The International Steam Pages
Steamy Burma Days 1996
There are updates available to this report:
Burma (latterly Myanmar) has never been an easy country to visit. For many years after independence, visas were issued for just 7 days and large areas of the country were closed to foreigners. After 1988, the country was completely 'off limits' and only recently has policy been reversed so that stays of up to 28 days by independent travellers are now possible. I did the 7 day trip in 1975 and had always hoped to return. In December 1996, I spent 3 weeks in the country checking out the remaining steam activity. Most enthusiasts who have been to the country have gone in groups which have chartered special trains, but I wanted to see day-to-day working steam. Individual touring was much easier than I expected especially since all areas with working steam are now freely open and no travel permits are required for them.
According to official Myanma Railways records, it has just over 40 serviceable steam locos comprising YB 4-6-2, YC 4-6-2, YD 2-8-2 and ST 2-6-4T. However, none of the ST has moved a wheel for many years although a few of them are preserved in quite good order. There are the remains of many more locos scattered around, mainly minus the boilers which have been sold off for re-use in local industry. The metre gauge railways of Burma have always been strongly influenced by Indian Railways and all the remaining active locos are post World War II examples of Indian standard designs built by the Vulcan Foundry at Newton-le-Willows in Lancashire, England. All are oil burners, many carrying more recent Indian boilers. In practice, no more than a dozen will be in use on a given day, less outside the sugar season. Despite this small number, the future use of steam does not appear to be under immediate threat as Insein works in Yangon is overhauling 3 or 4 a year and much of the aged diesel fleet is laid up with insufficient spare parts.
Myanma Railways HQ has now moved to Merchant Street (near Myanma Five Star Lines offices marked on most street maps). They readily gave us written permission to visit loco sheds. This was asked for a number of times and was also useful to get rides in such vehicles as a District Engineer's private railcar. There was no problem riding steam locos or hopping diesel freights. We were not granted permission to visit Insein Works (probably owing to the recent closure of the nearby University).
The following locos appear to have been through Insein in the last Year:
The following expected locos were not seen and are assumed to have been sent to the Works for overhaul:
Additionally YB 547's boiler was not at Pyinmana as reported last year although the rest of the loco was. Previously reported ST 764 was also absent from there, I have just been told by another visitor that it is under repair at Insein, probably for use as a stationary boiler (at Bago?).
It has to be said that in nearly 25 years of photographing Asian steam, I have never found it so difficult to get 'quality shots'. The combination of few active steam locos, irregular operation and countryside around the railway which seems to deliberately skirt the photogenic areas proved challenging. For those who want to see and photograph 'working steam' in one of the most fascinating countries in the World, a generous time budget is essential. I have rarely enjoyed a holiday more although I must admit that the photographic record of the railway is merely adequate. I was very glad not to be taking Video!
The Madauk mixed Steam Index
Nyaunglebin (the junction for the branch) has three small hotels (the Sann Htay appeared the best of them), but there seem to be none in Pyuntaza where the shed is. Active locos were black YB 532 and YC 623, like other visitors we were told they are alternated every 10 days or so. YB 532 had no working headlight so was no longer being turned and faced Down (into Pyuntaza) as did YC 623.
This suits photographers as the shots leaving Madauk and arriving at Pyuntaza in the morning are most attractive. Both this train and the Bago - Nyaungkhashe service are traditionally 'mixed' comprising old coaches with a couple of open wagons sandwiched between. Into the train are crammed vast numbers of people and their belongings and in this case large numbers of earthenware pots. Madauk is a tiny village with wooden housing and this train should not be missed. We didn't bother with a taxi, the crew knew just what was needed. There are few trains of this quality left in the world! The station wanted us to pay in U$ for the train, we wanted to pay in K. We compromised by not paying at all. During the afternoon stop over in Madauk, one of the wagons was hand shunted to the end of the line beyond the station and rapidly filled with firewood.
The Nyaungkhashe mixed Steam Index
We were charged U$2 for riding this train which would have comfortably exceeded the monthly income for any of the full complement of passengers. It ran as reported with the return arrival in Bago invariably late. Black YB 529 faces Nyaungkhashe although YC 627 substituted on 14:12:96. The light is not really very good in the middle of the day, and even if the loco was to be turned then the afternoon train faces straight into the sun for most of the way from Waw to Bago.
The Stone Trains of Bago Steam Index
Active locos in Bago were:
YB 529* (black)
All locos face Down (towards Yangon) except those marked *. This may change if locos are turned for the Dorridge charters in early January 97.
The stone trains operate mainly to the following quarries (see map):
Taungzun between Kyaitko and Bilin
Yinnyein 1st station south of Thaton
Zingyaik 2nd station south of Thaton
There is no problem at all visiting the quarry stations, but with reports of manacled political prisoners the actual quarries were avoided! Operation is spasmodic, there is no timetable, trains waiting many hours in loops for no apparent reasons. The standard Nelles map is somewhat misleading in that the railway is very close to the road only around Waw and from just west of the Sittoung Bridge through Theinzyat to north of Mokpalin. The scenery improves as you go south, beyond Mokpalin it is greener with an increasing number of trees (including palm), the hills which tend to be dotted with pagodas on their summits are well back for the most part.
There are photogenic bridges just west of Kyaitko (am only), east of Taungzun (all day) and south of Yinnyein (pm). The latter is potentially the best shot in the country with a white pagoda on a small hillock. Needless to say, 3 afternoons in the area failed to produce a steam train in good light!
Although we initially used a taxi, we found the crews so friendly that what few shots were available were best obtained by riding the trains. Thaton is a pleasant, historical town, with an adequate guest house and local restaurants. Lesser facilities are available in Kyaitko. Permits are no longer required to travel in this area. Mr. Patrick 51, 19 Street Bazaar Quarter Bago, tel (95) - 52 22149 has a good taxi and charged reasonable rates. He would be happy to go 'on the line' for a few days and will probably find you in the 555 restaurant. The Myananda hotel is clean and good value.
Sugar Steam Steam Index
The sugar season in the whole area runs from mid-October to the end of March. Pyinmana shed records show that the last use of steam was 1:4:96 and that it restarted on 14:10:96. However, all trains are conditional and during our visit it was unusual to find all locos working on any one day. Indeed owing to mill closures (breakdowns?) there may be days with no steam at all. Pyinmana mill closed 23:12:96 to 25:12:96 and Yedashe Mill closed for 2 days around 28:12:96. Trying to find out what is happening in one area while based in another proved impossible, frankly most of the time no-one seemed to know what would happen in the area they were in! Steam was working to Yedashe mill (north) most days and not at all to Zeyawadi mill (south). This means that the two 'steam' mills' areas are continuous as shown on the map. Main (sealed) roads run close to several stations (Swa/Thagaya/Myohale/Yeni/Thawatti/Ela/Lewe) and there is a dirt track to Ywadaw, but once again the scenery is not exciting. The areas around the bridges north of Ela and between Swa and Kongyi where the running lines separate were quite photogenic. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the sugar operation is the large number of oxen and water buffalo carts used and the manual transshipment. We made no attempt to hire a taxi and used a combination of riding the trains and bicycles to get our shots. John Tickner has left a bicycle at Pyinmana shed for other visitors, but even if it wanders it should be easy to borrow one for a few days. There is plenty of room to cycle next to the railway line. Any times of day mentioned represent 'normality', station records showed a wide variation in day-to-day times.
Toungoo Steam Index
There are hotels and restaurants here. Yedashe mill is served by a branch from Kongyi. Usually a diesel works trains 409/10 (Kongyi - Yeni) picking up at Myohale. Steam works trains 411/412 (Kongyi - Thagaya) picking up at Swa. If traffic is light the trains may be combined in which case steam will probably not be used. Locos face Down and green YD 974 was the regular loco with black YD 973 spare. Loco and van worked between Toungoo and Kongyi usually in the morning with an afternoon return. I would say that steam was working 5 or 6 days out of 7. It is possible to do this area on a day trip from Pyinmana if things are quiet there, by hitching a lift on a freight or taking a pick-up down the road (get off in Swa). There are also two local railcars running.
Pyinmana Steam Index
There are (local) hotels and restaurants here.
All locos are black.
Locos lead a leisurely existence. They are fuelled before leaving the shed and then take water in the station. If one loco is in steam, then the others can be quickly lit up using steam from the first to get the burners going. However, if all locos are cold, expect to wait at least 6 hours while a mixture of sugar cane and wood is used to build up pressure until the oil burners can be used. 9 days showed very little in the way of a pattern, although I suspect that what they try to do is as follows:
1. The (smokebox first) Thawatti train (405/406) tends to leave first. Of course, with the usual slack operation, this means that by the time they get their act together the sun will probably be straight down (10.30 to 12.00) the N-S main line! Try between Pyiwin and Ela which is more photogenic. Of course, if the train is really late (15.00-16.00) then the sun angles are good all the way down.
2. The (smokebox first) Kantha train (407/408) tends to be second out. By 13.00, the sun will now shine straight down the track for miles here too! Of course, as you enter the afternoon, the light in Pyinmana station area is much better. The line beyond Lewe passes through an avenue of scrub.
However, during our visit the transshipment at Lewe in mid-morning was spectacular as cane was being directly transferred from the carts (by hand) instead of being dumped on the ground first.
3. On the line north to Kyidaunggan (train 403/4), there is one intermediate station at Ywadaw which is approachable by dirt road. This must offer the best chance of a classic 'smokebox first loaded cane train' picture provided the loco is able to leave Pyinmana with the empties by 12.00/13.00 at the latest. YD 964 was the regular loco and its crew were 100% supportive of our efforts! However, the countryside is plain. Sometimes(!) the train gets back to Pyinmana by 16.00, but on at least one occasion it was 22.30.
Other workings Steam Index
Most reports speak of steam being used occasionally on other services. Pyinmana shed records confirmed that their locos were used on freights to/from Toungoo, particularly at the beginning and end of the sugar season. The Deputy Station Master at Thaton (who supplemented his paltry salary by dealing in wagon loads of stone from the quarries) confirmed that YB 533 still works occasionally from Paung to the Sittoung factory. While we were in Bago, one loco was scheduled to work on towards Yangon with a stone train. Presumably, there must be a chance of special workings on either side of special trains for visiting enthusiasts. However, it must be said that the double track mainline which runs from Yangon to just north of Pyinmana (apart from single track bridges at Toungoo and Pyinmana) is interesting only for having steam on the double track!
In Yangon, much had apparently changed since my last visit. On the main streets, many buildings had received their first coat of paint since independence, others had been knocked down to make way for the new international hotels, there were actually some cars to be seen and consumer goods in the shops although the pace of life seemed as relaxed as ever and far removed from most capital cities. This was actually rather misleading since most other places I visited had barely changed. Everywhere, the bicycle and buffalo cart had the country almost to themselves and, apart from a few lumbering lorries, the main roads were virtually empty. Electrification was unknown in rural areas and evenings in the towns were interspersed with power cuts. Despite this, few seem to go hungry (there is simply no comparison with India) and the people cheerfully accept their lot. Anyone who visited Indonesia in the early 1970's would have found the environment familiar.
All individual visitors are officially required to change the equivalent of U$300 into 300 Foreign Exchange Certificates (FECs) on arrival. These can then be used to pay certain costs such as hotel bills and most train fares. Outside the main tourist centres, FECs are virtually unknown and it is a good idea to have a supply of small denomination U$ bills. Otherwise, the local currency 'Kyat' ("Chat") is used. The official rate is about 5.5K to 1U$, but everywhere in Yangon (especially Bogyoke Aung San Market near the station) you can openly exchange FECs or U$ on the 'free market', the rate was about 160K to 1U$ in December 1996, a 50% devaluation in 1 year.
Yangon hotels are relatively expensive by South-East Asian standards, but otherwise living costs are low. I spent just over U$300 in 3 weeks half of which was accounted for by 2 nights in Yangon, 3 days of taxis and several hefty train fares. Upcountry living costs are very low, almost insignificant if you don't drink beer! Hotels in the steam areas are scarcely luxurious, most would best be described as basic. European style food is unavailable, but in 3 weeks of eating a mixture of Burmese and Chinese food I had no health problems at all. Even in the smallest of places, a surprising number of people speak English and often a crumpled hand-written English menu will be produced. There is no shortage of food and all but the smallest of stations will have snacks, bottled water and soft drinks available. The Burmese are some of the most hospitable people in the World and will always do their best to make you welcome. Make sure you take a suitable supply of presents (cigarettes, photographs etc) for the railwaymen who will inevitably buy you snacks or even meals along the way.
To get around, you have to be flexible. For longer distances the trains are fine although they are overpriced for foreigners (the Kyat fare is a fraction of what you pay). Simply head straight for the station master's office where someone will speak English and fix you up - you can reserve your seat a day or two early for the busy trains. There are few daytime passenger trains (although time keeping was better than reports suggested) and not many conventional buses. Average speeds are very low. Be prepared to use the overcrowded local pick-ups, hop a freight train, hitch (paid) lifts in lorries and cars or even borrow a bicycle! Most towns are small enough to walk around, but cycle rickshaws are cheap if you have your luggage with you. To get the most out of your holiday, immerse yourself completely. Although the locals tell you to be careful with your possessions, you are far more at risk back home.
I have rarely felt so comfortable so quickly in a strange land.
Finally, my thanks are due to John Tickner who was an unexpected but congenial travelling companion and those earlier visitors whose reports not only inspired me to go but provided me with a flying start to the trip