The International Steam Pages

The Last Pilgrimage, 2006

Like politicians of all shades of opinion, I learned at a tender age that one word I should never utter in public is 'never', but the 'n' word coupled with 'again' has passed my lips all too frequently in Burma in recent weeks. Based on our 2005 bash, I knew there was one rice mill I would just have to visit before closing my account here. So it was that just the two of us headed for the railway station at Hinthada to board the express south. We were running out of Kyat and our guide Han had offered to go to Yangon to do the business for us - the sort of places we tend to stay in do not offer any recognisable foreign exchange facilities. He had done magnificently in the last few days and he needed a break, we could easily look after ourselves in Pathein for a day or two until he rejoined us. He had found steam powered mills in all sorts of places which had never seen a tourist before - so just why they had immigration officers stationed in them I have no idea. At least finally they proved they have some purpose on this earth which allowed me to elevate their status to rank alongside the dung beetle; several of them pursued us across the Irrawaddy River in their own private launch - we had taken the occasional public ferry somewhat earlier. Since they had no idea where we had vanished to, and no-one would or could tell them, they were obliged to wait in the hot sun for our return to the jetty several hours later. They clearly wanted us out of the district as quickly as possible - we felt the same way as it was nearly sunset and we were a long way from our base - and even they realised that the best way to make that happen was to take us back across the river, saving us a long wait for the ferry. Thanks guys! 

Pathein is the mosquito capital of Burma and may have the least reliable mains electricity supply in the country at around 3 hours per day maximum; to make matters worse it even sees a few tourists heading for the beaches which has given several people in the city some idea of how to make a few quick bucks, not to mention a plague of beggars; in other words somewhere I would avoid if it it wasn't for the 20 or more rice mills around the place, not all of which we had seen working last time. We did quite well too, we soon chalked up another 6 working mills, along the way achieving our 'target' for this year of recording our 200th working mill since we started last year. 

But I digress, the time had come to spend serious money to see what was potentially the largest active stationary steam engine in the country. In the south of the Irrawaddy Division is a large, new rice mill, commissioned for the first time in mid-2005. To power it, the owner had bought a huge cross compound engine from a sawmill, with 12" and 20" cylinders, built maybe a century ago by Holman Brothers of Camborne, Cornwall in England. Anyway, U$50 got us a car for the day to do the business. Unfortunately, we got just 12 miles before one of the rear tyres disintegrated on the dirt road; frankly it was amazing it had got that far given there was almost no rubber left, lots of reinforcing cord was exposed to the daylight. At least the spare, though completely bald, had no obvious other defect and we got to our destination in good time - unlike the alternative early morning bus which we passed in pieces half way and was still there when we came back in the afternoon, minus its passengers who had  no doubt hitched lifts in passing trucks.

The mill was functioning, as was the engine, or, to be more accurate, half the engine. Obviously it had become clear that the 20" cylinder used at full boiler pressure (120 psi) would be quite sufficient for the purpose - to turn the large generator (rated at about 1/3mW) which provided the electrical power to run the mill's new Chinese machinery. But what a sight!

Engine and 1946 Babcock and Wilcox boiler are both significantly bigger than anything else we have seen in the country. 

The pressure gauge is from Edwin Danks of Oldbury and the red valve control has Babcock and Wilcox information.

The large Pickering type 4 governor is fully justified and the whole system ran extremely smoothly. 

The engine is mounted more than 6 foot off the ground to accommodate the 11 foot fly wheel, and its size makes it impossible to show all of it in one picture.

The owner is a bit of an enthusiast as well as a hard headed businessman. He knows he has a special machine, he said he had heard of an 18" Marshall about to be installed nearby but otherwise nothing at all of remotely similar size. Stored on the premises, he had two more engines, one said to be a Robey 12" and another which he said had come from Burns in India, only the second such machine we had seen here. He also produced an old moth eaten Chas. Cowie, Rangoon catalogue, all the prices being in Indian Rupees of course. It made fascinating reading, I guess it was about 100 years old, the engine illustrated here was more than a little bit familiar. 

Reluctantly we left after some 3 hours, we could take advantage of the hire car to improve our coverage of the mills in a couple of villages on the way back to Pathein, last year we had been earlier in the season and of the 8 mills in them, only two were working. At the first mill we visited, we were ambushed by the lady owner of another mill in the village we had met before, she said we should stop by for a cold drink. 

By the time we got to her house on the river bank two working mills later, the drink had become a meal, which in truth was a banquet. Look at the size of that fish in the middle, what you can't see are the four large freshly cooked lobsters which had already vanished. The lady's father had arrived in the country from Beijing without a cent to his name but had obviously worked hard and well. Sadly he was no longer around and he had not taught his daughter any of her mother tongue so communication was limited, and through Han (who definitely regretted he had consumed a large lunch an hour earlier). It was, perhaps, (along with our revisit to Dakhondaing) the supreme example of the kind of hospitality we have experienced everywhere in our researches, from both ethnic Burmese and Chinese equally. The contrast in the way visitors to Burma are treated by private individuals and public institutions has never been more sharply illustrated.

She followed us to the next three working mills, operated by family friends, only near sunset when it was too late to return to her mill did she remember to tell us that she had actually changed her engine since last year.....  I think she wanted to make an excuse to have us back again! It had been a truly wonderful day.

Two days later, we had a spare day before returning to Yangon. There was another mill which had defeated us so far in the village, so we took the bus out this time, our budget was nearly exhausted. We cracked that one and then went back to see the 'new arrival'. The current owner had rebuilt the mill when she took it over a few years ago.   

But something must have gone wrong in the translation because it was still the same engine as before, a very nice Robey 8", just over 100 years old. I guess she meant it had come in 2000!

But we now have first refusal when it is sold in the future as she needs a bigger engine.....

These are the individual pages from the 2006 trip:

Read more about our travels in:

Rob and Yuehong Dickinson