I had to see it. The gold leaf-covered rock balancing on a mountaintop Southeast of Yangon attracts pilgrims and tourists alike. It would be much more popular with tourists if it wasn’t so painful to get to. Even the most luxurious traveler with a private car will only get as far as the mountain’s base in comfort. A grueling one hour ride in the back of a dump truck gets everyone halfway up the mountain and only the truly rich, old and unashamed pay to be carried–yes, carried– the rest of the way up.
My journey started early in the morning with a ticket purchased from my hotel and a one hour taxi ride out of Yangon to the bus station. Touts at the station were disappointed to see I already had a ticket and pointed me to the garage where company men were selling tickets to locals. I had left Yangon by taxi in the dark, but by the time the bus pulled away from the station around 8am everything had woken up. Buses in Myanmar are quite comical with large wheels set on even higher suspensions, a bit like a poor version of the cars you used to see on rap videos. Unfortunately, the bumps and shakes on these buses aren’t fashionably intentional and are most often a result of dirt roads and potholes.
Along the way we passed by many towns and I watched locals buy an sell goods, monks collect alms and animals chase each other across the street. After five hours on the bus from Yangon I arrived in Kyaiktiyo where I took a smaller bus to the base of the mountain. Of course, I had no idea how many buses to take or when to change buses but I decided to go with the flow when all of the locals got off the bus and onto the smaller bus. In fact, because I took my time getting off the first bus I barely fit onto the second, smaller open-back bus. I sat on the edge of the back opening, held on to the metal bars and hoped that the trip wouldn’t take long. We stopped after a short time and I was pushed into a group of touts promoting their hotels. I had left my big backpack in Yangon because I wanted to stay at the top of the mountain so I was able to outmaneuver the men and sneak to the platform where a large dump truck was loading passengers. The platform was designed so that trucks could be loaded on either side of the 12′ high wooden structure. I was one of the first 10 people onboard and knew that we would take some time to fill up. The back of the truck had narrow wooden boards laid across the back to form benches. The space between each board was approximately 6 inches–not enough room for my short legs to bend correctly, and not enough for the local pilgrims either. To add insult to injury another dump truck pulled up, loaded passengers and left us behind.
After an hour contorting myself into a sideways position we seemed to be full. Locals and tourists both perked up and got ready to leave until the driver hauled out another board to create a new row for passengers. He ordered me to sit forward and sat an older monk nearly on top of me. By the time we left my kneecaps were wedged into the board in front of me and I was beginning to doubt that I would ever see the golden rock. The truck drove around curves up the mountain without breaking, only to slam on the breaks for no apparent reason at other times. The fifty or so passengers perched on wooden planks with no seatbelts or handles to hold onto so when one person lurched forward all of us followed. We all shared in the pain of the ride as each bump or turn of the truck dug the boards further into our legs. A very large German man in front of me made the most amount of noise, although everyone in the truck was moaning at one point or another. I don’t know how this man, who must have weighed over 250 pounds, fit on the board but I intended to use him as an airbag if need be.
The torturous ride took 45 minutes up the mountain and I jumped out and started walking up the paved path to the golden rock before my legs could give out on me. The path was paved and almost 12′ wide in places but it was a consistent 45° incline the entire way. Local pilgrims walked at a steady pace, unlike some of the younger tourists who passed me early on. Small shacks were built along the path to offer cold drinks and food, adding to the surreal experience. I resisted the temptation to sit down with a cold Star Cola and pressed on, only to be passed by two Burmese men carrying a fat Western tourist uphill on a reclining chair. I had seen this in China on Emei Shan but they had at least four men carrying each person. As each porter briskly walked past me he would look over, smile and say “carry?” The porters would rest every once in a while, allowing me to pass them, only to catch up to me in order to mock me again. Each time I was asked the offer was more tempting ($10 is not a lot of money to be carried by two men up a mountain!) but I just couldn’t do it. Even if my knees were going to kill me that night I knew I could never come to terms with being carried to the golden rock. In retrospect, I can’t believe I have no photos of either the truck ride or the uphill walk. It seems that when times are tough, frustrating or uncertain I concentrate on getting through the situation instead of documenting it.
View of the rock from entrance
At the top of the mountain the path flattens out and becomes a thin dirt route through ramshackle buildings selling prayer beads, mushrooms, roots and other necessities. I checked out the private hotel on top of the mountain first, but $40 was way beyond my budget. The only other hotel at the top was government owned and overpriced as well. Although I tried very hard to contribute as little money directly to the government as possible I settled for a $15 room and a little shame. For $15 I got one room in an annexed building with a queen size bed. That’s it. There was no chair, no table–just a bed behind folding doors with a padlock. The communal bathroom was downstairs and had no doors. I only saw one other room in use and I’m pretty sure they stole the free bar of soap I had been given by the reception. If they needed the soap that bad they could have it. All I had brought with me from Yangon was a toothbrush and toothpaste, sketchbook, camera, iPod and clean underwear anyway, so a nice hot shower had never been part of the plan.
After settling in I hurried out to the entrance, paid my $6 fee at the military checkpoint, and saw my first glimpse of the golden rock. The area around the rock has been tiled and turned into a small park-like space. Shoes aren’t allowed in the area at all so I left it with a little boy at the entrance. Later, when I went back to get my shoes he would for about $1 which I refused to pay. That might sound really cheap to you but 50? would be more than anyone usually pays for this service. I left a more than generous tip and took my shoes before he could run off with them.
Carrying my shoes in my bag, I walked around the smooth floor and watched the sun set behind the tree-covered mountain tops. Flood lights were turned on the rock at all times so the much-hyped sunset light did not have as dramatic of an affect on the rock as I would have liked. Around the rock were praying platforms for men and women and Buddha statues perched under umbrellas illuminated with multicolored neon lamps.
Buddhas to feed // Sexism: Not just for Christianity anymore! // The whitest teeth in Myanmar?
The 25′ tall boulder that has become a scared site to Buddhists in Myanmar is perched on the very edge of the mountain. It is so oddly shaped that it appears ready to fall off the mountain at any time. Legend dictates that the rock balances due to Buddha’s hair that is encased in the stupa on top of the rock. Even if you don’t believe the supernatural tales involving hermits, kings and flying boats, it is easy to see that this rock is special. Devotees cover the rock in gold leaf and sit on the platforms nearby praying all through the night. In fact, the real fun of the shrine is watching pilgrims purchase gold leaf to rub onto the rock, pray silently, ring bells and gongs and picnic with their families. Most of this activity didn’t pick up until after sunset when loudspeakers began broadcasting prayers so I was glad that I decided to stay the night instead of catching the last truck pack to town before sunset.
Hanging out after dark
Women are not allowed to touch the most sacred of Buddhist symbols in Myanmar and the golden rock is no exception. Although I was not allowed to put gold leaf on the rock, I bought a square for my sketchbook and watched women give male relatives squares to put on for them. The newly built pathway below the rock was open to women and provided amazing views of the rock’s precarious position. Walking along the path my feel became coated in warm wax from the small candles lit along the path and I watched small pieces of gold leaf dance in the air, glistening in the floodlights.
Pilgrims sleep in communal quarters on the other side of the park, but when I walked into the area I was confronted by mean spirited shopkeepers who didn’t seem interested in feeding me dinner. This quickly broke the magical spell I was under and I headed back to the hotel, hoping to find some food before it got too late. The expensive hotel fed me a three course meal on the open patio while it’s paying guests sat inside the dining room. As the only diner on the patio I had my own waiter who stood by to fill my plate and watch me curiously as I wrote in my sketchbook. The manager stopped by my table twice to check on things before I was overwhelmed by the awkwardness of the situation and left to find my hotel in the dark.
Sunrise // The dirtiest feet in Myanmar // Rock in the sky
I woke up before sunrise and headed out to watch the light change over the mountains. The magical spell of the night had been broken and pilgrims prepared for the long trip downhill. After a quick, awful breakfast at my hotel I started walking downhill before the other tourists could pass me. Along the way pilgrims smiled and me curiously and one woman took my arm and walked with me part of the way as if we were long time friends. Her limited English was used to ask where my husband was. The truck ride downhill was different than the ride up–still painful but less jarring. The bruises that had started to form soon became numb. On the way down I made small talk with an older couple who had hired a car and planned on stopping in Bago on the way back to Yangon. I had originally wanted to stop at Bago and see the largest reclining Buddha in Myanmar, but they didn’t offer a ride and I was too exhausted to coordinate public transport. Because of my early start I was able to get back to Yangon in the late afternoon and relax before my flight to Bagan the following morning.
You can see the photos from Kyaiktiyo in the gallery.