horizon, we could make out the Great Plough, or Great Wagon (Carro Maggiore) to my Italian wife (and Big Dipper to my American friends).


As we pointed and guessed, the Milky Way wheeled this way and that above our heads: the boat was turning strongly now as the river began to meander.

As the river meandered, so did our talk. We talked about the Big Bang, which scientists say occurred some 14 billion years ago. They tell us a fascinating story about what happened afterwards. After a mere microsecond, the first protons and neutrons were being formed. A few minutes later, they began to coalesce into nuclei. Four hundred thousand years later, these combined with electrons to create the first hydrogen atoms. But it was only 150 million years later that the first stars began to form. And it was only 10 billion years later that the process of life creation began on this Earth, eventually leading to my wife and I sitting on the focsle of this boat, gazing at these stars. Scientists tell us that these stars are still rushing away from each other as the Universe continues to expand. What will happen next? Will we see the Big Crunch, where the Universe’s expansion will finally come juddering to a halt and then everything will hurtle back together again? It seems not; current observations suggest that the Universe’s expansion will continue or even accelerate. So will we see the Big Rip, where the Universe expands faster and faster, finally ripping galaxies, stars, and even atoms apart? Or will we see the Big Freeze, where expansion continues more moderately but existing stars burn out, no new ones are created, and the Universe goes dark and very cold? Or something else?

Nearer at home, we talked of our star, the sun. Scientists have a story for its future too. Over the next five billion years or so, they tell us, after it has burned all its hydrogen, our sun will grow into a Red Giant, making the Earth so hot in the process as to become uninhabitable. Then it will suffer a helium flash and collapse inward on itself. After it has stabilized, it will start to consume its helium for several billion years more before starting to expand again. But this time, the expansion will be unstable. At some point, it will shed its outer envelope as a planetary nebula while the core will collapse brutally to become a White Dwarf. It will survive as a White Dwarf for several trillion years before becoming a Black Dwarf. And so, sitting on that little focsle, with our backs against the cabin wall and our eyes on the sky, we followed in the footsteps of our distant ancestors, who for hundreds of thousands of years had gazed up at the stars and weaved beautiful stories to explain them.

Back on Earth, at river level, all was now inky black. No light shone from the shore. From time to time, we would see blinking red lights from fishing boats working the night shift. Once, a strong torch sprang to life ahead of us sweeping the waters, and suddenly a sea-going fishing boat loomed out of the darkness beside us. I dozed on and off, while my wife kept a look-out on the focsle, staring at the stars. At last, a faint glare of light ahead signaled Mrauk U. The wide, wide river had narrowed to a creek, trees were reaching out to us from either bank. The captain throttled the motor and the boat nosed into the jetty, where we could make out the car waiting to take us to our hotel.


Pagodas: (in
Old moon in new moon’s arms: (in (in
Tintoretto’s Milky Way: (in
Orion: (in
Mythical Orion: (in
all other photos: ours