Mawlaik has a Golf Course: British Raj in Myanmar

January 5, 2014

U Thant Zin - Mawlaik's local historian.
U Thant Zin – Mawlaik’s local historian.

I borrowed a bicycle and joined U Thant Zin for a tour of the Victorian Village in Mawlaik.


Let me take you back to 1916.

Par 2
Par 2

To support the teak trade along the Chindwin, the British imported their way of life from back home. So Mawlaik has a golf course, although the grass is not always cut these days.

Welcome to the club house.
Welcome to the club house.

 And where there’s a club house there’s story.

Imagine it's 1920, someone's behind the bar and the tables are filled with expats.
Imagine it’s 1920, someone’s behind the bar and the tables are filled with teak plantation owners, British military and government officials.

 The club house appears to have been the center of social gatherings during the Victorian era.

Having drinks on the veranda while the golfers play.
Having drinks on the veranda while games are playing on the green.

I suggest that you read Burmese Days to get an understanding of how important the club house was to those wanting to keep a link to the mother land which was at least a month long journey back home.

Parade ground - for what?
Parade ground – for what?

The terrain is not conducive to raising horses and Mawlaik was not a big military site.  Maybe they used the grounds to play polo or cricket.

Two story government office built in 1916
Two story government office built in 1916

The teak trade must have been brisk for the British to have built such a large government building in such a remote area. My question is: what kind of work would the government employees do?

Notice use of Underwood typewriters.
Notice use of Underwood typewriters.

 What struck me about the current use of the government offices was that the Burmese appear to be temporary tenants, ready to pick up and move.  Nothing seems permanent.

Mawlaik Courtroom
Mawlaik Courtroom

Some offices remain empty, like the court room.

British jail in Mawlaik
British jail in Mawlaik

Prisoners were Burmese only.When U Thant Zin and I passed by the jail, he just shook his head. That was statement enough.

British hospital no longer in use except for solar panel, laundry and grazing.
‘British only’ hospital no longer in use except for solar panel, laundry and grazing.

There’s a new hospital in Mawlaik built adjacent to the old one. The old brick building is not seismically stable and Mawlaik has seen a number of earthquakes. New hospital serves all.

For whites only.
For whites only.

U Thant Zin sounded bitter when we walked around what he called the “white section” of the hospital.  They have torn down the old Burmese section of the hospital.


What would any Victorian Village be without a Christian church?

Church bell tower
Church bell tower

It even had a bell tower. Imagine being a Buddhist and hearing the bell every Sunday and maybe for weddings, too. I heard Caucasian women from Britain were enticed to visit for just such purposes.

British Commissioner’s house.

Since Mawlik was ruled by the British, they needed a Government Commissioner and he needed a lodging with the finest teak woodwork.

Grand entrance to the Commissioner's house.
Grand entrance to the Commissioner’s house.

 Currently, the Myanmar government is investing some funds into the restoration of the old British buildings.

Doesn't look like anyone's coming to dinner.
Doesn’t look like anyone’s coming to dinner but laundry is airing out.

These abandoned buildings just sit there. I didn’t see any work being done while I was there.

Teak wood throughout Commissioner's house.
Teak wood throughout Commissioner’s house.

I was surprised the flooring was not teak but either tile or linoleum. Maintaining buildings and in particular wood is expensive in the hot humid climate along the Chindwin.  It was phenomenal that these buildings were still standing. They’d be perfect as a back drop in some BBC movie.  

Bedroom - notice fireplace
Bedroom – notice fireplace

Hidden in the back, the bedrooms appeared to serve as housing for the landlord’s family. Again, there was a sense of willingly temporary use.

Officer's house back stairs
Officer’s house back stairs

Wherever there are government officials, there are government officers to protect them. Their homes were not as elaborate as the superintendents.

Luxury crapper
Luxury crapper

But, they were fancy enough to have a western style crapper.


U Thant Zin said only British buildings had fireplaces.


There hasn’t been much entertaining in the officer’s salon in recent years, so the current landlords have converted it into a Buddhist shrine.

Outback in the kitchen
Outback in the kitchen

All British kitchens were kept separate from the rest of the house. As noted in Kalewa, fires are not unusual and rebuilding the kitchen is much easier than the whole house.

Landlords kitchen today
Landlord’s kitchen today

Today, they caretakers have moved their cooking into the main building.  Yet notice how temporary it looks.

Two-man saw
Two-man saw

I can’t imagine them using these “two-man” saws today. But if they still use oxen to haul the logs to the river, then maybe they don’t have chainsaws large enough to cut the teak lumber.

British staff housing
British staff housing

British staff were needed to manage the locals.

British Forester's house - in use today by Burmese Forester.
British Forester’s house – in use today by Burmese Forester.

And the British Forester must have been as important as the Commissioner. with the harvest of the Teak being paramount. You can tell his importance by the size of the house.  


But all that remains from the Victorian era are the buildings. In 1942 the Japanese invaded Burma and the British fled to India. The Raj never returned. It is up to you to use your imagination and fill these buildings in with the people who lived and died there.

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    Mawlaik-Not Just Any Village on the Chindwin River: The Battle of Imphal, 1944

    January 4, 2014


    Aren't they sweet?
    Aren’t they sweet?

     Mawlaik is a close-knit village 10,000 strong in the township of Mawlaik which has only 100,000 inhabitants. It was the center for British teak logging in the 20th century.

    Locals boarding boat on Chindwin.
    Locals boarding boat on Chindwin.

    Given the bridge to Mawlaik from Kalewa was severed by monsoon rains and earthquakes and the road to Homalin is almost a two day ride away, most people reach Mawlaik by boat.

    Arrival in Mawlaik from Chindwin.
    Arrival in Mawlaik from Chindwin.

    When traveling to remote areas, it helps to visualize the arrival point. Mawlaik is located at the top of a steep sandstone bank. I was happy to pay $0.50 to have a porter haul my bag up that hill.  

    Boat tied up on slope during dry season.
    Boat tied up on slope during dry season.

     During the monsoon, the Chindwin River swells, flooding launching areas that are inaccessible during the dry season.  

    Eroded walkway and former boat launch.
    Eroded walkway and former boat launch.

    At one time they had established docking facilities, but the banks were continually eroded away by monsoon rains and the locals dredged sand for construction. The slope became inaccessible.

    Concrete road constructed by hand
    Mawlaik is a village that works together.  At the top of the eroded bank the road had crumbled. So a new road had to be built. The women worked side-by-side with the men, laying the gravel bedding while the men used a portable cement mixer to prepare the concrete, and then leveled the grade. All of this was completed by hand.
    Typical house in Mawlaik with clay water jugs out front

    Next to the construction site was a permanent water station, much like our drinking fountains. These water posts, maintained by the locals, are found throughout Myanmar. This simple act of generosity exemplifies the kind of people you find in Myanmar.

    Mawlaik tea house
    So how does one get to know a small village like Mawlaik? A good place to start is at the local tea house.

    A TV was wedged in the corner of this riverside restaurant playing Myanmar's version of Next Top Idol, only their stars were painted-up 10-year-old girls.
    A TV was wedged in the corner of this riverside restaurant playing Myanmar’s version of Next Top Idol, only their stars were painted-up 10-year-old girls.

    Meat is scarce along the river. But soups are offered morning, noon and night. Personally, I did not like their traditional morning fish soup, but don’t miss their fried tofu paddies.

    Sponge from local market added to fish soup.
    Sponge from local market added to fish soup.

    Most of their food is fried in oil, which can be a fire risk.

    Vegetables, herbs and tubers new to my taste buds.
    Vegetables, herbs and tubers new to my taste buds.

    There is plenty of bottled water or tea for when you’re thirsty. Unfortunately, most women don’t drink beer. So I got a few questioning looks when I ignored that custom. Other than administrative buildings, there are no restaurants or other reminders to show travelers this town had been under British rule.

    Teak forest at 20 years. Usually harvested at 60 year rotations. Notice straight trunks.
     After the British left, the people continued to work in the teak industry. They implemented many of the British forestry practices.
    Teak raft hauling about 100 logs down Chindwin River to mill.
    Locals work in the lumber mill across the river. They drive the river rafts that transport logs weighing up to 300 tonnes downstream.
    Man on left is government permitting official. Man on right is teak lumber grader.

    Some grade the lumber before sending it to market. Others represent the government, and ensure that the logs traveling down the river are permitted and not stolen.

    Food shipped from nearby settlements to market.
    In addition to teak logging, villagers from neighboring settlements work the land and bring their goods to the local market in Mawlaik.
    Betel nuts are seeds from palms, not nut trees.
    Bamboo, gold, natural gas, tea and betel nut are other local cash crops.
    Betel nuts and leaves used to wrap betel chew.

    A woman I met on the boat, sold enough betel nuts to villages along the Chindwin, to support her entire family, and she put her two children through higher education. I couldn’t understand a word she said in Burmese. But what ever it was, she talked non-stop for three hours straight.  I think it was the betel nut talking for her.

    Betel stained mouth.
    Needless to say, betel nut is the preferred stimulant in Myanmar as opposed to cigarettes. It stains the teeth red; vampire red. But no one seems to notice.


    In each village, the locals support the Buddhist monks.  Every morning, the monks walk from house to house with their eating utensils in hand, knowing locals will fill their bowls.  Some monks push carts throughout town, collecting from restaurants and businesses, to feed those that cannot go out on their own.


    Life is simple in Mawlaik. Homes are usually made of wood with open-air windows. Most walk or ride bicycles.

    Guest house on Chindwin River
    There are a few guesthouses for travelers, usually filled with geologists exploring the land for oil and minerals.
    Mawlaik Police Station
    The guest house where I stayed was across the street from the police station. I found I was treated kindly if I reported my presence upon arrival.
    U Thant Zin’s home and the local English school
    Once it was know an English speaking tourist had arrived, the locals sent me to U Thant Zin, a 75 year old elder.
    U Thant Zin’s students with open classroom in background.
    Education is mandatory in Myanmar to the age of nine. Yet there is so much more to learn. U Thant Zin has taken it upon himself to teach English. He is also the local historian, passing down tales from the past to his students.
    Mawlaik Forestry office where Japanese committed suicide after Battle of Imphal, 1944.
    One of his stories includes the 1944 Battle at Imphal. The Japanese stormed Mawlaik after crossing the Chindwin. Then they marched through the mountains bordering India and Burma to Imphal, the China-Burma-India (CBI) headquarters for the British during WWII. The Japansese lost at Imphal and had to retreat. The Japanese who were injured or sick with malaria and typhus were abandoned in Mawlaik.  Those men committed suicide in the local Forestry office. U Thant Zin joked that given the shortage of balls after the war, the Japanese heads were later used by the children as futballs (soccer).
    From bank along Mawlaik looking east across the Chindwin. The river floods to the far hills during the monsoon.

    With all the unexplored wilderness and resources Myanmar has to offer, there’s no doubt that the villages along the Chindwin will host more and more tourists in the future.

    U Thant Zin’s student and my market guide.
    When they arrive, U Thant Zin’s students will be there to carry on his tradition.



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