Little Hagia Sophia — Poem Verde Antico

Little Hagia Sophia is a mosque in Istanbul Turkey. Its foundations are about hundred years before Islam even existed, as a Church of the Saints Sergius and Bacchus. Its current name refers to Hagia Sophia proper, once the largest building in the largest city of its time, Constantinople. Both were built around same time, only few years apart, but current name was assigned to the converted mosque by Ottoman Turks who occupied the city in 1453 AD.

Interior of Little Hagia Sophia. Word intimate is perhaps best describing the mood and feel.

Ottomans spared several of the impressive Byzantine churches, and repurpose them to worship a new god. This way lot of original design and details can still be seen today. When I lived nearby, I often frequented Little Hagia Sophia and took some photos. Here are some that shows the details of interior.

Roman columns made of verde antico gave idea for the title, as poem in marble has already been attributed to Taj Mahal.

Roman numerals and alphabet come by everywhere, no wonder as they were chiselled during time when locals considered themselves as Romans. East part of Roman Empire would last thousand years after West had lost to armies of Barbarians. Byzantines would often contest the control of Italian peninsula, and occupy the former capital.

Hagia Sophia proper. Little sister would fit inside many times over.

Kuala Lumpur Street Impressions

Street impressions and some popular scenes from Kuala Lumpur Malaysia, early 2020. I traveled to KL first time in 2003, and bought my first digital camera from there. Few of those photos in here as well.

Curiously, as COVID-19 virus pandemic is spreading currently, I remember doing these early trips when world was fearing similar SARS virus, also originating from China in 2003.

Photo from above is from 2003, bellow 2020. Back then Petronas Towers were only few years old. Now, decades later, they still look just as modern and futuristic as ever (least to me).

Roof top pool bars are a thing in KL. Petronas Towers and Kuala Lumpur Tower (Menara) can be seen forming part of horizon. Pretty cool place for a morning swim, or chill out with friends after work.

Old meets new. Minaret of Masjid Jamek (more information bellow) is famous old landmark of the city. Menara is towering behind.

Birthplace of a metropolis, aka. muddy estuary, at the meeting point of Kelang (Klang) and Gombok rivers. In Malay language where river meets another, is called “kuala”. In 1857, tin prospecting expedition came to the river confluence with mud silted waters and river banks. Tin ore was discovered from the mud which in Malay is called “lumpur”. It was also this far that tin ore ships coming from sea could reach, making it important location for mining settlements and other mining infrastructure. Tracks to tin mining villages further away started from here. Mining industry grew rapidly over the coming years, because discovery was made right in time when industrial revolution was getting speed in West. This generated endless demand for raw materials. Soft tin has some qualities that other metals don’t, for example it does not corrode and become poisonous like iron does. It was thus ideal for storing food, at the time when plastics didn’t exist and aluminium wasn’t an option yet. Tin commercial tin exporting began in 1859.

Masjid Jamek was built in 1909, when Malaya was one of most prosperous colonies in British Empire. Tin and rubber were main sources of its fortunes. Mosque served as main mosque for local Malay community, until 1960’s when building more modern national mosque was completed.

Old Secretariat building is another famous landmark of the city, modern Kuala Lumpur behind. In front of Secretariat is former cricket field, nowadays known as freedom square (Merdeka).

2003 & 2020. Sri Mahamariamman Temple, KL old town.

Batu Caves are on a limestone hill outside the center, and is popular tourist destination in Kuala Lumpur. In caves and outside are statues and figures inspired by Hindu legends. Caves can be reached easily by public transport, but prepare for long queues at popular times.

KL public transport is extensive and works well.

Petaling Street in Chinatown is famous destination for bargain hunting and street food.

KL street impressions.

KL street impressions.

KL street impressions.

Used electronics and trinkets of all kinds for sell in street market. Chinatown.

When wandering in streets, shops and museums start to get too exhausting, city bird park provides a nice respite.

In Kuala Lumpur Bird Park.

All Roads Lead to Angkor

This post was long in the making. I visited Siem Reap and Angkor in early 2013, and like many, was amazed by the magnificence of its temples. Such sites don’t require much background information and understanding, just move along and awe the architecture and opulence they represent. Later when living in Thailand, Khmer history popped up here and there because much of the region was once part of Khmer empire (see my previous post about Khmer Provincial). Finally now second visit to Cambodia and somewhat better informed. Here’s my take from this fascinating place and the role it once played in the region.

Elephants and riders in historic park.

Traditional costumes worn by group of young Cambodians.

Indiana Jones, Lara Croft and me 🙂

Rise of Khmers was centuries long process. Heyday of empire was around eleventh and twelfth centuries but many sources cite of trading and diplomatic relations with them a lot earlier. Chinese, Indians and seaborne Javanese are known to be connected with pre-Angkorian kingdom known as Funan (name given them by Chinese). Khmers are said to have 9 great kings that ruled with wisdom and success for their country. They were Jayavarman II (802-850 AD); the founder of “Khmer proper”, Indravarman I (887-889 AD), Yasovarman I (889-910 AD), Jayavarman IV (921-941 AD), Rajendravarman (944-968 AD), Suryavarman I (1002-1050 AD), Udayadityavarman (1050-1066 AD), Suryavarman II (1113-1150 AD), Jayavarman VII (1181-1218 AD). As can be seen from gap periods, there were not so great times in between.

Reigns of the last two of the list are periods when empire has been considered of reaching its zenith. It had occupied or vasallized much of Southeast Asia, with borders reaching from Burma to the Dai Viet and Champa (both in modern day Vietnam) and China in the north. In south Khmers bordered with Malay peninsula Hindu kingdoms, as spread of Islam would reach there when Khmer empire was already in decline in 13th century. As empire expanded, it gathered number of enemies who weren’t happy to pay tributes, send men to its military and participate endeavours of further expansion. Especially Champa and Dai Viet were often in war footing against Khmers, and some historians believe that even the capital Angkor was sacked by the marauding armies from the west (To see map of the empire, click link to Wikipedia here).

Miniature model of Angkor Wat, in Angkor National Museum, Siem Reap.

During Suryavarman II, construction of largest temple complex of Angkor Wat was begun. Completion of this massive project is debated, it might have been after the death of its founder.

Angkor Wat is said to be largest religious monument in the world. Temple has unusual orientation towards west, opposing direction to most Khmer Hindu temples. One possible explanation is that it’s dedicated to Vishnu, God of the west, instead of Shiva. West is also direction of death. Stories in bas-reliefs in the temple are organized same manner as religious ceremonies for tombs in Hinduism.

Large pool inside Angkor Wat. Complex has several of these within.

Building spree during Jayavarman VII was even more intense, Angkor Thom with Bayon Temple in its center and numerous other temple complexes of similar proportions were erected. Every one of the temples housed community of thousands of members, with monks/priests being at the top of hierarchy. Jayavarman also greatly improved the road system mentioned in previous post (link), and is said to have been concerned of the well being of his citizens, building shelters and hospitals for them. Over 100 rest houses, also known as fire houses, were built every fifteen or so kilometers along road, to help with the chores of long travels.

Statue of Jayavarman VII in Angkor National Museum, Siem Reap.

Except the temples, city of Angkor was largely made of wood. On the surface, little of it remains today. Modern lidar (technology of emitting laser rays, bit like old radio wave based radar) has helped scientist and historians to study the real dimensions of the remains of Khmer civilizations buried in jungle. Angkor is estimated to have had million citizens, largest city on earth in its time.

When tolerant religions become less tolerant. Jayavarman VII was famous for his building projects, but he was also devout Buddhist, which was unusual in traditionally Hindu country. During his reign many large Buddhist temple complexes were built, which much have seen as sacrilegious or least a challenge, by the establishment of Hindu clergy. Clock was attempted to reset couple decades after Jayavarman’s death, by one of his successors who was Shiivaite. Buddhist artworks were vandalized and images of Buddha were chiseled of, large Buddha statues were converted into Linga.

Inside Preah Pkhan, one of many temples built during the reign of Jayavarman VII. Linga in center might be one of Buddha statues converted by Shiivaites.

Buddhist monks visiting Bayon Temple, at the center of Angkor Thom, the capital of Jayavarman VII.

One of entrance gates to Angkor Thom. City had four main gates pointing to four cardinal directions.

Young Cambodians. Khmer influence is very visible still today, and not only in Cambodia. Khmer’s influenced traditions, customs, and set norms and examples for coming kingdoms to copy and further. For instance Thai numerals in use today are a copy from Khmer’s. In many ways life in Southeast Asia is living history of Khmer’s, people just don’t stop and think about it.

This old sign has since disappeared, but serves here a purpose: Welcome, I might find my way back there also some day!

Burma West — Arakan Coast and Bay of Bengal

Traveling in western Myanmar spring 2019: Mandalay, Mrauk-U, Sittwe, Pathein and Ngwesaung.

Brief history. For centuries, current day western Burma was an independent Arakanese kingdom, situated in coastal strip at the Bay of Bengal. It was only in 1784 when Burmese conquered the region and annexed it as part of their kingdom. This occupation would last only 40 years, until First Anglo-Burmese War, end result of which was British occupation. Later in century the rest of Burma would suffer same fate as British were expanding their Indian possessions. After independence in 1948, Arakan coast remained as part of Burma as Rakhine state. Today it is one of least developed parts of the country, due to long conflicts between Bamar majority and local ethnicities, namely Rohingya, Kachin and Arakanese.

Burma in 1900’s, left. British annexations in 3 stages marked. Trip to Burma covered by this post, on right.

Mandalay Palace and surrounding moat at center of city. Unfortunately largely wooden palace was burned down during Second World War bombing raids, when Japanese were occupying the city.

U Bein bridge is popular tourist attraction, both local and foreigners alike.

Shopping in Mahamuni Paya.

Mahamuni Buddha image was brought from Arakan to then Burmese capital Amarapura (outskirts of present day Mandalay), along with other war loot (see bellow).

These unassuming bronze statues in Mahamuni Paya in Mandalay have fascinating history to tell. They were originally made by the Khmer’s at height of their power for Angkor Wat temple. By early 1400’s Khmer empire was in decline, and final blow to their former prestige came in 1431, when Siamese (Thai), laid a siege on Khmer capital and managed to conquer it. Along with them as war loot, left the bronze statues west to Siamese capital Ayutthaya. Siamese in turn were defeated in 1563-4 by great Burmese king Bayinnaung, who ransacked Siamese capital. Bayinnaung had Khmer bronze statues moved to his capital Bago (Pegu). Then in 1599, statues were on the move again further west to Mrauk-U, when Arakanese (Rakhine) king Min Razagyi, with help of Portugese mercenaries sacked Bago. Interestingly, there’s another version of events in the plague next to statues in Mahamuni Paya: “…when the Thai King Byanarit attacked Toungoo in 1599, the Rakhine king fought from the Myanmar side. In that was, the Thai king was defeated. As he owed a debt of gratitude to the Rakhine king, the king of Toungoo (Burma) presented the Rakhine king with various treasures including the large Bronze Figures”. Thai King Byanarit is likely the King Naresuan of Ayutthaya, who was with his forces in the region in 1600, had skirmishes with Arakanese, and had eventually to withdraw. And so statues are now in Arakanese capital Mrauk-U for almost next 200 years. In 1784, Burmese king Bodawpaya sent armies led by his son and crown prince Thado Minsaw, to end the existence of Arakanese kingdom. War ended in defeat for Arakanese, and Mrauk-U was systematically looted. Back into Burmese capital Amarapura went the famous Mahamuni Buddha image (see above). Likewise, the Khmer bronze statues made voyage now to eastwards, to the same temple. It is believed that there were originally around 30 statues that were moved from kingdom to kingdom, but last of Burmese kings, Thibaw, was in desperate need for arms when British were annexing Burma piece by piece. Most of statues were melted and cast as canons, and only 6 remains today. Bronze cannons of Khmer origin did little to help Thibaw though. After British reached Mandalay in 1885, they sent him to exile in India and so ended Burmese royal dynasty with him.

Kipling Cafe near Mandalay Palace. Famous 19th century British poet was born in India and lived there his youth. During and aftermath of Third Anglo-Burmese War, Rudyard Kipling was a reporter in Punjab and closely followed events as British and Indian troops were trying to pacify newly occupied lands. Telegrams kept coming about the casualties, as Burmese had resorted to bitter guerrilla warfare to fight occupiers, land was lawless and banditry epidemic. Eventually 14000 troops managed to quell the armed opposition. After Kipling left India to move Europe, he visited Rangoon (Yangon) and Moulmein (Mawlamyine), but never came to Mandalay. Great source of information about Kipling in India and Burma, link.

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ eastward to the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
“Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!” …

Let’s go west. Mandalay alone would warrant entire blog post, here’s where the trip actually starts!

I started my trip to west from Mandalay, by taking a bus to Mrauk-U. Trip was long bus drive at night in roads that were in poor condition. Large parts of road were either not paved at all or only narrow strip that would fit only one vehicle. After arriving next morning, felt like a coma patient and rest of the day went recuperating.

Pagodas in Mrauk-U.

Due to reasons described above, Mrauk-U remains less touristy than better known Bagan. Saw perhaps two other tourists, and oftentimes region is off limits for tourists entirely. At night our bus passed a checkpoint and my passport was checked by military, but luckily this time they let us pass. Compared to Bagan, Mrauk-U is more hilly and silhouettes of pagodas provide nice photo opportunities, especially at dawn and dusk.

Remains of royal palace in Mrauk-U. It was built originally 1430, and improved significantly in 1531. Palace complex had several buildings such as parliament offices, armories etc. Mrauk-U dynasty lasted 354 years with 49 kings.

Visit to Chin tribe. Besides historic sights, nearby Chin villages offer fascinating glimpse how locals are living in their communities.

Portraits of Chin women in their 60’s and 70’s. Old tradition was to tattoo all young girls bellow age 10, with tribal identification. This was to prevent them marrying men from other tribes.

Young man preparing to start an engine.

Although brand new cell tower brings Internet to village, water is still transported in traditional way.

New housing is communal effort.

Mrauk-U boat jetty. Long boat is doing daily trips to Sittwe.

To the coast. Boat from Mrauk-U to Sittwe left around 7.30 in the morning, and arrived noonish. Views from boat were nice, as we progressed the delta. Sittwe is in confluence of the Kaladan, Mayu, and Lay Mro rivers emptying into the Bay of Bengal.

Sittwe is capital of Rakhine state. Its ideal starting point to begin exploring Arakan region, as daily flights connect it to Yangon.

Pathein pagoda at morning mist.

Pathein is further south from Sittwe, westwards from Yangon from where bus takes about 4 hours. Although most tourists bypass Pathein, on their way to coast, I decided to stop for few nights, and have a look the life in the city. Town has lively river front where one can observe life in Burmese provincial town.

Morning mist in Pathein.

Ngwesaung beaches are mostly frequented by Burmese locals, but some foreigners have found them too.

Beach scenes from Ngwesaung.

Sunset in Sittwe beach.

Yangon Old Rangoon

Shwedagon Pagoda at sunset.

This is second part of three part series about Spring 2019 trip to Burma (Myanmar).

Am sitting in a cafe in Bangkok, reminiscing my recent trip to Burma and trying mold materials into something. Am watching outside as Thailand is preparing a week of Songran. Similar works were ongoing in Yangon, for Burmese equivalent called Thingyan. When new year was observed at the time am roughly placing this post, it was modest religious festival, not outlandish water splashing riot of today.

Sule Pagoda at dusk. According to legends, its even older than better known Shwedagon. Being outskirts of downtown, Shwedagon has had room to grow, whereas Sule is in the middle of traffic junction in old town, and surrounded by a lot of buildings.

Due to its long isolation, Burmese old colonial architecture has survived relatively well. Demolition of building blocks didn’t occur as much, but old buildings suffered from neglect and lack of renovation funds over the years. City east-west and north-south grid pattern was laid by British, after the Second Anglo-Burmese War in 1852. However, judging old maps prior the war, city already had layout that supported the design.

Above: old map of Yangon before Second Anglo-Burmese War. “Rough sketch (from memory) of old town of Rangoon, as it existed between 1836 and 1849. Obligingly to the author by a resident during those years, July 1852.”
Bellow: Yangon today from Google Maps. Grid pattern was centered to Sule Pagoda, although map above suggest there was same directional roads to it already in early part of 1800’s (likely the road heading north from Main Wharf).

Something new, something moulding. Yangon downtown.

Streets of Yangon.

More street shots from Yangon.

Yangon River crossing is lively scene of small boats coming and going to Dala side.

Buddhist monks and nuns can be seen every morning doing their alms walks. Pious Burmese consider it their honor to donate food.

The Secretariat

Secretariat is former Victorian style administration complex, and was used by British colonial civil servants and bureaucrats. Its building was long project which completed 1905. In 1937 Burma Province was separated from rest of British India, giving more local authority for people working in Secretariat. Next phase came after the independence in 1948 when British left, giving keys to Burmese themselves.

Complex forms a large square U-arch.

Inside Secretariat. Saloon doors, long corridors that channel winds for cooling effect, long halls with high roofs, these are some of characteristics of Secretariat. Complex is currently empty and is ongoing big restoration program.

Opposing double spiral staircases were a fashionable thing at the time of building.

Secretariat was also location where assassination of General Aung San and six of cabinet ministers took place in this room (above) in 1947. Its currently closed from public (photo taken through window). Aung San is father of modern Myanmar’s prime minister Aung San Suu Kyi.

Saint Mary’s Cathedral (completed 1899) is largest in Burma, and right next to Secretariat. Combining visit to both is easy.

At Shwedagon

Perhaps best known landmark of Yangon is the Shwedagon Pagoda. Its in vicinity of the downtown, but walking there takes quite a while. Taxi at the time of writing cost around 8000 Kyats (around 5 Dollars). Shwedagon Pagoda is also well known by Buddhists outside Burma as its considered most sacred religious sites in the country, could hear for example Thai spoken by some visitors. Wikipedia:

Historians and archaeologists maintain that the pagoda was built by the Mon people between the 6th and 10th centuries AD. However, according to legend, the Shwedagon Pagoda was constructed more than 2,600 years ago, which would make it the oldest Buddhist stupa in the world.

Snake Temple, Hmwe Paya

Hmwe Paya. Temple is on other side of the Yangon river. Dala ferry takes 15 minutes to cross, then hiring a taxi or motorbike to reach the temple is around 30 minute drive. Locals know about it, so if heading there on your own, they can point you to right direction.

Temple is home of large Pythons slithering among the Buddha statues.

Obviously there’s lots more to explore and see in Yangon, for example the old ring railway, various parks in the city, Chinatown and 19th street bar and barbecue restaurants and food stalls. Hotel Strand is renovated old luxury hotel, nice stop for a coffee even if not wanting to pay for its room rates. Back in 2013 (my first trip to Yangon), Strand was one of few places where stable Internet was available, so times change… And, as they continue to change, city would benefit a lot from developed riverfront, currently occupied by large harbor.