The International Steam Pages

Rainbow's End, Bogalay post Nargis, Burma 2009

This is part of our second 2009 Burmese Odyssey. To read more about it which includes many non-steam items, please see Rob and Yuehong in the Golden Land 2009, Part 2.

Before Cyclone Nargis struck Burma in May 2008, it is fair to assume that few if any readers of this page had heard of Bogalay (Bogale) let alone visited it as we had in January 2005 as part of our first ever rice mill steam bash. To be honest, it had not left much of an impression on us, it was a typical scruffy Irrawaddy Delta town approached by what in most countries would be considered a dirt track. Along the river banks were lined some 20 steam powered rice mills which we had bashed over two days based in nearby Pyapon - the rice arriving for processing by boat and departing the same way afterwards. In fact, what I remember it most for is serving us up seven successive standard Marshall 12" engines before relenting and showing us a few other makers' engines before we left. 

One reason for this was that the only available accommodation in Pyapon was the hotel which I dubbed the most grotesquely misnamed that I had ever had the misfortune to stay in - the Seven Stars. It was, as I remarked recently to one correspondent, the sort of place where you asked yourself whether it was really a good idea to remove your shoes before getting into bed. We had never planned a visit to the area in October 2009, but the late running harvest in Mon State meant that we had a week to kill and there really was no other choice because we are not greatly interested in tourist traps like Inle Lake and Bagan and the thought of a few days on the beach does not turn us on either. Apparently, travel restrictions in the Delta had been eased and we had access to a letter of permission to our chosen destinations whose provenance is best glossed over.

We arrived in Pyapon in the rain and at my insistence we headed for the best restaurant in town, the appropriately named 'Luxury' and inquired about accommodation - the good news was that there was a brand new hotel in town, the bad news when we went there was that they wanted USD 35 for pretty average accommodation and the second choice was not much cheaper and far inferior. The room was huge, there was indeed some kind of air conditioner albeit it seemed only to work on fan mode, a sit down toilet and a real bath with warm water which was obviously taken straight from the nearby river. In other words, it did the job but put together with the essential chartered car we were grateful that the daily budget could be met with part of the proceeds of selling two of our houses in China.

Of course, with a room rate like this, no-one was going to throw us out of town because it would derail the gravy train that always follows an influx of aid money in a country where corruption is a way of life. Next morning we headed west more than a little apprehensive at what we should find because the death toll in the disaster was well in excess of 100,000, the exact figure will, of course, never be known. This is real Bob Dylan country, "When you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose" and the people in the countryside must have always been amongst the poorest in the region. It was immediately clear that the natural environment was remarkably resilient, the palms and other natural trees were almost undamaged, the new season's rice was growing well and some was already being harvested. The man-made environment was another matter, the first few miles of electricity transmission line had been completely replaced and  what had been the palm leaf roofs and walls of the hovels were frequently plastic sheeting instead, some of which was clearly identifiable as coming from international aid agencies.

However, despite what we had read at the time, Bogalay had escaped relatively lightly. True, there was an awful lot of new corrugated iron on the roofs but otherwise the largely shabby buildings looked much as before. In the rice mills, we were told that the winds had damaged chimneys and roofs and the flood water had been more than a metre deep. However, once the immediate needs of the local people had been met as far as was possible given the way Burma is, the mills had been repaired and were up and running in some 3 months or so.

It was only a brief revisit, we had time to visit barely half the mills but there were still a couple of interesting new discoveries. This mill had been already been closed for some time (it was locked and inaccessible in 2005) but Nargis had opened it up:

Nearby was dumped a real gem, a trip valve engine formerly with {Ri]chardson's Governor) according to a plate on it. I believe it is a Robey as their re-order plate on he engine is most distinctive. It is #22990 of 1903. We had previously seen similar Marshalls but never anything like this. 

Several visits later we embarked on a small boat to visit a couple of mills which had escaped us the first time around. It was a sobering moment when Han repeated that the boatman had told him he had lost his wife and no less than 14 relatives in the cyclone, quite how he managed a smile I have no idea. Further south the tidal surge had been 3-4 metres and there were stories of people surviving by clinging to the tops of palm trees, but many, many more had been swept away.

The first mill, inevitably, produced a standard Marshall, but the second had another treasure, a working tandem compound, only the third we have seen here (we have seen more out of use). My first reaction was that it was a Marshall as it had what looked like a Hartnell governor.

However, it turned out it was a very different creature to what I imagined as the governor was bevel driven:

The valve chest covers were the give-away, both were clearly inscribed 'RSJ' - 'Ransomes, Sims and Jefferies': It was a pig to photograph in the undersized engine room and just as difficult to capture on video before it was stopped for lunch.

This was another one of our small boats, not everyone in our party enjoys walking...

Finally, some brief idea of the reality of living and working outside the few towns here, all but one of these pictures could have been taken just as easily in 2005. Electricity is a dream and there there is water, water everywhere but your only drinking water is seasonal rain caught in a large jar. Wood for cooking will be hacked from one of the relatively few trees - that is why, no doubt, fast growing eucalyptus has been planted along the road, it did not fare so well in the cyclone as native species.

 Road making, Burma style, of course the rock has had to be imported from many miles away. The roller is no longer steam, of course.

Apart from the large agencies, smaller charities such as World Vision are doing excellent work here, in this case a duck breeding station...

As they say, life has to go on and despite all the challenges they face, everyone continued to smile and wave to us. That's got to be a lesson for all of us somehow...

Rob and Yuehong Dickinson