The International Steam Pages
Temples of Steam - 2007
This page contains links to our 2007 visit to Burma to research stationary steam engines in the country's rice mills. Summary technical information is available on a separate introductory page.
Yuehong and I visited Burma (Myanmar) in early 2005 for what we believe was the first in-depth look at the stationary steam engines in the country's thousands of rice mills. It was a fascinating experience and we returned for more in 2006. In 2007 we returned to take a more considered look, particularly as we had Yuehong's teenage son, Yiran, in tow who was taking his first real course in the 'University of Life'. This is the sight that brings a tingle to the skin.... Inside was the oldest working Tangye engine yet recorded in Burma:
Happiness is working stationary steam....
On the other hand I have heard it said that you should judge a man by the company he keeps....
I have often described our trips here as 'Voyages of Discovery', this year at one stage it seemed about to become more literally true than usual:
Rice mill politics and economics
Rice is grown throughout lowland Burma and historically there were rice mills in most areas although naturally more in some than others. Until a few years ago, the government procured the paddy (rice) which was sent to the mills for processing. Hence owning a rice mill was a nice little earner with very little risk involved. These days only the army is involved in such collective practices and overall there is less central control and the millers have to find supplies. This may mean they need working capital to cover their stock, especially as rice prices fluctuate during the year and stock is best held for the best price going. In areas where less rice is grown, micro-mills have sprung up and have taken most of the business of the traditional millers who have by and large closed down. These tiny mills may use a small diesel engine, an electric motor or even a 'producer gas' system whereby the husks are part combusted - this obviates the need for a boiler. The oldest mills seem to be found along the course of the main railway lines, usually next to the stations, as long ago the processed rice would go out by train - much of it for export. But these are the mills that have been hardest hit by the changes in the local market and a journey on a train will see very few active mills.
These days, active rice mills are mainly found in clusters, either in towns or villages, although there are still a few isolated mills which operate traditionally whereby the farmer hands a percentage of the milled rice to the miller - such a case is Dakhondaing in Mon State. Rice is once again being produced for export, particularly by the large mills in the southern part of Irrawaddy Division which has the largest concentration of mills in the country. These are mostly (but not all) larger or modern rice mills with new equipment, but paradoxically they are also likely to be using stationary steam engines - not necessarily engines which started life in the rice mills as these are larger than average, often they have come second hand from such places as saw mills. With a good boiler, they can control their energy costs and avoid having to buy expensive diesel or unreliable electricity - they need to operate 24 hours a day and cannot afford to wait for the power to come back unlike the smaller, local mills. The area with the second greatest concentration of mills is Shwebo in Sagaing Division which has a long standing excellent irrigation system which allows rice to be grown all the year round. In both these areas, new mills are being built and there is a steady market for secondhand stationary steam engines from the other areas.
Other areas with significant numbers of active steam powered mills include the central part of Irrawaddy Division, the southern part of Mon State and parts of Bago and Yangon Divisions. Elsewhere, active steam is very thin on the ground. We found a little in Kachin State and have been told there was almost nothing left in Mandalay Division and found out the hard way that there was nothing in Magway Division (an overnight bus and an excruciating 1 hour out and 1 hour back three wheeler ride on a bad road).
These are the individual pages from the 2007 trip:
Read more about our travels, follow the links in Rob and Yuehong in Burma, 2005 - 10.
Rob and Yuehong Dickinson