The International Steam Pages

Unspoiled by Progress, Dakhondaing 2009

A Burmese Rice Mill
and its Village.
26th March 2013

This is the seventeenth part of our 2009 Burmese Odyssey. To read more about our 2009 bash which includes many non-steam items, please see Rob and Yuehong in the Golden Land 2009. We have been to the rice mill at Dakhondaing, south of Moulmein, on each of our previous three bashes, there are reports of our 2005 and 2006 visits available. It's our favourite mill in the whole country and we are steadily putting together footage so we can eventually issue a DVD of it and its surrounding village. We had all the coverage we need of the actual mill operation, now we needed to have a good root around the rest of the village.

A one time visitor to Burma might be forgiven for thinking the country was permanently stuck in a mid 20th century time warp of its government's choosing. Old fashioned it may be, but it is changing like everywhere else in Asia and not always for the better, for a start it has a developing plague of motorcycles and mobile phones, particularly in the towns.

This is the story of one old lady who is carefully managing progress in such a way that old values are still maintained. 22 years ago, Daw Ei Ma (Daw Phwar Sein) came to a crossroads in her life.

At the time, the owner of the Dakhondaing Rice Mill (only the third during its long existence) was having family problems and had put it up for sale. She thought long and hard and decided to sell some of her family's paddy fields to fund the purchase - Ky 300,000 or about USD 10,000 in those days.

She needed an engineer to look after the boiler and engine and employed U Maung Khing who came from a nearby village and had 15 years' rice mill experience; now 68 he is still at the mill from boiler light up until the last grains of polished rice are delivered. I have never seen their Tangye engine look less than immaculate although not surprisingly given its age and intense use, it has a few minor steam leaks. He treats it as an extension of his family of nine children. The mill's operation is a great team effort and a tribute to the people who work here and the British technology that built it many years ago.

Since our last visit in 2007, we noticed some inevitable evolution in the mill's operation, which is one reason why we did no filming inside it this time. The ladies who made up most of the 2005 workforce are gone and the heavy work is done by young men. The rice now arrives in small noisy Chinese trucks instead of bullock carts and production rice is now weighed directly into bags instead of being measured by volume in baskets. Clearly, we had got here just in time to record the original working system... But its heart and soul remain unchanged.

For our first filming day here, we were in no hurry as they told us a couple of days before that they would not start the mill until about 10.00, so we took a pick-up to the south bus station and had a sensibly small breakfast. The hourly Thanbuzyat buses are now starting from near the (new) railway station which is not very convenient, but we were lucky to get seats in the 07.00 departure as it went by. By the time we reached Mudon, it was heaving with bodies, apparently one of the temples at Kyaikkami had a festival, but we hadn't much further to go. A short trishaw ride brought us to the mill, boiler pressure was edging towards 100psi and ten minutes later the engine and mill were running. Yuehong had prepared a set of questions for our lady to get some background to help us in our filming and after she had got lunch preparations started she and Han sat down together while I got a much needed tutorial in rice mill technology.

She has just one (married) daughter who is also based in the village and whose business is turning the broken rice from the mill into rice noodles (effectively vermicelli). Of course, this would be an absolute 'natural' for our film as they work daily just behind her house. There was just one minor problem, in that nearly all the work is done at night when it is cooler and while we would have been perfectly happy to stay over in the village to see it, that just isn't possible in this country at the moment. And so it was that we got up at 03.00 next morning for another expensive taxi journey, but it was worth it.

The rice is ground with water and left to form a thick paste which is then cut into 'loaves' and steamed.

After rolling out to complete mixing, the noodles are extruded into boiling water: 

They are then laid out on trays and dried in the next day's sun: 

Despite appearances, it is another tightly run ship, everything is cleaned up at the end of the shift and the packaged product is sold all over southern Burma.

Here the monks go out very early (impossible to film in a village with no electricity without intruding excessively) and return just after dawn, when they get back they have breakfast provided by the local ladies (it must be delicious if they cook as well as they talk):

The monks then retire to continue their studies:

The village is effectively a 50:50 Burmese:Mon mixture and the latter ladies are heavily involved in traditional weaving:

This is our host's typical modest home, she is probably one of the wealthiest people in the village but there is nothing in her lifestyle to suggest it - only the upper floor has living space, below is for storage. She rises at 04.00 each day, says her prayers and just after 06.00 she walks the short distance to the mill where she supervises activities personally for the best part of 12 hours before retuning home to prepare dinner. Her husband (U Loon Ngwe) clearly has no vote in the mill's business matters!

And here is our sprightly 77 year old - every time I stand next to her I feel like a professional basketball player.

The filming went very well, but sadly for our finances we are going to have to come back at least one more time to get some very special extra items... Next day we go looking for some Island Steam.

Rob and Yuehong Dickinson