Making Rubber Bands in Burma

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Featured Image: Fallow Fields Outside the Weaving Village on Bilu Island

Fallow Fields Outside the Weaving Village on Bilu Island
Fallow Fields Outside the Weaving Village on Bilu Island

ORT_Logo  Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 1 August 2019

Making Rubber Bands near Mawlamyine, Burma, February 2017

By the old Moulmein pagoda lookin’ lazy at the sea… wrote Rudyard Kipling on his 1889 visit.


Travelfish contends not much has changed from Kipling and apart from the traffic they are partly right. We liked the sleepy backwater atmosphere of Moulmein, renamed Mawlamyine. Travelling out of there by boat, when we left the huge river seemed part of a lost era. George Orwell’s family connections in Burma and one of his postings during his years in the Burma Police were in Moulmein.

Made famous in his essay On Shooting an Elephant, which begins:

In Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people — the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.

My favourite amongst Orwell’s novels, his only real novel to my mind, is Burmese Days a very funny, but chilling anti-colonial story. U Po Kyin, the corrupt magistrate is one of the great villains of literature. Burmese Days is set in Katha much further north above Mandalay on the Irrawaddy River.

Denise and I spent a month in Burma in early 2017 on our way to a wedding in Thailand. We went to Burma to see how much the country had changed since our last visit in early 1996. The suppression of the population in 1996 was terrible. Things had improved for people dramatically, though the country is still under the stranglehold of the military junta. Ko Ni a prominent legal adviser for Myanmar’s ruling National League for Democracy and strong critic of the military, who was working on constitutional reform, was assassinated outside Yangon Airport terminal by a gunman with links to the military in the two weeks between us flying up north and returning to go to Bago.

We travelled from Bago and its pagodas outside of Yangon to Mawlamyine by bus, not too unpleasant. The end of our journey was signalled by the magnificent bridge across the Salween River (renamed Than Lwin by the junta).

We departed after four full days via a small boat to the capital of Karen State, Hpa-an. A much smaller dusty town than Mawlamyine in spectacular surrounds. We lazily charted a taxi (the bus was difficult) to near Kyaikto, stayed overnight and visited the Golden Rock next morning and then caught a bus back to Yangon. An excellent round trip of one week.

Bilu Island cottage industries

One day in Mawlamyine we took a local boat directly across the river to Bilu Island, known locally as Ogre Island. According to legend the islanders were spectacularly ugly, filed their teeth to points, ate raw meat and were thus regarded as ogres, apocryphal rather than likely. Bilu is a large flat island with more than 60 villages and is famous for its well-preserved Mon culture. It shelters Mawlamyine from the sea.

On arrival on the island, we negotiated a reasonable price for two motorcycle taxis to take us around. Our main guide spoke moderately passable English and was very helpful. He took us mainly around a tourist circuit but also to a couple of more remote locations and villages. It didn’t cost very much and we had a delightful day’s outing.

One of the places we visited was a rubber band manufacturer. All businesses on the island were cottage industries and all not likely to survive for long. In comparison the rubber band enterprise had some ancient but functional machines.

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