History, Modern, Museum, Travel, UK

Risking a Trip to Titanic Belfast

It seems kind of weird that Belfast would capitalize on its links to a terrible shipping disaster, but that’s what it has gone and done. The city’s harbor area has been remodeled as the Titanic Quarter, a snazzy residential, shopping and entertainment district. The main attraction of this district is Titanic Belfast, a museum devoted to the construction, launch and loss of the RMS Titanic.

Der Untergang der Titanic

For a long time, the fact that Belfast begat the Titanic was practically a source of local shame. For decades, no one was super eager to claim responsibility for the world’s largest sea-borne coffin. That started to change in the early twenty-first century, after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, when the city started looking for a way to rebrand itself to appeal to international tourists. And when you consider that the city’s biggest tourist attraction before that was the Hotel Europa, ‘Europe’s most-bombed hotel’, choosing to focus on the Titanic doesn’t seem such a bad idea.

Besides, there’s no denying the sensational appeal of the disaster. Since 1912 it has inspired hundreds of books, plays, artworks, musicals and films. Saved from the Titanic, starring survivor Dorothy Gibson, was released just a month after the sinking. And in 1997 there was James Cameron’s Titanic, the world’s highest-grossing film until 2010. Even now, 118 years later, scientists are still busy investigating the causes of the disaster, the latest hypothesis being that a sudden solar flare zapped the navigational equipment . Since Titanic Belfast opened in 2012, it has drawn more than four million visitors from over 145 different countries.

Dorothy Gibson

So, seeing as we’re here in Belfast, I decided we should check out the museum. John was not keen, for three reasons:

“One, it’s civilian technology. Two, there is a pandemic. Three, the British Empire.”

 Not to be dissuaded, I checked out the museum’s website and saw that it seemed to be taking Covid-19 into consideration.

“Look,” I pointed out sweetly, “You can only book online, which means they’re monitoring crowd numbers, and you have to wear a mask. And they’re thanking the NHS, which means they believe in health care! Plus, if we go on a Tuesday morning I bet there won’t be anyone else there.”

“Oh, all right,” he grumbled.

So it was that on the next Tuesday we put our masks on and headed off to the Titanic Quarter, wandering along something called the Maritime Mile. This skirts the river’s edge and is dotted with informative signs explaining aspects of the city’s shipping history. For those who are less than thrilled by maritime trivia, the are also numerous stained-glass sculptures commemorating the popular HBO series Game of Thrones, much of which was filmed nearby in the nearby Titanic Studios and scenic spots of Northern Ireland.

As we passed the huge empty-thanks-to-Covid Odyssey complex, we saw Titanic Belfast, our destination.  It loomed hugely and expensively over Abercorn Basin. According to the architects, its supposed to recall the giant prows of the three Olympic class steamships built for White Star Line: RMS Titanic, RMS Olympic (retired as a service ship in 1937) and HMHS Britannic (converted to a hospital ship for WWI, it sank after hitting a German mine on November 21, 1916). It reminds me more of a digitized iceberg.


Once through the door, we anointed ourselves with hand sanitizer at the gel-squirting station and paused to admire the high ceilings and fancy lobby. Reassuringly, it didn’t seem busy. We went over to the self-vending ticket machine and then proceeded to pick up audioguides and a souvenir guide book.

A smiling woman wearing a plastic face shield looked at our tickets and sent us up an escalator to the start of the exhibition. A man at the entrance pointed to a scanning machine and we scanned the tickets for entry into a cave-like room called Boomtown Belfast.

The first thing I noticed were shadows flitting across the wall, to the clamor of voices, shouts and whistles. My first impression was that the room was full of people. On closer inspection, they were shadows of flat-capped dock workers produced by magic lanterns. I suppose it was meant to evoke the hustle and bustle of Belfast’s back in docks in 1912 but it made the room seem crowded and I hated it. I wanted to tell all the flitting phantoms to get the hell away from me and put masks on.

Time to take a deep breath.

We moved to the next room. Here there were racketty echoing clanks and the murmur of female voices.

This section was devoted to linen mills. Up until the Industrial Revolution, linen production had long been a cottage industry in Northern Ireland. Rural families grew the flax, harvested it, prepared and spun it, then wove the yarn into cloth. They brought the brown cloth to market and bleachers whiten the cloth in ‘bleaching greens’—big grounds where the treated cloth was laid out to dry in the sun. Starting from about 1830, Belfast manufacturers started looking into flax spinning machines comparable to the ones already used for spinning cotton. Women and children worked in the factories for long hours. By 1914, Belfast was the biggest linen-producing center in the world.

a bleaching green

And it wasn’t just linen for which Belfast became famous. It contained the largest tobacco factory and ropeworks in the world. Whiskey was distilled, sugar was refined, paper was made. The city produced tea-leaf-drying fans that facilitated tea-drinking habits across the British Empire. And, of course, Belfast made ships. Harland & Wolff was the city’s most famous ship-building firm, making a name for itself for constructing most of White Star’s ocean liners including the Titanic.

A museum that largely confines itself to the topic of shipbuilding cannot include everything. Even so it is interesting the ‘Boomtown Belfast’ gallery omitted any mention of three of Ireland’s most significant events relevant to that period: the Great Famine (1801-1879), sectarian conflict related to the Irish nationalist movement and the 1907 Belfast Dock Strike. Of course, there are a lot of reasons the museum’s curators would want to avoid discussing hot topics, especially when most visitors honestly just want to imagine themselves as Leonardo di Caprio or Kate Winslet jigging in steerage. But that doesn’t mean I can’t mention them, so I will!  

First of all, to be completely honest, there was a kind of nod to An Droschshaol in an old-fashioned sandwich board featuring the word ‘Famine’. I suppose it was put there to add to the sense you were strolling down a jolly old Victorian street. Right next to this sandwich board, much more attractively presented, was an interactive computer display emitting an excited announcement in plummy tones about the extensive reach of the British Empire.

That was an interesting juxtaposition. While Belfast was busy producing ships and merchandise for Empire, the British government was exacerbating the effects of a famine through laissez faire policies that hinged on anti-Catholic bigotry. The British government refused to ban grain exports from Ireland, failed to distribute aid to rural families in greatest need, scuppered a soup-kitchen scheme after just six months and looked on with psychopathic calm as landlords evicted starving paupers en masse. Charles Trevelyan, assistant secretary to Her Majesty’s Treasury and directly in charge of relief works in Ireland 1845-47, described the Great Famine as “a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence.” As a result of it, the general population of Ireland fell by 20-25% due to death and emigration. And Belfast, though predominantly Protestant, was affected by the Famine as much as the rest of the country. By 1846 one in five people in the city had suffered some sort of contagion linked to the famine (especially typhus and cholera).

As for sectarianism and the nascent struggle between Republicans and Loyalists, I totally get why Belfast natives would want to keep it in the background. But Boomtown Belfast was, in some ways, the birthplace of tensions that would shake Ireland for the next century, that are shaking it even now that a hard border is on the cards with Brexit. In the 1800s, Belfast was the only city in the country where sectarian fighting was frequent and ugly; there were serious riots in 1829, 1843, 1857, 1864 and 1874 and most of the fighting (if not all) involved shipyard workers. Belfast even had his own proto-Paisley, ‘Roaring Hugh Hanna,’ an evangelical preacher so vituperatively anti-Catholic that even Punch made fun of him.  

One of the factors driving this conflict was the very success of Belfast business. The Industrial Revolution brought a flood of poor rural families—both Catholic and Protestant–to the city to work in the factories or on the docks; in 1800 Belfast had a population of about 20,000 people, by 1901 it had grown to 349,000. In a pretty short time, a large number of working-class people of different faiths were occupying different parts of the same city competing for jobs.

Atmospheric sandwich board in the museum’s ‘Boomtown Belfast’ section

And it wasn’t just about religious rivalry, either; there was a strong political angle. In the first half of the nineteenth century, Daniel O’Connell, an Irish MP, was steadily gathering support for Irish Home Rule through the political mobilization of Irish Catholics. Incidentally, the 1798 rebellion against British Rule had been inspired by the French Revolution and led by Belfast. But thanks to O’Connell’s efforts, and to his success in achieving Catholic emancipation in 1829, the nationalist movement became known as a Catholic movement. Because of colonization in the 17th century (‘Plantations’), the six counties of Ulster had a Protestant majority that enjoyed legally enshrined political and economic advantages. Seeing their interests threatened, many Protestants in Belfast reacted against the Irish nationalist movement and its supporters, their Catholic neighbors and colleagues. In 1829, the same year as the Catholic emancipation, for example, a riot broke out over the banning of Orange parades. As historian John Dorney says :

…[A]lready by the mid 19th century, two prominent features of Belfast rioting were in place – clashes in west and central Belfast along the sectarian ‘frontier’,  often sparked by political controversies over Irish independence and flare ups in July in and around the parades of the Orange Order. To this must also be added, by the late 19th century, economic competition between the Catholic and Protestant working class – particularly in [the] city’s shipyards.

All of these elements were present in Belfast’s bloodiest riot in 1886. On June 8, the first Home Rule Bill (which would have granted Ireland a devolved parliament) came before the House of Commons. In the event, it was defeated, but that did not stop as many as 50 people losing their lives in Belfast over the coming weeks. Trouble reportedly started with a Protestant worker being expelled from his job at the shipyards by Catholic Home Rule supporters on June 4.  Protestant workers, led by a preacher named ‘Roaring’ Hugh Hanna in retaliation beat ten Catholic workers so badly they were put in hospital and drowned another in the River Lagan, with another 200 Catholic shipyard workers being forced from their jobs.

The only time dock workers held hands across the sectarian divide was the Belfast Dock strike of 1907 from 26 April to 28 August. At that time, unskilled dock workers labored up to 75 hours a week in very dangerous, unsanitary conditions. Their employment was erratic and uncertain and they had no trade union to look after their interests. In January 1907 James Larkin came over from Liverpool to Belfast with the aim of bringing dock workers and carters into the National Union of Dock Workers. He won the support of both Protestant and Catholic dock workers and on July 12th, instead of Orange parades and sectarian clashes, the city saw strike leaders giving public speeches defending the workers’ interests against sectarianism. Unfortunately, the strike failed but it was an important step in growing the trade union movement in Ireland.

Jim Larkin

Incidentally, one of the best known plays about Belfast, Over the Bridge, describes sectarian divide in a shipyard and the way the employers cynically exploited this divide for their own purposes. This play was by Sam Thompson, who started working at Harland & Wolff at the age of 14 and who said he based much of his work on his experiences there.

As John and I moved from room to room, I noticed that museum attendants had been replaced by smiling, uniformed figures cut out of cardboard. I also noticed that the rooms were getting worryingly crowded. John prudently sought out a relatively isolated place to sit down and I hugged the walls, to trying to evade other visitors whose movements were surprisingly erratic.

The focus of the museum moved from Belfast industry in general to the importance of the harbor and shipping. Interestingly, Belfast’s harbor was not initially a very good one and has been continually modified since the 19th century, when boats started getting really big. Between 1839 and 1841, workers straightened and dredged the river Lagan to form the Victoria Channel . The dredged-up mud formed an island named Queen’s Island for Queen Victoria, who visited the city in 1841.

Belfast in 1791. Image taken from the Irish News.
The harbor in 2012. The Titanic Quarter (formerly Queen’s Island) on the right was formed with mud from dredging the Victoria Channel.

Once Belfast had a decent port, it could really let itself go with the ship-building, and it did. The Belfast Harbour Commissioners laid out a new shipyard on the man-made Queen’s Island and in 1867 this became the property of Harland & Wolff Ltd., a company consisting at first of two young and energetic men. They made a success of it. There was a growing demand for ships considering an increase in international migration and trade. And they were quick to adopt innovative design features such as replacing wooden upper decks with steel ones, giving hulls a flatter bottom and squarer cross-section.

In 1868 Thomas Henry Ismay, the new owner of British shipping company White Star Line, commissioned Harland & Wolff to build a steam ship and this was the beginning of a happy partnership, as Harland & Wolff ended up making more than 70 ships for the company. One of these would be the Titanic.

By 1900, Harland & Wolff employed 9,000 to 10,000 people and their site covered 80 acres. Some time that decade, the company’s leader William James Pirrie got the idea, over dinner with White Star Line’s Joseph Bruce Ismay (Thomas Henry’s son), of building the biggest luxury cruisers the world had ever seen. The museum dramatized this decision by having a recording of a couple of butlers with RADA accents ‘gossiping’ about the momentous conversation they had just witnessed.

Knock-off at the Belfast docks in 1911, with the Arrol gantry surrounding one of the Olympic class ships in the distance.

Before these giant ships could be built, the shipyard needed to be ready. For one thing, they required a bigger gantry than any the shipyard had used before. A gantry is a sort of scaffolding-and-crane system that surrounds a ship as it is being constructed; it supports the ship in place and allows workers to move up and down the sides of the ship. This was designed by Sir Arrol & Company and so was dubbed Arrol Gantry. Then they needed a ginormous dry dock, a place where you put a ship when it needs to be built or repaired below the usual water line. As I understand it, it’s like a bathtub that you can flood and empty at will. For these ships they built the largest in the world, named the Thompson Dry Dock. Designs were perfected in huge drawing offices and plans were adjusted at larger scale in a Mould Loft, where the plans were drawn on the floor in chalk to check for any mistakes that hadn’t been caught in the smaller scale drawings.

Drafting room at Harland & Wolff

When everything was ready, construction began on the Olympic and Titanic in September 1908. Just over two years later, on 31 May 1911, the Titanic was ready to launch. About 100,000 people gathered on the shores of the Lagan to see her off. At that point, however, she was still an empty shell and needed to be fitted with all the accommodation, equipment and machinery including engines, boilers, funnels and propellers. So within an hour of the ceremonial launch, the ship was towed by tugs to the deepwater wharf for fitting out. This process took more than 3,000 men ten months to complete.

The Titanic was fitted sumptuously for first-class passengers with a choice of interior decorating style (Georgian, Italian Renaissance and French), oak bedsteads, fine bone china, private bathrooms, walk-in wardrobes, fans, heaters, fresh-water showers and a lounge settee. First-class passengers had access to a private banqueting hall, a gym, a (men only) Turkish bath, a swimming pool and squash courts. There was also Marconi wireless equipment on board transmitting the latest international news so you could keep up with the stock market. The second-class cabins were like first-class cabins on other ships. Even the third-class passengers had a better deal than usual. On other ships they had to sleep in huge dormitories; here they could sleep in rooms with up to ten berths, each room with a washbasin.

On April 2, 1912, after completing sea trials, Titanic left Belfast for good. She headed to Southampton to prepare for her maiden voyage. And unfortunately we all know how that went. After more than five years of preparation, the Titanic took less than two hours to sink and 1,503 people were lost. And at that point in the museum visit, knowing the ending, we left by the elevators because the crowds were starting to freak us out. I’m sure the rest was interesting but I think I’ll wait until the pandemic’s over to see the rest of it.

Asia, Museum, Travel

Thailand Works

During our latest stay in Bangkok, we were lucky to meet some people willing to discuss the history of this region and to introduce us to some of the city’s hidden treasures. One of these kindly souls, a Thai-speaking Briton, took us to the Labor Museum. A small building near Makkasan station run by donation and volunteers, this lovingly curated museum illustrates the history of Thai workers—an accessible and illuminating view of the country’s general history.


Before the nineteenth century, Siamese society adhered to a strict hierarchy, with the King at the top, nai—nobles beneath him (each of which controlled a mueang or fortified town), phrai—commoners or freedmen, and slaves. Phrai were actually not all that different from slaves as they were required to carry out corvée labor and the kinds of work they did was essentially the same as that of slaves. Royal officials would keep tabs on numbers by going about the country conducting mass tattooings for phrai.

Teak logging in teak

Thailand has the largest Chinese population of any country outside China—about fourteen percent are ethnically Chinese, though many of them are fully assimilated and identify as Thai. In the late eighteenth century, King Taksin (whose mother was Chinese from Guangdong Province), actively encouraged Chinese immigration and trade. During the nineteenth century, particularly as European powers became aware of Siam’s teak forests (coveted by European shipbuilders), pewter and tin deposits, there was an increased need for cheap labor. Chinese men poured into the country to work rickshaw-pullers, blacksmiths and railroad builders (the first railway line was started in 1891). Because they were usually single, many of them married Thai women. In 1876, the Angyee Riots were a big uprising of Chinese tin miners protesting the fact that mine owners laid off so many of them or even stopped paying them wages.

Chinese tin smelter

King Rama IV (reigned 1851-1868) was the first Thai monarch to have a western education and to speak English. Although, he is perhaps best known to English-speakers as the ‘King’ of Margaret London’s semi-fictional book Anna and the King of Siam, that book and all of its cinematic manifestations are banned in Thailand for being deemed offensive to the King. His son Prince Chulalongkorn, (reigned 1868-1910), implemented a number of reforms including the abolition of serfdom and the conscription of commoners for slave labor. He is still regarded with worshipfulness by Thais today and you often see his portrait hanging in shops and offices.


Underplayed in the Labor Museum was the Siamese Revolution of 1932, a bloodless coup instigated by intellectuals who’d studied abroad, were sick of royal mismanagement and wanted to try new methods of government. These intellectuals gains some popular support, staged a coup and absolute monarchy was changed to constitutional monarchy. Soon afterwards, Pridi Banomyong, one of the tiny group that organized the coup, presented radical economic plans that would involve nationalizing land, public ownership and universal basic income. These plans were rejected by royalists and in 1933 he went into exile, accused of being a Communist. He returned to the country in 1934, but increasingly found himself to the left of his colleagues.


In 1938, Defence Minister Major General Phibun became Prime Minister and the country took a militaristic turn. He passed authoritarian laws that gave the government powers of complete censorship, he had political opponents arrested and exiled, and he launched a demagogic campaign against the Chinese business class. On June 23, 1939, he renamed Siam ‘Phrathet Thai,’ meaning ‘land of the free’ and meant to include Tai-speaking peoples and exclude Chinese. The country’s slogan become ‘Thailand for the Thai.’ Phibun admired leaders who employed a cult of personality, such as Hitler and Mussolini. In places where you would ordinarily expect to find the King’s portrait, he put his own.

In 1940, Phibun delivers an ultranationalistic speech outside the Grand Palace

At the outbreak of World War II, Phibun formed an alliance with Japan. Thailand’s government split into two factions: the Phibun Regime and the Free Thai Movement, which included about 90,000 pro-Allied guerillas. As the war progressed, Phibun’s leadership became increasingly unpopular thanks to economic hardship, strategic bombing of Bangkok by Allied Forces and Japanese arrogance towards Thais, whom they treated more as a conquered people than an ally.


The notorious Siam-Burma Railroad, otherwise known as the Death Railroad, was ordered by the Empire of Japan in 1943 to facilitate transport of supplies to Burma. It was built thanks to at least 180,000 laborers and POWs who suffered maltreatment, sickness and starvation. About 100,000 of them died during its construction. English-language accounts by POWs include Railroad of Death by John Coast, Last Man Out, and In the Shadow of Death by Idris James Barwick. In Asia, the railway’s construction is still considered a war crime committed by Japan. The bridge’s construction was the occasion for Pierre Boulle’s book (and the film based on it) called Le Pont de la Rivière Kwai (The Bridge on the River Kwai).

Bridge over the River Kwai by Leo Rawlings, a POW who was involved in the line’s construction (sketch dated to 1943).

After World War II, Thailand received financial aid from the USA, partly (no doubt) in return for acting as a staunch anti-Communist ally in the region during the Cold War. Americans effectively gave the green light to coup makers to overthrow Thailand’s first democratically elected Prime Minister Pridi Banomyong and CIA reports at the time frequently linked the left-leaning Pridi to Chinese Communism and also to the Viet Minh. Naturally, the US was much more comfortable with Phibun, who offered a stable military regime rather than an unpredictable democratic civilian-led government. So the US looked on indulgently as Phibun crushed Pridi supporter and assassinated key members of the opposition, particularly in Isan, in the country’s north-east.


Ironically, according to legend anyway, it was US meddling in Thai politics that was responsible for the creation of one of Thailand’s most famous Communist poets, Somchit Phumisak (Chit for short). The story goes that he was first exposed to Marxism when hired by William J. Gedney, working for the US Embassy, to help translate The Communist Manifesto into Thai. The idea was that if Thai officials could read the thing, they’d take the Communist threat more seriously. Phumisak pretty soon joined the Communist Party and wrote (under pseudonyms) The Face of Thai Feudalism (1957) and several volumes of poetry before being shot to death in a village at the age of 35. In the Labor Museum there is a whole room devoted to poetry and song, and it is dominated by images of this young bespectacled guy. The rest of the room is more or less taken up with paraphernalia related to a folk-band called Caravan, originally student activists who sympathized with Isan farmers. Their songs criticize US interference in Thai politics and celebrate the love between a man and his water buffalo.

Cover of Caravan album “American Antarai” (1976)

October 14 1973, theDay of Sorrow, marked the largest democratic uprising in Thai history. More than 200,000 students gathered in Bangkok to protest against the expulsion of student activists by the Thanom Kittikachorn, the pro-US, anti-Communist junta leader since 1963. When the army moved in to break up the crowd, between 50 and 70 people were killed, with 870 wounded. The effect of the uprising was that Thanom fled and there was an eerie calm until the next far-right junta took power in 1976, soon after another massacre of protests, the Thammasat University massacre.


One of the most poignant exhibits in the museum is devoted to the Kader Tragedy of 1993. This was a massive fire in a shoddily built toy factory on the outskirts of Bangkok. Most of the workers were women from poor rural areas. Because there were no fire alarms, sprinklers or fire escapes, the women learned of the fire too late and when they tried to escape they were trapped. Officially, 188 people died and more than 469 were injured, making it the worst industrial fire in history. Outside the museum there is a monument to the victims featuring images of Bart Simpson, as the world was at the height of The Simpsons craze.

Toys salvaged from the fire.

Note: This article has been edited because there were factual errors conflating Chulalonghorn with his father Rama IV. Thank you to Siam Rat for the corrections! Please check out his great blog for more information about Thailand.

Asia, Museum, Travel

Creators and Destroyers in Colombo’s National Museum




After visiting the National Museum, I had a dream in which a mass murderer walked into a supermarket with an arsenal of antique Sri Lankan weapons. This is not surprising because the museum has a large display of guns and knives in the last room we visited. Also, the daggers are of a shape and design that leaves no doubt as to their eviscerating function. With swords and cutlasses and the like you can always pretend you are just looking at oversized kitchenware. With the wiggly-bladed kriss or the thing with one sharpened horn facing one way, another horn facing the other, or a dagger with a skeleton on its hilt, there is no room for doubt. Even the ceremonial swords are a bit terrifying, with their grimacing red-eyed lions on the hilts.





But most of the museum is not about murder but about god/s and the pursuit of pleasure, peace and painlessness-in-oblivion.

The museum is a huge two-storied white building sitting on a huge manicured lawn, with a couple of banyan trees off to the side. The first thing you see as you walk in the entrance is this granite Buddha from Anurādhapura (800 AD), in Samadhi pose–Samadhi is a word indicating single-pointedness of mind. This statue, called the Toluvila Buddha after the name of the village where a team led by the British archeologist Harry Charles Purvis Bell uncovered it during a 1900 dig, is one of the island’s best-preserved ancient statues.




Today about 70% of Sri Lanka’s population are Theravada Buddhists. The religion was introduced to Sri Lanka around the third century BCE, and Sri Lanka has the longest continuous history of Buddhism of any country on earth. Anurādhapura, one of the island’s ancient capitals and a city that has been continuously inhabited since the 10th century BCE, was the center of Theravada Buddhism for many centuries and is a rich source of beautiful objects partly because royals and nobles commissioned fine sculptures and works of art in order to adorn the temples and monasteries. The museum had several rooms devoted to statues depicting the Buddha in various poses, as well as Bodhisattvas (embodiments of compassion). My favorite Buddha pose was the reclining one, since it seemed to lend a kind of spiritual aspect to my love of naps.


Ganesha’s vehicle, a mouse.


Next came the Hindu gods—about 12.6% of the population is Hindu, almost all of them Tamil – an ethnic group native to Sri Lanka and genetically closely related to the Sinhalese. Hinduism was the first religion to be practiced here. Today, most Hindus on the island are Shaivist, which means they worship Shiva, the god who danced the world into being, as their primary creator. The island’s greatest period of Hindu activity was between 985 and 1014 CE under the Chola Dynasty, when wealthy Tamil nobles built their own temples and statues. My favorite Hindu statues were of Ganesh, the son of Shiva and Parvati. He is known as the Remover of Obstacles, and as the god of domestic harmony and success. In the form of Ganesh Gajanana he has as his ‘vehicle’ a mouse named Krauncha.




Beyond relics and treasures of the island’s two major religions, there are reminders of other influences that have visited the island for centuries: Arabic inscriptions, Chinese pottery, Roman coins, Portuguese drawings, Dutch pipes and British photographs.

Upstairs is the most amazing thing in the whole museum: reproductions of gorgeous frescos from the giant rock fortress of Sigiriya, ‘Lion rock.’ The story of Sigiriya is blood-chilling. According to the Cūḷavaṃsa, a chronicle that covers the 4th to the 19th century (that is partly available in English here), Kashyapa I was not in line for the throne but acquired it through the expedient of staging a coup and having his father Dhatusena imprisoned. The real heir fled because he believed, probably with good reason, that he would be assassinated. Meanwhile, newly ascended to the throne, Kashyapa believed his dad had hidden some treasure and let him out of prison to show him where he put it. Dhatusena led him to a large irrigation tank, saying it was the only treasure he had. Enraged, Kashyapa walled his father up and left him to die. This behavior turned the public against him. They called him Pithru Ghathaka Kashyapa, ‘Kashyapa the Patricide’. Afraid they would help the rightful heir to attack him, Kashyapa moved here:




He made it even more defensible with a moat and ramparts. Not only that, he planted a huge garden around the rock, including fountains and pools, supplied with water by a complex irrigation system. The entrance to the Sky Palace was via a staircase built into the rock, which was carved around it to look like a crouching lion—the entrance was through the lion’s chest.


lion staircase


The frescos, painted during his rule, show beautiful maidens with flowers. According to Dr. Edwin Ariyadasa, the maidens are a kind of divine welcome committee in the form of Apsara, cloud goddesses dancing and scattering flowers as a welcome to (non-hostile) visitors to the palace.





Another memorable room was the one reserved for Kolam masks. A kolam is a comic folk play in which masked actors tell a story through dance, mime and dialogue. There was one playing on a TV in a little movie theater. A couple of unmasked drummers sat off to the side and would strike up a conversation with the grotesque masked caricatures that appeared on stage. The conversation was all in Sinhalese (I think), but you could get a sense of the characters through their voices and posture—one, for example, seemed to be an unhealthy old lady who whined a lot. Another seemed to be a very angry man. After a bit of banter between the masked character and the drummer, music started up and the character would dance in a frenzy.


Policemen masks


There was a lot more to the museum than I have described here: textiles, explanations of agricultural practices, musical instruments and jewelry to name just a tiny fraction of objects. In fact there’s a whole other museum next door–the National Museum of Natural History. Unfortunately, though, we have limited museum endurance and hurried through whole rooms near the end, desperate for a sit-down and cold drink. That wasn’t the museum’s fault, though. If you are ever in Colombo I would recommend a visit.  

Asia, Museum, Travel

Life in the Kandy Kingdom

Kandy sits on a hill in the central highlands of Sri Lanka, ensconced in dense jungle and a curve of the island’s great river the Mahaweli. The town of Kandy used to be so inaccessible that no one—not the Portuguese nor the Dutch nor the English could take it by military means. Getting there is still a hassle (though you’re less likely to be brained by a keteriya) and involves either driving along a winding and congested road or getting on a crowded and very slow train. Our taxi ride from Hikkaduwa took seven hours, the last two devoted exclusively to the final 16 kilometers. Our driver was so exhausted by the end of it that he caused two small fender-benders and kept misunderstanding Siri’s directions.

Kandy map final

New Year’s Eve

When we finally arrived, there were still two hours left in the tired old year of 2019. Having signed up for the Gala Dinner at our hotel, we hauled our jangled carcasses along to the dining room looking for some booze and burbling to steady our nerves. After all, if there is one day of the year when heedless revelry is generally permitted, it is New Year’s Eve.

Alas, the mood was not conducive to a bacchanalia. The vast dining room was sparsely peopled by tense and tidy monadic groups. A table of twelve women dressed in white emitted a distinctly religious odor; a wholesome German family of four looked about ready for bed; a young couple from some indeterminate European country were clearly just there for the food. The only likely looking ally was a large British family, the father of which was wearing one of the party hats provided and drinking a glass of red wine.


Then the music started. The Hummingbirds, a calypso band of four playing well-known Reggae hits and a few Sri Lankan numbers. Despite the profusion of Bob Marley, the music was doing nothing to loosen the room. We ate our chicken à l’orange and prawn cocktails in a state of exhaustion wondering when the waiter would bring the bubbles.

When all the guests were still in this painfully self-conscious state, the band started zero in on one table per song, inviting the table to name a song and then, when it was over, to fork over cash for their CD. When they came to our table, we requested a Sri Lankan tune. I tried to avoid eye contact by looking up at a corner of the room and softly tapped my fingers on the table as a feeble gesture of goodwill. When the band finished they shoved their CD in front of us and I realized that I didn’t bring cash downstairs but told them I would go and get it and give it to them later.

The dinner wore on. No booze was forthcoming. John went to the waiter and asked about it. The waiter replied rather stiffly that alcoholic beverages were not included in the menu and would need to be ordered separately. However, he duly brought a bottle over and that was a blessing.

The band went outside to the pool, following the shyest diners, who had thought to avoid them. John wanted to sing with them so we followed them all out there and found the band serenading a couple of blushing Swedes with ABBA’s “The Winner Takes All”.

As the band retreated without making a sale, John pounced.

“Do you know ‘Cough Syrup’ by The Butthole Surfers?” he asked.

“What kind of song is it sir?”

“American song.”

“Country?” The lead singer asked.

“Sure!” John said and launched into a full-throated rendition of late-twentieth-century lyricism.

Sportingly, the band followed along with lugubrious twanging and sweet harmonies that made it a fairly idiosyncratic arrangement, to say the least.


The Lake

The only thing I really knew about Kandy was that it had a Temple of the Tooth on the edge of an artificial lake. Sri Dalida Maligawa is the temple built to house the canine tooth of Gautama Buddha, which is said to have been retrieved from his ashes by a disciple and smuggled to the island later on. The temple is part of the royal palace complex, reflecting the tradition that whoever holds the tooth holds the divine right to rule.


On the first day of the New Year I woke up early and decided to go see the temple and lake before it got too hot. At seven o’clock, the streets were just whirring into action. A skinny old man in the faded sarong was laying out the components of his shoe-polishing kit on a rag on the sidewalk. The newspaper vendor next door had received bundles from the printer and was busy cutting the blue plastic strips tying them together. A woman was sweeping the street with a twig broom. The old hat-seller was laboriously unpacking his big black sack of hats and pinning them up on a plastic frame. Short-haired, long-eared stray dogs lay curled against walls in corners. Tuk-tuk drivers were picking out strategic parking spots.

When I got to the fence around the temple grounds, I saw that there was already a big line at the entrance gate. The line was moving slowly because each entrant was being checked thoroughly by security guards. The temple has been bombed twice, in 1988 and 1998, so no more chances are being taken.

There were a lot of women in white and vendors around the grounds were selling flowers and snacks. I’ve since learned that Wednesday is the day of the week when the tooth is bathed in floral water. New Year’s Day was a Wednesday this year, so perhaps that was why it was so busy. I was particularly enthralled with the lotus-blossom stands, which attracted dozens of large black bees.


Instead of going to the temple, I followed the lake shore. The lake itself is full of fish, which are sacred so it is forbidden to catch them. This explains the very large number of cormorants who frequent the overhanging trees, and the cats who laze on its bank. I even saw a monkey eating one, though I don’t know if it caught it itself or borrowed it from someone else.


It took about half an hour to walk right round the lake. The calm lake, greenery and birds create a scene of peacefulness that is unusual in the middle of towns in this island. Even so, though, the road ran right beside the lake, which meant that even early in the morning there was a steady stream of traffic.  


The Best Tuk-Tuk Driver in the World


Specifically, there were a lot of tuk-tuk drivers. Usually they just said “Taxi?,” checked for a reaction, then zoomed on. All drivers were men and they drove exactly the same model motorized tuk-tuk: red or blue with a black canopy fastened with white bolts designed to look (appropriately enough) like winged skulls. An oilskin curtain was invariably tied neatly up at the back window ready for the eventuality of rain; a gas-filled whiskey or vodka bottle sat next to the driver’s foot. The back of the canopy tended to be personalized with some kind of slogan or logo, for example a drawing of Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean or a witty phrase like ‘Available All Times But Busy Times Sorry’ or a seemingly random corporate logo such as Gucci or Apple.

“Hello Madam! Tuk-tuk!”

I turned around to see a slim, mustachio’d tuk-tuk driver waving his long arms.

“Hello,” I said. “No tuk-tuk thank you, I’m walking,” I said, pointing along my path.

“Where you going?” he asked.

“I’m just walking. No tuk-tuk.”

“Madam! It’s OK, I just want you to read my book.”

I hesitated. Book? He was an author? Somehow, he must have known that I, too, nursed literary dreams. Perhaps he was the nation’s next big prize-winning novelist, detailing the touching and funny daily trials and tribulations of a tuk-tuk driver in Kandy, satirizing the brutality of the global forces that kept him putting in endless loop de loops around the sacred city. I certainly couldn’t snub him now. It was my duty as a fellow author to nurture this against-the-odds talent. I stepped resolutely towards him.

“Where you from?” he asked.

“New Zealand,” I said, wondering about the relevance of the question to his literary career.

“Ah!” His eyes lit up, the light of inspiration that probably beamed out of them onto the pages of his diary in the wee hours of the morning, the only time he had the peace and quiet to hone his craft.

“I know someone from Australia. Two days ago, here!” He grabbed a tattered exercise book from the seat next to him, riffled through its pages and showed me an entry, hand-written in blue pen:

Ravi is the best tuk-tuk driver in the world. He took me to all the places and was very good. He was very friendly and I would 100% recommend his service to anyone.

“Ah, great!” I nodded, handing the book back, nodding and smiling.

“I take you to see the monument.”

I didn’t know which monument he meant but decided not to ask because that meant getting side-tracked.

“No thank you, I’m walking. I don’t have any money,” I patted the place where my pockets would have been if I had any.

“No, no, not now!” He laughed. “Later, I give you my card.”

“But I don’t have a phone,” I said.

He fished around in his pockets and produced a business card.

“I don’t have a phone so I can’t call you,” I explained, concerned that he wasn’t understanding.

“Here, here,” he said and thrust the card into my hand.

“OK, bye,” I said, and walked off, deaf to further entreaties.

For the rest of the walk I considered how this sort of hard sell was probably an effective approach if every single other man in your city was employed in the same occupation and there was a limited pool of available customers.  


The Crows

They started gathering at about five-thirty, when the light changed, finding the highest spots—the ridges of roofs, the tops of poles and posts and the topmost branches of the tallest trees. These are slim jungle crows with big ravenesque beaks. At mid-day their feathers shine with an oily green iridescence but now, in the dimming day, they were turning into silouettes. 

To the west, a valley receded into misty, green haze. The piled-up clouds that signal humidity were turning an orangey-pink and occasional flashes indicated a lightning storm somewhere in the distance. On the hill a huge white statue of the Buddha presided over the town. From the main street below you could hear the usual honks and engine noise, along with shouts and laughter and snatches of music booming from a passing car.


A flock of white herons passed by at our eye-level. There were about a dozen of them, long legs stretched out behind. They flew gracefully and quickly in a straight line, from A to B, with B being somewhere beyond the lake. Then there was a synchronous flash of white—the quick flap of a flock of minas, whose butterfly-like wings were taking them somewhere safe, a tree on the street, maybe.


Meanwhile, the number of silent crows was gathering. At five to six, the view from the bar was like a scene from The Birds. Now and then a single crow ruffled its neck feathers, bowed its head and let out a belligerent squawk, but the majority stood silent and waiting.

Then, when the sun had almost disappeared, this majority lifts off. There must be hundreds of them whirling around and squawking. From the porch, we are astounded by the noise. We can’t hear each other speak, I can’t even hear myself. The air is filled with a multi-throated raucous gloating. The crows are not travelling; they were dancing or fighting or singing or threatening or something. It’s such an exciting spectacle, we make sure we don’t miss it again. The bar tender says it happens every night, “So many birds” he waves his hand at the window, smiling.


The Hot Museum

Misreading Google Maps, I thought the museum was inside the walled-off temple complex, whereas it is actually just outside it. This mistake was significant because it meant we spent a good forty minutes lining up outside the temple complex, going through a gender-segregated security check and trudging across an immaculate lawn only to find that we didn’t have to. It’s one of those little things that spouses tuck away in their memory to tax the offending partner with at a later date.


We might have cut our losses and gone to see the Temple of the Sacred Tooth but in the end we didn’t want to because (1) we’re not believers and would feel as if we were intruding and (2) it would involve walking around with no shoes on and (3) we knew the limits of our museum-temple endurance, especially on a hot day in SE Asia.

By the time we made it to the museum, we were floppy with the heat and not in a mood to be impressed by anything. Considering this, the museum must have been interesting enough because there were several objects that made us linger grumpily around the glass cabinet for a second or two.


The nobles of Kandy wore fine clothes and jewelry and were carted around on palanquins. They used pretty objects including hand-carved-coconut ladles liked to watch dances. The men were good at sword fighting and they produced manuscripts written on ola leaf. Their metalsmiths were competent.


The coolest thing in the museum was probably the flag of the rebel Monarawila Keppetipola Disawa, who resisted British rule in the nineteenth century. It features a pop-eyed, red-lipped roaring cartoon lion that I, for one, wouldn’t like to meet in a dark alley.


Escaping Kandy


Getting out of Kandy is not easy.

The train station is open to the elements, which means it is hot. We arrived early and the train was an hour late. This gave us plenty of time to watch the locals. Crows had made the place their home, even the indoor parts of it. A couple of healthy stray dogs trotted here and there, getting hand outs from staff and making parkour leaps onto platforms from the tracks. At the end of the platforms was an aquarium containing a bunch of confused looking fish.


An elderly woman with no teeth patiently led a blind woman—her daughter?—from person to person asking for a small offering.

I got bored waiting and finished the chocolate-covered peanuts we’d brought for the journey. I went to the loo, which had no lock or toilet paper. I photographed things around the station then went for a short walk. Every second person asked, “Where are you from madam and where do you want to go?” so I returned to the station after five minutes.

Just before our train arrived, an announcement in Sinhalese caused everyone on our platform to move to platform 2. We followed in a mad scramble and only just made it in time to shove all our luggage aboard and claim our seats.


The relief we felt when the train started moving was immense, but short-lived. That’s because the train stopped moving after about five kilometres and stayed still for 20 minutes. We don’t know why. At one point a British girl piped up, perhaps speaking for everyone else, “I’m hungry. I’m tired. And I’m sick of being on this stupid train.”

The journey continued for several hours at a maddeningly slow speed, stopping at every station on the way. When the ticket-collector came, John patted his pockets with consternation.

“I don’t have the tickets.”

“Are you sure? Did you check your bag?” I asked.

He checked his bag.

“Wait a minute, didn’t I give them to you?” he asked.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “I’ll check.” I riffled through my pockets and purse. Nothing.

“Oh well,” I shrugged. “Just tell him we lost them.”

“He’s—they’re going to kick us off the train!” John hissed. “This is a disaster! I’m having chest pains.”

“Tickets please sir?” The man said.

“They’re back there, in our luggage,” John said bravely.

The man nodded and moved on.

“There, see?” I patted John on the arm and drifted off to sleep.

When we arrived at Colombo Fort station several hours later I noticed something was folded up in the bottom of my jeans pocket and fished it out. When I realized what it was I hastened to shove it back in my purse, but not before John saw it.

“Are those the tickets by any chance?” he asked between clenched teeth.

“Ah well, ‘All is well’ as Trump would say, eh?” I smiled sheepishly. “No harm after all?”

“Chest pains,” he muttered, shaking his head, as we rolled our bags to a taxi.

End of the line

Asia, Italy, Museum, Travel

Warrioresses of the Rising Sun

The Museo Arte Orientale (MAO) is one of the best museums in Turin, coaxing you into alien perspectives with amazingly beautiful artefacts and clear explanations, some of which are also given in English. The exhibition I saw today, Guerriere dal Sol Levante, or Warrior Women from the Land of the Rising Sun, showed not only a glimpse of the rare women who fought as warriors but also provided the historical, political and religious context for their exploits. 

The first thing the visitor sees is a video that gives a brief overview of the history of the onna bugeisha, the warrior woman in Japanese society. It ran through a long list of names, often illustrating their stories with cinematic reenactments and it occurred to me that I hadn’t heard of any of them before. So, instead of giving an account of the exhibition itself (as fascinating as it was), I have decided to limit myself to introducing you to some of the big names in Japan’s history of badassettes. 


Meet Fyana: she’s a perfect war machine, but she has a heart!


Jingū (c.169-269CE )

Jingū was Empress Consort to Chūai, ruling as regent for her son starting from her husband’s death in 201. Legend has it that she led an army into a ‘promised land’, possibly Korea, and won a big victory. It’s not really clear whether she really existed though. The Koreans object, for one thing, to ‘Jingu-ism’. 


Empress Jingū (Okinaga-Tarashihime no Mikoto, 1326). Collection of Aka-ana Hachimangū Shrine, Shimane Prefecture.



Tomoe Gozen (c.1154-?)

Tomoe Gozen  was sister-in-law, concubine and ‘milk-sister’ (i.e. they shared a wet-nurse) to Minamoto no Yoshinaka (1154-1184). She accompanied him into battle, led his troops on the battlefield and stayed with him until he was killed in the Battle of Awazu (1184). In the epic The Tale of the Heike, she is described as an exemplary warrior:

Of rare strength and skill in archery, whether on horseback or on foot, sword in hand, she was a warrior capable of facing demons or gods and alone was worth a thousand men. Expert in mounting the fieriest horses, descending the steepest slope, when approaching the battle, wearing heavy armour with tightened cuirass, a long sword and a powerful bow in her hand, she appeared to the enemy as a first rank captain. She had accomplished brilliant deeds, unequalled by her peers. And so, once again, when many had retreated or fled, Tomoe was among the seven knights who had not been hit.”

p.41 Guerriere dal Sol Levante/Warrior Women from the Rising Sun (Torino, 2019)


Tomoe Gozen, a drawing by Shitomi Kangetsu (1747–1797)



Hōjō Masako (1157-1225)

The first shōgun for the first bafuku (literally ‘camp’ or ‘army HQ’) of the Kamakura shogunate was Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147-1199).  Hōjō Masako was his consort and when her husband died, she became a Buddhist nun. At the same time, she continued to be involved in politics and became known later as ama-shōgun or the ‘nun shogun’. She helped create a council of regents for the her teenaged son, but he preferred his wife’s clan and rebelled (and was subsequently killed). Her second son was executed by a nephew in 1219 and the Minamoto line was extinguished.


Hōjō Masako by Kikuchi Yōsai



Kunoichi (1500s)

According to a now disputed source, Investigation of Japanese History by Shisei Inagaki, Mochizuko Chiyo was a noblewoman who recruited prostitutes, orphans and abandoned girls to create all-female force of secret-service ninjas for the Takeda Clan. It’s a good story anyway.





Tsuruhime (1526-1543)

 When Ōuchi Yoshitaka’s power started spreading on the mainland of Honshu, the nearby island of Ōmishima fell under threat. When the head priest at the island’s Ōyamazumi Shrine died, his 15-year-old daughter Tsuruhime inherited his position. As she’d learned martial arts from a young age, she now took charge of the military resistance. When Ōuchi samurai invaded the island in 1541, she led an army that drove them back into the open sea. A few months later she raided the ship of an Ōuchi general, cut him down, then drove his fleet away with bombs called horokubiya.





Oan (1600)

In the period of the ‘warring states’ (1477-1573), warriors tended to prove their kills by collecting the heads of their victims. The heads then underwent a treatment called kubi genshō ‘making up of the heads’: washing, hair-styling, applying make-up and blackening teeth. This was usually done by women. The Oan Monogatari is the testimony of a girl named Yamada Kyōreki or Oan, the daughter of a Samurai, who had this unenviable job:


“My mother and I, together with the wives and daughters of the other samurai, were in the keep from which we threw bullets. The severed heads taken by our allies were gathered in the keep. […] Not even the severed heads scared us. We slept surrounded by the smell of blood from those old heads.”


“This one shouldn’t need much work. Stinky though.” (Head here actually belongs to a woman, story here)


The Jōshigun (1868-1869)

The Boshin War (or if you’re not into the whole brevity thing ‘War of the Year of the Yang Earth Dragon’) was a civil war fought between ruling forces of the Tokugawa shogunate and those seeking to return power to the Meiji Imperial Court. Aizu was the site of the bloodiest episodes and among those fighting was a 30-strong voluntary brigade of women later known as the Jōshigun. In that area, warrior-class women were trained in the use of weapons from an early age, particularly the naginata, a long pole with a curved blade at one end. Takeko Nakana was one of these women and, when she was wounded in battle, such was her valiant spirit that she asked her sister to behead her so that the enemy couldn’t take the head as a trophy. You can read the whole story-in-pictures here.


Nakano Takeko




Illustrated Story of Night Attack on Yoshitsune’s Residence At Horikawa, 16th Century (note woman in armour)