Myanmar Musings – Golden Rock Pagoda

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 Golden Rock Trail

I walk through the dark streets of Kinpun, a small village at the base of Mt. Kyaiktiyo, towards the bright and bustling bus station. After being in the heat and humidity of Yangon, the refreshing, cool morning air of the hills makes me happy. I walk behind hundreds of devotees making their way to the bus station, like ants moving to the ant hill. Most of them are bundled in thick jackets and shawls and have probably traveled a good distance for their pilgrimage to the 3rd holiest site in Myanmar, the Kyaiktiyo Pagoda (also called, Golden Rock Pagoda)

Devotees at Golden Rock Pagoda
Devotees at Golden Rock Pagoda

Kinpun to Pagoda

There are only 2 ways to get to the Golden Rock Pagoda. You either hike from the base of Kinpun (about 12 KM), which is what a good number of pilgrims do as part of the pilgrimage rites. Or you take a ride on pick-up trucks, up a winding road, to the Pagoda entrance. Since a lot of people want to make it to the top before sunrise and the morning prayers, this is the common option. All trucks leave from the bus-station and there is a mad rush to get the hundreds of visitors stuffed in a truck and speed to the top of the mountain.

There is some method to the madness but it looked like the conductors just chose people at random to ride their truck. As I wait in line to be put in a truck, I look around the bus-stop at the other people I am riding with. A lot of the visitors have probably traveled a few days in very uncomfortable buses and trains to make it here. They look tired and haggard but still excited to be almost at their destination. I feel bad that in contrast I had just hopped out of my comfy bed in a “Forest Resort” and walked just half mile down. I had thought that 35$ for a huge room in a resort, with free breakfast, was a steal. But that’s a lot of money if you compare it to the average income of a rural Burmese guy.

The demographics range from young kids to very old people and you can observe many ethnicities. Just goes to show how ethnically diverse the country is. This place is a little off the main tourist spot and it is quickly evident. It is very cheap to stay here, almost no one speaks English and you hardly see any “foreigners”. In spite of the language barrier, everyone is inquisitive and  want to know more about you. I get asked where I am from and when I say California, there are shouts of “Hollywood” or “Baywatch” (that was from a group of teenage boys all wearing leather jackets and skinny jeans). My GoPro gets passed around and they are a little disappointed that I don’t have a bigger camera.

Finally, we are settled in a truck, the seats are wooden benches placed close enough to maximize the number of people that can be packed on. With a shrill whistle and a holler, we are out.

Spot the tourists - Myanmar
Spot the tourists – Myanmar

And the joy-ride begins…

The ride to the top is like being on a roller coaster. The road is barely wide enough to fit one truck and steep enough to not be able to go over 40 km/hr. But with some gear grinding and sly maneuvering which would put Indian drivers to shame, we hurtle up and down mountain roads at breakneck speed, passing and getting passed by trucks. It’s like being in a circus that’s just about to go out of control. A lot of people get road-sick and others pray to make it to the top alive. But amidst all this, we pass through some beautiful scenery. As darkness turns to dawn and the faint glow of sun-rise, the hills around us become purple, then then golden and you can see how lush green and dense the jungles in this part of the country are.

After 30-40 minutes of roller-coaster riding, we get to the top.

Joyride to Pagoda
Who needs seatbelts when you are packed in so tight?

If I thought the bus station at Kinpun was crazy, the bus-station at the top is even crazier. People are jumping off the trucks to hurry up to the temple and beat the crowds, merchants line up around the visitors to sell food, trinkets, offerings (golden leaves, flowers, etc.). There are porters that have gathered to see if there are people or materials that need to be carried up the steps to the temple. And there are monks waiting silently in line for offerings. The frenetic energy of the place is similar, yet so different from the hustle bustle of “big-city life”. I also give in to the mass hysteria and rush towards the temple to take some sun-rise pictures.

Worth the crazy ride!

Sunrise at Golden Rock
Sunrise at Golden Rock. Had to compete for camera space with visiting monks

The Kyaiktiyo Pagoda is famous for it’s balancing rock – Golden Rock. It is a huge granite boulder that is perched precariously over an even bigger granite boulder. It is said that a hair of Buddha is enshrined within the pagoda. The balancing rock is painted golden and combined with the atmosphere of the place, is an other-worldly sight. As the sun rises, the Golden Rock changes colors from a dull gold to an almost blazing yellow rock. The chants of the morning prayers reverberate through the mountain-top. Hundreds of people line up to light candles and paste golden leaves to the rock (however, only men are allowed to paste leaves on the rock, for some reason). I could try and explain this place some more. But it is one of those places that is better seen than described (I say that a lot about Myanmar).

Circumambulating the Pagoda
Circumambulating the Pagoda

 

You could spend all day exploring the mountain top and the various shrines there. And a few more days observing the different people and customs that are exhibited here. However, after few hours, I made my way back to the bus station which was calmer after the morning madness. Even the ride down the mountain was more relaxing and there were less people gripped with fear. Once back down, I walked back to my Forest Resort and back into what I call the tourist bubble. But not for long, soon I will head deeper into Myanmar and further off the tourist trail.

Mountain Top at Golden Rock
Mountain Top at Golden Rock

Gaurav is based out of the San Francisco Bay area, working as a technologist in the cloud computing space. Inspired by all the mountaineering and travel books read growing up, Gaurav loves to travel, backpack and photograph in wild spaces, from the local favorites such as Yosemite and the High Sierras to international destinations like Patagonia and the Alps. You can follow his travel photography on https://www.instagram.com/dustytraveler/

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