Bangkok, 13 July 2016

My wife and I have just returned from a short visit to Bagan, in Myanmar. Back when Harold Godwinson received an arrow in his eye, losing his life and his English throne to William, Duke of Normandy
the kings of Pagan (as the kingdom was then known) had consolidated their hold on the valley of the Irrawaddy River, swallowing up their neighbouring city-states, and had created the first Burmese kingdom. The kingdom grew rich on trade but also on agriculture, harnessing irrigation for the first time in this dry region of Myanmar. As befits the capital of a prosperous kingdom, the population of Pagan swelled. The kings and the richer citizens, anxious to gain merit for their next reincarnation, used their wealth to heavily sprinkle the city and the surrounding plain with stupas, temples, monasteries, and other religious edifices. At the height of this building frenzy, more than 10,000 such edifices covered an area of some 100 square kilometres.

Alas, this well-meaning search for merit undermined the edifice of state. More and more land was donated to the Buddhist monkhood, land which then became exempt from tax, thereby gradually emptying the state coffers. The resulting internal strife weakened the kingdom, and invasions of its borderlands by the Mongol dynasty of China finished her off. By 1287, the kingdom of Pagan was no more, and its capital city had shrunk to the size of a very modest town. Sun, wind, and rain began their work. The plaster moldings with which all the religious edifices had been covered peeled off, and the exposed brick began crumbling away to mud and dust. Trees and bushes did their part, inserting roots between brick and brick and slowly leveraging them apart. Earthquakes played their part too, toppling walls and cracking open stupas. And so the religious edifices so lovingly erected by earlier generations slowly slumped back into the earth from whence they had sprung.

A score of temples and stupas, which continued to be sites of pilgrimage, were maintained, often with infelicitous results as frescoes were painted or whitewashed over and badly crafted statues took the place of the originals. In the last century, conservation work was carried out – haphazardly – under successive military regimes. This has halted, or at least slowed, the dissolution, but even so only some 2,000 edifices remain standing, more or less, today.

But 2,000 is still a big number. Climb, as we did, the Shwesandaw stupa, and you will find yourself gazing out over flat, wooded farmland thickly sprinkled with red-brick stupas and temples of every size and state of disrepair.




Get off the paved roads, as we did, and take the dirt roads and paths which crisscross this farmland, and you will come across lonely stupas brooding by the side of fields
where the lines of the Persian poet Ferdowsi come to mind:

The spider spins his web in the Palace of the Caesars
An owl hoots in the towers of Samarkand

(it is said that the Ottoman sultan Mehmet II murmured these lines as he visited the desolate ruins of the imperial palace after his conquest of Constantinople in 1453)

It comes spontaneous to compare Bagan to other places. Angkor Wat in neighbouring Cambodia is often cited, but the comparison doesn’t hold. Angkor has edifices which are splendid in their art and architecture.

The edifices of Bagan, on the other hand, now have little if any intrinsic merit. My wife and I saw nothing superlative in any of the stupas or temples we visited. Pleasant, yes, interesting sometimes, but nothing to take one’s breath away.


No, it is the overall landscape that makes Bagan noteworthy, and it is to landscapes that we must turn for comparisons. Since many of the edifices in Bagan are funerary in nature, my wife felt a certain affinity between the Italian cemeteries of her youth and Bagan, with the latter of course being on a much larger scale.
In such a comparison, I would perhaps lean towards the abandoned part of Vienna’s biggest cemetery, the Wiener Zentralfriedhof, which contains many of the tombs of Vienna’s Jewish community, wiped out in the Nazi concentration camps.
I myself favour a comparison with Ancient Rome, not the Ancient Rome of today, swallowed up in the concrete and bitumen of the modern city, but the Ancient Rome that was the subject of many a painting in the 17th to 19th centuries. This is Claude Lorrain

this, Piranesi
this, Palmer
and this, Lear
In these paintings I see an echo of the Bagan I looked out on from the heights of the Shwesandaw stupa.

As the lines I cite above show, the melancholy of ruins has always excited the imagination of poets. Rome’s ruins are no exception, with reams of poems written about them. I quote one here, by Alexander Pope.

See the wild waste of all-devouring years!
How Rome her own sad sepulchre appears,
With nodding arches, broken temples spread!
The very tombs now vanished like their dead!
Imperial wonders raised on nations spoiled,
Where mixed with slaves the groaning martyr toiled:
Huge theatres, that now unpeopled woods,
Now drained a distant country of her floods:
Fanes, which admiring gods with pride survey,
Statues of men, scarce less alive than they!
Some felt the silent stroke of mouldering age,
Some hostile fury, some religious rage.
Barbarian blindness, Christian zeal conspire,
And papal piety, and Gothic fire.
Perhaps, by its own ruins saved from flame,
Some buried marble half preserves a name;
That name the learned with fierce dispute pursue,
And give to Titus old Vespasian’s Due.

But this poem is far too frothy, as are all the poems about Rome’s ruins. I prefer the fragments of an Anglo-Saxon poem of the 8th Century, part of an anthology of Anglo-Saxon poems in the library of Exeter Cathedral, whose subject is not Rome but the Roman ruins of Bath.

Wrætlic is þes wealstan, wyrde gebræcon;
burgstede burston, brosnað enta geweorc.
Hrofas sind gehrorene, hreorge torras,
hrungeat berofen, hrim on lime,

For those of my no doubt many readers who, like me, are not conversant with Anglo-Saxon, let me continue with a translation by Siân Echard, of the University of British Columbia, with some modifications on my part.

Wondrous is this wall-stead, wasted by fate.
Battlements broken, giant’s work shattered.
Roofs are in ruin, towers destroyed,
Broken the barred gate, rime on the plaster,

Walls gape, torn up, destroyed, consumed by age.
A hundred generations have passed.
Earth-grip holds the proud builders, departed, long lost,
In the hard grasp of the grave. How often has this wall,

Hoary with lichen, red-stained, outlasted the passing reigns,
Withstanding the storms; the high arch now has fallen …

(At this point, there is a gap, for the parchment itself has suffered badly from the passage of time)

Indeed, the high arches, now fallen, of Bagan have witnessed the passing of many reigns, the last being but a few months ago, when the decades-long military government in Myanmar finally gave way to a democratically-elected civilian government. Knowing the history of neighbouring Thailand, where military meddling is a way of life, I offered a silent prayer in the Ananda temple
that this would be the last of the military governments in this beautiful country, which has suffered so much and deserves so much better.

Photos of Bagan: ours
Harold hit by the arrow:
Angkor Wat-1:
Angkor Wat-2:
Angkor Wat-3:
Cimitero monumentale, Milan:
Jewish section, Vienna Zentralfriedhof:
Roman ruins:
– Claude Lorrain
– Giovanni Battista Piranesi
– Samuel Palmer
– Edward Lear


Bangkok, 20 August 2015

One of the things I always do when I go to a new country is to inspect the vegetable section of the local markets or supermarkets, to see what fruits and vegetables they have on display which I have never seen before, and then I try to figure out how the locals eat them. I also play this game with fish, where one can see interesting variations around the world. I normally don’t bother with meats, since there is much less variety here. Chicken, pork, and beef probably cover more than 95% of all meat products sold over the counter. Throw in a few other fowl, like turkey and goose, and you’re probably up at 99%. I’ve never seen meat aisles where you can buy camel or llama or hamster or dog (although I was once in a place where I could have bought kangaroo).

In any event, I played the game when we arrived here in Thailand, and one of the things that immediately jumped out from the vegetable aisles was lemongrass – it’s not a vegetable really, more a spice, but it tends to sit alongside the vegetables, so that’s where I saw it.

lemongrass bunch

Anyone who has lived in Thailand for more than a couple of months will quickly realize that lemongrass plays an important role in Thai cuisine. I’ve mentioned in a previous post one Thai dish in which lemongrass plays a not unimportant role, Tom Yum soup.

tom yum soup

There are other Thai soups which have lemongrass in their recipe, lemongrass coconut noodle soup for instance.

Coconut Lemongrass Noodle Soup

It also finds its place in the green and yellow curries which are omnipresent in Thailand and which Thais will eat with various meats and vegetables. Here they are accompanying chicken.

chicken green currychicken yellow curry

Lemongrass also plays an important role in various sauces, in this case as a coconut and lemongrass sauce accompanying mussels.

mussels in coconut and lemongrass sauce

In truth, it is not only in Thai cuisine that lemongrass finds a role. It is common to much South-East Asian cuisine. In Viet Nam, for instance, in pork meatballs the meat is mixed with lemongrass and other herbs.

Vietnamese Lemongrass Pork Meatballs

Or there is Indonesia’s beef rendang, where beef is cooked slowly in a mix of spices which includes lemongrass.

Indonesian beef-rendang

In Cambodia, there’s the national spice-mix paste called Kroeung, which almost always includes lemongrass, and which is used in many dishes, for instance in the fish-based Amok trey

cambodian fish amok trey

For Laos, I cite stuffed lemongrass, the one dish where lemongrass plays a star role.

Laotian stuffed lemongrass

Myanmar gives us as one among many examples Mont Di soup, from Rakhine state

Myanmar Mon Di soup

And let’s not forget the Philippines, from which I’ll cite Lechon Cebu. Lechon, a national dish, is a whole roasted pig. Among its many regional variations there is Cebus’s, where the pig is stuffed with a mix of spices and herbs which includes lemongrass.

Philippine lechon cebu

This enthusiasm for lemongrass is not surprising really. The two forms of the plant which are edible, C. citratus and C. flexuosus, both have their tap root buried deep in this part of the world. Anyway, it’s super for me because I have a great fondness for lemongrass. This affection goes back a long way; I first came across the plant some 50 years ago, as a ten, eleven year-old child. It was in Cameroon, in West Africa. My father had moved there after his stint in Eritrea. One afternoon, at tea time at someone else’s place, I was served this delicious pale yellow infusion, which smelled and tasted softly lemon-like.

lemongrass infusion

After I’d oohed and aahed about it for a bit, I was shown the plant, a rather spiky big grass

Lemongrass Plant

whose leaves gave off this wonderful lemon scent when you rubbed them between your fingers.

I did not consume lemongrass in any other form while in Cameroon, nor did I ever consume it any other way until I came to Thailand. In fact, an exhaustive search on the internet has led me to conclude that nowhere between Cameroon and S-E Asia does any traditional cuisine include lemongrass (I stress traditional cuisine; with the globalization of cuisines many people are now trying S-E Asian recipes, either straight or fusing it with their own cuisines). Everywhere in the world, there is much enthusiasm to consume lemongrass but only in the form of infusions. I had high hopes to find traces of lemongrass in the Berber regions of North Africa, where their traditional form of cooking, the tajine, is very much a form of stewing, which is quite close to the way lemongrass is used in this part of the world.


But no, I found no trace of cooking with lemongrass in the shadow of the Atlas Mountains. Not even in India have I found any trace of lemongrass being used in traditional cuisine, even though the subcontinent shares many culinary traits with S-E Asia – curries being the obvious one

south indian curry

and even though the lemongrass plant grows well there (to the extent that C. citratus is known as West Indian lemongrass while C. flexuosus is known as East Indian lemongrass).

I was somewhat astonished by this finding, but also rather disappointed – I had been looking forward to showing pictures of yummy dishes from around the world in which lemongrass plays a role. My first thought was that the consumption of lemongrass infusions the world over was a result of colonialism. In this narrative (a favourite word these days among the chattering classes), Europeans would have discovered the lemongrass infusion (I suspect in India, given the name we Europeans gave the plant)

english lady drinking tea in India

and carried the plant off around the world and hooked our colonial subjects on the drink (the plant’s anti-mosquito properties may also have helped in this diffusion; more on this in a minute).

english lady serving west indians tea

(OK, my pictures show the imbibing of the even more famous herbal infusion, tea, but the general process would have been the same.)

This tidy narrative of mine got a rude shock, however, when I picked up another, insistent, narrative on the internet, which held that already 3,000 years ago the Ancient Egyptians, and through them later the Ancient Greeks and Romans, were familiar with the plant. And there was a big difference. The Egyptians did not eat it, they used it for incense mixes. Incense was big business in Egypt (as it was indeed in all ancient religions). We have here, for instance, Ramses I burning incense as a ritual offering

Rmases I burning incense

and what the Pharaoh did, every man, woman, and probably child, did the length of the country (the country did not have much breadth).

If the Egyptians used lemongrass for incense, I suspect they also used it for their perfumes and perfumed oils. After all, this is also how lemongrass is used today, especially by our friends the aromatherapists.

lemongrass oilI couldn’t find an Egyptian mural showing someone using oils or perfumes, so instead I throw in a picture of ladies using cosmetics more generally.

ancient egyptians using cosmetics

But now the question is, if the Ancient Egyptians were indeed using lemongrass, how did they get it from its place of origin, S-E Asia? I have to think that the answer lies in the spice trade, which was already flourishing in the time of the Pharaohs. Spices like cinnamon and cassia were finding their way to Egypt from Sri Lanka, so it takes no great leap of the imagination to think that lemongrass and other spices were being picked up in S-E Asia and shipped westwards, eventually coming up the Red Sea.

egyptian ship

My personal view is that contrary to many spices, where the product and never the plant was shipped (the plant being treated almost like a state secret), the live plant also eventually made its way to Egypt, perhaps overland through India and Iran, along the Fertile Crescent, and then down into Egypt (and from there I would guess eventually along the coast of North Africa). I say this, because lemongrass has another very valuable use, one which I alluded to earlier, and that is as a deterrent to mosquitoes. The little buggers don’t seem to like the odour given off by the plant, and a strategy still in common use today is to plant lemongrass around a house to keep them away.

lemongrass with mosquito

Where does that leave us? Well, with a gigantic culinary opportunity. The S-E Asian countries should plunge in and promote the use of lemongrass in cooking everywhere where the plant is now growing, which is just about anywhere where there is no frost (the plant is not frost hardy). I’ll be happy to help out, throwing lemongrass into anything I find cooking.


Lemongrass bunch: (in
Tom yum soup: (in
Coconut lemongrass noodle soup: (in
Chicken green curry:×500.jpg (in
Chicken yellow curry: (in
Mussels in a coconut and lemongrass soup: (in
Vietnamese meatballs with lemongrass: (in
Indonesian beef rending: (in
Cambodian Amok Trey: (in
Laotian stuffed lemongrass: (in
Myanmar Mont Di soup: (in
Philippine Lechon Cebu: (in
Lemongrass infusion: 5240254223_8f0879e852_z.jpg (in
Lemongrass plant: (in
Tajine: (in
South Indian curry: (in
English lady drinking tea in India: (in
English lady serving West Indians tea: (in
Ramses I burning incense: (in
Lemongrass oil: (in
Egyptian ladies using cosmetics: (in
Egyptian ship: (in
Lemongrass with mosquito: (in


Bangkok, 6 July 2015

A couple of river-bus stops downriver from where my wife and I live in Bangkok stands the temple Wat Pho, whose main claim to fame is a large reclining Buddha.

wat pho reclining buddha

It is, I read, 46 metres long and 15 metres high, and walking along it certainly is impressive. But I much prefer the soles of the statue’s feet.

wat pho buddhas feet

These soles have been divided into 108 panels each of which contains, in the form of mother-of-pearl inlays, the 108 auspicious symbols by which the Buddha can be identified, like flowers, dancers, white elephants, tigers and altar accessories.

Wat Pho’s reclining Buddha was the first time I saw this interesting art form. But actually it is quite common for reclining Buddhas to have the soles of their feet so decorated. For instance, I find this particular reclining Buddha in Yangon in Myanmar more naturalistic – certainly the pose of the feet is more pleasing to the eye than those stiff blocks in Wat Pho.


I later learned that the decorations of the feet of Buddha statues are actually a reflection – almost literally – of a much older iconography for depicting the Buddha, that of his footprint. Before anyone made statues of the Buddha, they made his footprints. They were a powerful way to remind the faithful that the Buddha had been present on earth: “the Buddha passed this way”. Quite quickly, the footprints were decorated with some of the symbols used to identify the Buddha. For instance, this footprint of the Buddha made in the 1st Century AD in the kingdom of Gandhara, in what is now the Swat valley in Pakistan, carries the Darmachakra, the “wheel of law”, and the triratna, the “triple gem” of Buddhism: Buddha (the Enlightened One), Dharma (the Teaching), and Sangha (the Community).


As time went on, more and more symbols were squeezed onto the footprints. And then some bright spark came up with the “positive print”, as it were, where the soles of reclining Buddhas carry the symbols of the Buddha.

Buddhism is not the only religion that has used footprints of its religious leaders as iconography, although it surely has used them more than any other (there is an estimate of 3,000 Buddha footprints throughout the Buddhist lands). My wife and I came across a footprint of the Prophet Muhammad in the Topkapi museum in Istanbul

Muhammad footprint

and there is a pair of footprints of Jesus in the Church of Domine Quo Vadis (“Lord, where are you going?”) on the outskirts of Rome.

jesus footprint

It is true to say that footprints are an incredibly powerful symbol of someone passing, of having been close by. One of the best remembered stories in Robinson Crusoe is of his finding a footprint on the beach.

crusoe and footprint

“It happened, one day about noon going towards my boat, I was exceedingly surprised, with the print of a man’s naked foot on the shore, which was very plain to be seen in the sand. I stood like one thunder-struck, or as if I had seen an apparition; I listened, I looked round me, I could hear nothing, nor see anything; I went up to a rising ground to look farther; I went up the shore and down the shore, but it was all one, I could see no other impression but that one. I went to it again to see if there were any more, and to observe if it might not be my fancy; but there was no room for that, for there was exactly the very print of a foot, toes, heel, and every part of a foot; how it came thither I knew not, nor could in the least imagine. But after innumerable fluttering thoughts, like a man perfectly confused and out of myself, I came home to my fortification, not feeling, as we say, the ground I went on, but terrified to the last degree, looking behind me at every two or three steps, mistaking every bush and tree, and fancying every stump at a distance to be a man.”

That footprint struck fear in Robinson Crusoe, fear of the unknown, fear of attack, fear of savagery. But I get a thrill when I see the footprints that some 15 people left 2,000 years ago in the ash and mud on the shore of Lake Managua in Nicaragua.

nicaragua footprints

I get goose bumps on seeing the footprints left 1.5 million years ago by Homo erectus near the village of Ileret in Northern Kenya on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana.

homo erectus ileret kenya

The hairs on my neck rise at the sight of footprints left 3.7 million years ago by three members of the species Australopithecus afarensis at Laetoli in Tanzania, which show that already then bipedalism, such a distinctive feature of our species, was in place.

laetoli footprints

I find these footprints a much more powerful reminder of the Family of Man than a piece of jawbone or a tooth. I can imagine my distant, distant ancestors going about their business, as I will go about mine today.

And within the much narrower circuit of my family, my wife and I have two relics, which currently slumber with all our stuff in a warehouse in Vienna but which we will keep preciously until the end of our lives. These are the footprints which the hospital gave us of our children’s feet, made just after they were born; they look like this

newborn footprints

They will forever remind us of the great joy which we experienced when our two children entered our lives and for a few decades walked with us before taking their own path in life.


Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok: (in
Reclining Buddha’s feet: (in
Reclining Buddha, Chaukhtatgyi Paya, Yangon: (in
Buddha footprint, 1st century, Gandhāra: (in
Muhammad footprint, Istanbul: (in
Jesus footprints, church of Domine Quo Vadis: (in
Crusoe and the footprint: (in
Nicaragua footprints: (in
Homo erectus Ileret Kenya: (in
Hominid footprints, Laetoli: (in
Newborn footprints: (in


Bangkok, 5 April 2015

Picking up on the theme of my last post, the application of cosmetics to certain parts of the face (eyebrows in that case), I feel that I should also comment on one fashion statement which I have come across in this part of the world and which, contrary to the fashion of strong eyebrows that seems to be sweeping the world, I hardly see being adopted any time soon away from its place of birth. The part of the world in question is Myanmar, and the fashion statement in question is the daubing by women (but not only) of their cheeks with a beige-coloured paste.
Yangon, Burma, Myanmar. Streets.It really is something that foreigners cannot fail to notice the moment they arrive in Myanmar, and indeed the internet is full of comments along the lines of “what on earth is that stuff on the women’s faces?”  The last time my wife and I were in the country, I finally got around to asking what this stuff was exactly. Thanatka, I was told (or thanat-ka, or thanaka, or thanakha; transliteration of Burmese words into English is quite approximate, rather like Shakespeare spelling his own name in three or four different ways – but I digress). Our hotel had a little exhibition on thanatka in the lobby, which frankly didn’t explain anything at all. Time to scour the internet, and as is normally the case Wikipedia threw up some useful material.

First, the why: why are women (and children to some degree) putting thanatka on? The answer seems to be primarily for beauty, rather like Amerindians paint their faces as decoration.
amerindian with painted faceIndeed, while the photo which starts this post has the lady in question just giving herself a brushstroke’s worth of thanatka on each cheek, others seem far more creative. Painted leaves seem popular (although I wonder if this is simply catering to the tourist trade?)
painted leaveswhile simple whorls
whorlsor circles also appear frequently in the cannon.
circlesIt seems that thanatka is not only about beauty. It is also said to provide protection from sunburn. But then I would have thought that application to the whole face would be more appropriate, the way I slathered sunscreen on every piece of my exposed skin during our recent trip to Myanmar. Claims are also made that it removes acne, and there are “before and after” photos to that effect on the net – although, rather strangely, of white people only. It is also claimed to have anti-fungal properties, although luckily there are no “before and after” pictures of that.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, they say, and I have to assume that Myanmar men find this wash of beige on their women’s cheeks attractive. After all, Myanmar women have been pasting themselves in this way for at least 700 years. Personally, though, I find it difficult to see anything beautiful in the habit. Every time I see one of these ladies, my instinctive reaction is to think “Ooh, they need to wash their faces”.  Of course, it’s not as if European women don’t paint (or powder) their faces. Rouging one’s cheeks is a fashion that goes back centuries, as attested by all those portrait paintings hanging in various museums of Europe of aristocratic ladies or royal mistresses (or both) with nicely rouged cheeks. For instance, this slightly racy painting of Nell Gwynn, mistress to Charles II of England, shows her with lovely red cheeks (and strong eyebrows, I am pleased to see, given my last post!)
nell gwynn(as I mentioned in an earlier post, there was a time when European aristocratic men also liberally rouged their cheeks)

The fashion statement has continued. For instance, I still remember from my youth those little powder cases which every woman had in their handbag, and which they would whip out from time to time to rouge their cheeks or generally give their face a powdering over.
powder caseAnd as far as I can make out, the fashion still goes strong. Women with cosmetically highlighted cheeks are a dime a dozen on any street in the world (except Myanmar …), although the powder case has given way to other delivery mechanisms.

But there is a difference, no? These women were and are highlighting the natural colouring of their cheeks. Myanmar women, on the other hand, are just daubing themselves. I wonder if the original idea was not simply to make the skin look paler, that universal obsession of women in all Asian countries.

Now for the what: what exactly is thanatka? It is an exceedingly natural cosmetic, made from grinding the bark, wood, or roots of a tree together with a small amount of water.
thanatka preparation 003As modernism marches through the country, a Myanmar lady can go to her supermarket and buy a jar of ready-made product. But she can also still go out and buy the wood (with this particular seller advertising her wares)
wood for saleas well as the stone grinder, and make it at home. No doubt the artisanal aspects of the trade will die out soon.

I finish by saluting the humble trees at the start of the chain: the thanatka tree (a species of Murraya)
thanakta treewith these particular individuals standing in front of some venerable temple, as well as the theethee tree (Limonia acidissima)
theethee treeI just hope that in the rush to slather their faces with paste, the Myanmarians are not chopping these trees down with wild abandon, thus denuding the landscape in the process. Beauty, however defined, is not worth that.


Woman with painted cheeks: (in
Woman Amerindian: (in
Thanatka painted leaves: (in
Thanatka whorls:é-birmanie.jpg (in
Thanatka circles: (in
Nell Gwynn: (in
Woman with powder case: (in
Thanatka preparation: (in
Thanatka wood: (in
Murraya tree: (in
Theethee tree: (in


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.
06-inle lake-day 3 006
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

06-inle lake-inn dein-flav 049

To some still clung fragments of their original ornamentation

06-inle lake-inn dein-flav 041

06-inle lake-inn dein 025

06-inle lake-inn dein-flav 043

while others housed Buddhas in varying states of repair.

06-inle lake-inn dein-flav 042

06-inle lake-inn dein-flav 052

06-inle lake-inn dein 008

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
06-inle lake-inn dein-flav 071

06-inle lake-inn dein-flav 069

with some of the decoration clinging on

06-inle lake-inn dein-flav 070
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.
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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.
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When we broke out of the forest and turned around, there at last we saw the view which had brought us here. Finally …

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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


Bangkok, 15 February, 2015

Anyone who has been in Thailand for more than half an hour begins to notice that every building, residential, commercial, governmental, whatever it happens to be, has one or more doll-like houses standing outside it in some corner of the property. To be very visible to one and all, they are set either on a tall pillar or on four somewhat smaller stilts. These, for instance, are the two which grace a corner of the parking lot at our apartment block.
spirit houses-general view-1
spirit house big

spirit house small

And if, finally rendered curious by constantly coming across them, one decides to have a closer look, you will find that they hold little figurines – old people, dancers, horses, elephants, cars, sometimes a Buddha. This, for instance, is a catalogue of what the bigger of our apartment block’s two little houses contains.

spirit house big-horses
spirit house big-elephants
They will often have votive offerings of food and drink as well as burning incense sticks set out in front of them along with fresh flowers

spirit houses-flowers and incense

many of them will have flower garlands draped over them

spirit house big-garland

and – at night – candles are set out or strings of lights turned on to light them up.

spirit house big-night

Quite charming. In fact, when my wife and I came to Bangkok for the first time some seven years ago, we were quite taken by these little houses and considered buying a DIY kit of one, to put up on the landing in front of the door of our then-apartment in Vienna, to house a small ivory Buddha which I had bought a few years before in Sri Lanka. But it was really too bulky, so we abandoned the idea.

But actually, why are these little houses there in the first place? I should have asked myself that the first time I saw them, before seriously considering putting one in front of my door.

A little bit of reading has informed me these houses are put up to propitiate the spirits of the land. This is a core belief of animism, that spirits reside in all the material manifestations of this world – the land, its streams, rivers, lakes, waterfalls, its trees and other plants, all animals, everything really, even man-made objects like bridges. Animism has deep, deep roots in Thailand – actually, in the whole of South-East Asia, from Myanmar down to Indonesia and across to the Philippines; the tradition of spirit houses, for instance, is found throughout the region apart possibly from the Philippines. The arrival of more rational, complex, sophisticated religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, or Christianity (or ethical systems like Confucianism in Vietnam), did not make the earlier animistic beliefs disappear, although I’m sure the leaders of these new religions tried hard to stamp them out (and at least in Thailand are still trying to, according to what I’ve read) or to absorb them (which is certainly what Buddhism has tried to do).

The sad thing is that these spirits are not nice beings. The purpose of those cute little houses is actually to make sure that the spirits of the land don’t get mad at you because you’re using their land and decide to burn down your house or give you a heart attack or bring Lord knows what other calamity down on your head. So in the house you’ll put figurines of servants to tend to the local land spirit’s every whim,  you’ll put figurines of dancing girls (geishas might be a better descriptor) to keep him happy, you’ll put horses and elephants (and cars for the more sophisticated urbanized spirits) to make sure he can go for a ride whenever he gets bored of sitting at home and watching the dancing girls gyrate, you’ll give him food and drink to make sure he doesn’t go hungry … Reading all this, it occurs to me that these spirits are really just like the mafia in Sicily: if you don’t pay this man the requested pizzo, or protection money

then unfortunately this will happen to your shop.
burning shop
So, these pretty little houses are actually the reflection of a deep existential fear, that all around you are naughty, nasty little spirits who will hurt you if you’re not nice to them. These reflections moved me to dip into “The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion” by the Scotsman James George Frazer.
The book, first published in 1890 and republished several times thereafter, attempts to define the shared elements of religious beliefs, discussing fertility rites, human sacrifice, the “dying god”, the “scapegoat”, and many other symbols and practices. Its thesis is that old religions were fertility cults that revolved around the worship and periodic sacrifice of a sacred king (among other places, his ideas take a central role in T.S. Elliot’s poem, “The Wasteland”, which I have had cause to mention 100 posts ago and which was the reason why I originally read “The Golden Bough”). I’m sure modern anthropologists would dispute Frazer’s basic thesis, but in writing the book Frazer collected accounts from around the world of magical, animistic beliefs, which are fascinating in themselves. Here are three excerpts which he cites from other sources on the belief in spirits in South-East Asia.

“Thus the life of the Thay seems regulated down to its smallest details by custom founded on his belief in the spirits. Spirits perpetually watch him, ready to punish for his negligences, and he is afraid. Fear is for him not only the beginning of wisdom, it is the whole of his wisdom. Love has only a very moderate place in it. Even the respect in which he holds his dead, and the honours which he pays them on various occasions, seem to be dominated by a superstitious fear. It seems that the sacrifices which he offers to them aim rather at averting from himself the evils which he dreads than at honouring worthily the memory of his deceased kinsfolk and at paying them the tribute of his affection and gratitude.”

“Independently of the demons who are in hell, the Siamese recognize another sort of devils diffused in the air: they call them phi; they are, they say, the demons who do harm to men and who appear sometimes in horrible shapes. They put down to these malign spirits all the calamities which happen in this world. If the mother has lost a child, it is the phi who has done the ill turn; if a sick man is given over, it is a phi that is at the bottom of it. To appease him, they invoke him and make him offerings which they hang in desert places.”

“The desire to propitiate the good spirits and exorcise the bad ones is the prevailing influence upon the life of the Laotians. With phis to the right of him, to the left of him, in front of him, behind him, all round him, his mind is haunted with a perpetual desire to make terms with them, and to ensure the assistance of the great Buddha, so that he may preserve both body and soul from the hands of the spirit.”

The first two excerpts, written in 1907 and 1831 respectively, come from books written by French missionaries, the third from a book written by an Englishman in 1884. The first two no doubt had religious axes to grind, wishing to show how the Thai (Siamese being the old name for the Thai) were poor, benighted folk in need of Christian redemption. But even accounting for a certain amount of exaggeration, the picture which these excerpts paint is bleak indeed: a constant, haunting fear at every step.

Of course, before we shake our heads and smile and take another sip of our coffee, we should remind ourselves (as Frazer reminds us in his book) that Europe, just to take my part of the world, was also the home of naughty, nasty little spirits. Anyone like me who had to suffer through Latin and Greek in their education will remember the Roman and Greek nymphs who haunted the sacred groves and streams, and who had to be propitiated. And what about all those leprechauns, and trolls, and sprites, and ogres, who populate children’s books and popular stories? Remember Rumplestiltskin, that nasty little imp who saves the miller’s daughter from the wrath of the king by spinning straw into gold for her, but on condition that she give him her first-born child?
Or that “shrewd and knavish sprite” Puck in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, who at the behest of his master Oberon, King of the fairies, wreaks mayhem in the Athenian woods?

Or the ogre in Jack and the Beanstalk, who on sensing that little Jack is hiding in his house, intones

I smell the blood of an Englishman,
Be he alive, or be he dead,
I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.”
ogre jack and the beanstalk

Even Tinkerbell in Disney’s sucrose version of “Peter Pan” is not a particularly nice person.
I suppose Christianity managed to reduce the strength of animistic beliefs in Europe – I won’t say stamp out, because otherwise we wouldn’t have the children’s stories – but only to replace them by another existential fear, that of suffering in hell for ever and ever.
Luckily, science has come to the rescue and driven out all the religious claptrap. There is no supernatural world, it tells us, only the natural world around us. And with that, all those spirits disappear in a flash.

But now that I know all this, would I still buy a spirit house kit to assemble on the landing in front of my apartment door in Europe? Do I want to be seen, if only to myself, to believe in naughty, nasty spirits? After giving some thought to the matter, I have concluded that yes, I would, but for a very different reason. One of the houses whose photo I give at the beginning of the post is the house of the ancestral spirits of the place, the spirits – or ghosts I suppose – of the people who lived there before you. In fact this house contains figurines of old people.
spirit house small-old people
Unfortunately, these spirits also require propitiation in Thailand, since they too can turn nasty (jeez louise, what a world view!). But I would use the house differently. I would use it to house the memory of my parents and my wife’s parents. For my parents, I would have a very tall figurine stand in for my father and a very small figurine for my mother, for that indeed is how they were; one of my abiding memories of them is the two dancing together, he very tall, she very small, slowly circling the dance floor. For my wife’s parents, I would have a large figurine stand in for my mother-in-law, for she was indeed of a stout disposition. For my father-in-law, I’m not sure, I hardly knew him. I’ve mentioned before his fondness for wearing a Basque beret, so perhaps a figurine of a man with such a beret would do? But I would leave this for my wife to decide. And I would move the house into the apartment, so that their memory could be with us, rather than left out in the dark like the dog. I feel that this would be a better way of remembering them, of keeping their memory alive, than going on infrequent visits to the graveyard, and a useful complement to looking at old photos and reminiscing. And I would hope that one day my children would also have a spirit house to which they could add little figurines of us once that day arrives. As it surely will.


Spirit houses: my pictures
Mafia man: (in
Burning shop: (in
“The Golden Bough” cover: (in
Rumplestitskin: (in
Puck: (in
Ogre in Jack and the Beanstalk: (in
Tinkerbell: (in
Hell: (in


Bangkok, 19 November, 2014

I was in Myanmar last week for the first time in my life, with a team of colleagues. Unfortunately, our trip coincided with an ASEAN Summit in the new capital Nay Pyi Taw, which was attended by sundry political worthies, including President Obama and Premier Li Keqiang. We seemed to have spent most of the week fleeing from these worthies. We hurriedly visited various government Ministries in Nay Pyi Taw in the two days before the Summit started and rode out of town to Yangon the night the politicos started arriving. We were congratulating ourselves on having missed the craziness which usually accompanies the presence of political heavyweights, but we had not reckoned on President Obama following us down to Yangon. His motorcading around the city to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi and do various other things like visit a church snarled Yangon’s already chronically congested traffic and made our lives a misery as we threaded our way through back roads to arrive more or less on time at our various meetings.

But actually this post has nothing to do with President Obama or any other Big Cheese. It has to do with a stop we made somewhere in all this threading, at a market. One member of the team had made promises to his wife to bring a little something back to her, and the other team members thought this was an ideal occasion to pick up some Burmese bibelots. Unwillingly, I tagged along. As I feared, the market was a tourist trap: store after store of rubbish and store keepers hovering ready to pounce. But I preferred to walk around grouchily than sit in the van grouchily.

I had a faint glimmer of hope when I came across a store which sold lacquerware from Bagan. I’d read about the ancient Burmese king who had conquered his way through northern Thailand, Laos and over to Yunnan, and brought back skilled lacquerware craftsmen in his baggage train, using them to create a new luxury industry in his capital Pagan. Might I find something worth contemplating in the store?

Alas not. For one thing, I cannot stand places which look like this.


All that stuff pressing claustrophobically in on you! The feeling of being the proverbial elephant in a china shop, bumping into something and bringing mounds of breakables crashing down around your ears! My immediate reaction is to run out of such places. But I controlled my urge to run and looked. And liked not what I saw. This picture shows the typical designs being offered for sale.
Too much, too much! Too – damned – much! All those dense, dense designs. It makes me think of Australian Aboriginal art, which I wrote about in an earlier post. In art, in design, the KISS principle applies (Keep It Simple, Stupid!). Now it could just be that modern makers of Bagan lacquerware use these designs because tourists have shown a preference for them, and he who pays the piper calls the tune. But a look at older designs suggests that the Burmese kings and their aristocracy also liked busy designs, although this is a good deal better than the modern stuff.
No, give me Japanese lacquerware any day. Look at this bento box in the maki-e style
Or this box in the Aizu style
Or this tray in the Negoro style (where the upper red layers of lacquer are intended to gradually wear away with use, revealing the black lacquer underneath).
These are old fashioned if not antiques. Modern Japanese lacquerware is just as lovely. Look at this:
Or if you find that this has strayed too far from lacquerware, how about this vase?
Or if you find the design too modern, how about this?
Beauty is in simplicity of form and of pattern.

I have spoken.


Myanmar lacquerware store: (in
Typical modern Bagan lacquerware: (in
Yun lacqerware tray: (in
Maki-e bento box: (in
Aizu box: (in
Negoro tray: (in
Modern Japanese lacquerware-1: (in
Modern Japanese lacquerware-2: (in
Modern Japanese lacquerware-3: (in