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