The fire that never sleeps


Finally the ice retreated
and what remained of life
regained the luxury
of curiosity

Emerging, crab-like wary
from dark hidey-holes, they again
covered the earth
with footprints

An inscrutable obelisk
uncovered, tantalised with ancient runes –
landscapes of thorns,
and dormant mystery

Yet the temple lay desolate;
no gods, only graven idols
three triangles
black on yellow
unto infinity

a created oblivion
the fire that never sleeps
unleashed again


From Flickr cc by Alex Hesse

(I blame/ credit this documentary with putting me in this strange mood)

The last refuge of the gods


Baraki-san Myogyoji

Here is an oasis in time, the last refuge of the gods. They speak in every rustle of leaves, every chitter of insects and squawk of birds, in the steady thrum of crickets. Here, earth surprises you, soft underfoot and clean-scented from yesterday’s rain. Here, and only here, the city is but a dull, distant roar.

In late afternoon, shade reaches long fingers across scrubby grass, yearning to reclaim it from the light. I sit on a hard wooden bench beneath an immense spreading cherry tree, its elderly limbs buoyed up on crutches of mortal construction. Oh, the indignity, it groans, in some realm beyond human hearing.

Two children clatter by on elderly bicycles. Girls, around eleven or twelve. They find a squirrel, but fail to entice it closer. Clap, clap, clap; nature scatters, and the girls ride away. An elderly man, propelled by two wolves on a string, glances up for just long enough to give the world a scowl.

We are alone now, me and the tree, though hemmed in by spirits. The dead abide in neat rows of carved marble, squat and square yet overgrown with jutting wooden votive plaques that chatter like teeth in the wind. Here and there, a thoughtful family member has left the ghost of a favourite thing, and on this hot day the fading flowers and empty sake bottles are baking to a bittersweet haze so sharp you can probably taste it in the afterlife.

My eye is drawn, as always, to the largest of the gravestones. Though seemingly demure in jet-black marble, it’s the only one to depict its inhabitants, an elderly couple frozen in bronze. Seated, stiff, the requisite distance apart, he wears a three-piece suit with a five-button waistcoat, she a kimono that fairly crackles with starch, so tight about the neck you can’t help wondering if that wasn’t what did for her. Cold, inanimate, distant, in death as in life, as they wished to be remembered.

The seven storeys of the pagoda carve triangles of darkness into the light, a stairway to heaven. I shiver a little, as the sun slowly withdraws. It is time to return to my world, and leave the spirits to theirs.

Archive: Dirt roads around Mandalay


The real reason to stay in Mandalay is not the city itself, but the surrounding area. Here I was faced with a dilemma – what to do? A whistlestop tour of everything by taxi? A share taxi up to Pyin U Lwin, the former British hill station? A stay in Sagaing and a leisurely stroll around its faded but not forgotten glory? Or – and here I had a flash of trademark Caroline brand genius – hire a rickety bicycle with two shopping baskets and no suspension, and do a 20-mile round-trip to Amarapura, a former royal capital comprising temples and an evocative teak bridge. Consider that boneshaker hired.

Elephants near Mandalay

Ah. Hence the traffic jam.

So clatter-clatter off I go southwards on 84th street, after a few false starts and an impromptu visit to a family’s backyard (very friendly chickens). The traffic is easy to deal with, although complicated slightly by the need to reply to everyone shouting “Hello!”, and sometimes also “Good morning!” I pootle happily along for some distance, stopping only to buy more water from a very polite man in a turban, when suddenly I hit mayhem – we’re mired in hazy beeping pick-ups as far as the eye can see. Using my narrow bicycularity to my advantage, I edge forward, and diagnose the cause of the problem: elephants. Donkeys too, and a large procession of people in sparkly clothes and tinsly head-pieces, but there’s no doubt: we’re caught in an elephant jam.

As I’ve very little idea where I am, I decide to follow the elephants as they turn off down a loopy-signposted side road (guy who romanised Vietnamese, thank you, I never realised how much easier you make my life). I double-check directions with a man standing by the side of the road, who confirms that I’m going in the right direction, and tells me that he’s an Arsenal fan for good measure. 

A paya pwe, or pagoda festival

Turns out I’d arrived in the middle of a paya pwe, or pagoda festival. Everyone was very excited.

Shortly, the elephants and I arrive at the temple complex of Somewhere, and I sit in the shade eating banana chips and watching the human participants fussing and faffing, posing for pictures and reapplying makeup in readiness for whatever important thing it is that they’ll be doing. Rested (and trying not to stare too hard), I head inside. It’s a massive complex, and clearly of some importance as there are bus-loads of foreign monks visiting (and me). The devotion is palpable – no snoozing in the pew here – but I do wish I had more idea what everything meant. 

After a suitable wander, I explore the other wonders of the region. I clatter my way down narrow alleys and stumble upon the world’s most languid train station, its sign all askew and showing no signs of life apart from three lads playing with a plastic bag. Then I set off for U-Bein’s bridge, and proceed to get hopelessly lost, ending up halfway towards Sagaing and meeting a fair number of chickens en route. There seems to be absolute consensus that the bridge can be reached by going in all of seventeen different directions. I do catch a glimpse of it, but only from behind a big scary no entry sign. It’s getting dark, and my bottom hurts. Dejected, but pleased to have found what I did find, and to have experienced such warm and friendly misdirection, I creak off home.

A railway station near Mandalay

Turns out I could have gone by train.

From here on June 8th 2011.