“There’s this one place a little out of the way where there’s a giant golden rock. That’s one of the few things I want to go see” says Jennifer. To be honest, I hadn’t heard of this giant rock or the town of Kyaiktiyo where it is located, but because we had three weeks in total, it seemed like a good idea and not too far out of the way.
After reading the horror stories about the bus rides in Burma, we did a tonne of planning and probably over prepared. Jen wore long pants and I packed a sweater to prep for the icy cold air conditioning but somehow we seemed to find the bus where the air conditioning turned out to be as hot and sweaty as a creepy person breathing down the back of ones neck.
After an hour Jen looked as though she was about to pass out and to compound matters even further, they continued to pick people up along the way and soon enough they were all crammed up the front where we were seating and Jen was the unfortunate one to ride the remainder of the way with a smorgasboard of armpits, only inches from her face.
We eventually made it to Kinpun which is the nearest town to stay if you aren’t going to stay up on the mountain where the Golden Rock is. There isn’t much to do there and even less to do in the guest houses around the place so we decided to go off exploring. If there weren’t many foreign tourists in Yangon then there definitely weren’t any in Kinpun. In fact we saw three other westerners and we were all at same restaurant for dinner. Safety in numbers perhaps?
The food was pretty good I thought for somewhere in the middle of nowhere. I ordered a chicken salad but it came out an orange colour, mainly from the spices. It also came out with the usual plate of crunchy vegetable condiments, a dipping sauce that is heavy on the fish paste and also a plate of pennywort leaves which I LOVE. Mixed in with a tea leaf salad provided the perfect combination of meat to spice, salty and crunchy texture. I must have mentioned it to Jen that “this is so good” about a thousand times. Not content with the portion sizes, I tried some of the goat curry on offer. Portion sizes for curries here tend to be on the smaller side and seem to have more oil than sauce. Despite this, the meat still had sufficient flavour and texture.
After an early start, we headed to the “bus” station where we’d catch a ride up to the top of Mt Kyaiktiyo where the golden rock is. Upon arriving, there were no buses but instead, the only option available were trucks with eight rows of benches to seat the passengers. At first it was quite comfortable and I was wondering why we weren’t moving as it was plenty full. Then they kept piling in the people. To the point where there were a total of six people on each bench totalling 48 people, crammed into the back like a tin of sardines.
Eventually we left after the loud groans from most of the passengers. For the entire trip up the mountain, the driver was driving around the corners like a maniac. There were no barriers so any slip of the wheel we could have ended up colliding into the mountain or over the edge into a bamboo forest. There was no danger of any of us falling over the side though. Everybody was packed in so tight, we had all become a massive blog of humans, glued together by the sweat and grime in the heat of the morning sun.
On every tight bend there would be the odd whimper and yelp from frightened passengers, whilst some would just go into a zen like state and convince themselves that sleeping would ward off any possibility of motion sickness. Me, I was actually enjoying the ride, but was quite happy when we finally arrived on top of the mountain about 45 minutes on the road.
Formally known as the Kyaiktiyo Pagoda, it is the third most important Buddhist pilgrimage site in the Myanmar. It is said that the granite boulder that perches on a clifftop, somehow defying gravity is anchored in place by a strand of Buddha’s hair who passed through the area. Legend states that Buddha gave a strand of hair to a hermit who gave it to the king who had some form of super powers and had the giant stone transported from the ocean.
For an area that is relatively isolated and high up on the mountain, it’s well developed. We even stayed in a place that had WiFi which didn’t exist down in Kinpun. Polished white marble is everywhere around the surrounding plaza near the pagoda and is relatively walkable barefooted even during the hottest part of the day. As with the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, there’s a peaceful atmosphere with the only sounds you can hear being the chanting of pilgrims who have come from all over Myanmar to pray.
Pilgrims can make their way there via a number of ways. The original path was to trek there from Kinpun but recently, a paved road was built that takes visitors all the way to the entrance which is a short walk from the Pagoda.
There are very few western visitors and Jen and I stick out like a sore thumb as families, monks and a large number of nuns of varying ages from children to elders all wave with friendly smiles and ask us to take their photos. It’s a great feeling to be in a foreign land as an outsider but surrounded by so many welcoming people.
As the daytime transitions into evening, the number of visitors don’t diminish, despite the final bus leaving at 6pm. In fact it feels like the crowd increases, with people emerging from the protection of the indoors during the day to enjoy the cooler mountain climate. As usual, the chanting continues well into the evening. Families congregate on their mats enjoying dinner, all transported in their multi-tiered meal lunch boxes. As the LED lights flicker around the areas of prayer, children play with their remote control cars, navigating in and out between those walking by and taking advantage of the smooth floor and expansive area.
I know only a little about the recent history of Myanmar and the military dictatorship that left much of the population in fear of speaking out and persecution. I can’t fathom what everybody went through but it’s astonishing to observe the dedication to their beliefs and religion. Growing up, my mother would take us to church both on Saturdays and Sundays and every other significant religious days. Somewhere amongst the growing up part, I became more distracted with other things whereas my parents still continue to go religiously each week. Is it a case of the less we have in life, the easier it is to follow and stay committed to whatever we have faith in? It’s hard not to notice that being in a place like this does tap into a spiritual part of one self and even if you don’t pray like the others here, it’s a time to reflect and be thankful.