Morgan Edwardson finds warmth on a chilly night at Golden Rock
Excerpted from To Myanmar With Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur, available from ThingsAsian Press.
I was waiting for the light to change before crossing a busy Yangon street when a monk walked up and introduced himself. There was nothing especially odd about that. Friendly fellows in robes are a common sight around the city, and many approach tourists for a chat. But this particular monk was a persuasive fellow, and after our introductory conversation, he convinced me to scrap my planned break at a nearby teashop and accompany him to his English class.
The monk's school was located on a side street just off Mahabandoola Road. I followed him up a flight of stairs to the second-floor classroom where about thirty students, half of them also monks, sat behind desks. The exuberant, long-haired teacher encouraged his class to bombard me with questions, and for the next hour that's just what they did. Aside from common ones, such as "What's your name?""Where do you come from?"and"Are you married?" the question asked most often was "Have you been to Golden Rock?"
Not only had I never been, I'd never heard of the place. The students were more than happy to tell me all about it. Golden Rock, or Kyaiktiyo as it's officially called, is a sacred mountaintop boulder in eastern Myanmar. Thoroughly covered in gold leaf, it rests precariously at the edge of a cliff, looking as if it might tumble over the side of the mountain if given a good push. According to legend, a hair of the Buddha was placed in the small stupa that rests on top of the boulder, thus assuring its stability. For Buddhists, going to Golden Rock is the Myanmar equivalent of a Muslim making a trip to Mecca. Pilgrims from all over the country flock to the site to pray and make offerings.
The following year, after several aborted attempts, I finally visited Golden Rock. Getting to Kyaiktiyo was no easy task. From Yangon I took an old non-air-conditioned bus to Kinpun, a town located at the base of the mountain, and then boarded a large flatbed truck, packed with dozens of other passengers, for a back-wrenching roller-coaster-like ride up the mountain. Even after that tortuous ordeal was over, we still had not reached the summit. The final ascent required an exhausting walk up a steep trail, a workout that took me the better part of an hour.
Rather than stay at more affordable digs in Kinpun, I splurged for a room at one of the mountaintop hotels. Doing this enabled me to view both sunset and sunrise at Golden Rock, opportunities that wouldn't have been possible if I had to return before dark on the truck from hell.
After a late afternoon arrival, I checked into my hotel and was back outside ten minutes later, ready for what I thought would be a quick hike to the rock. I'm in very good physical shape for a middle-aged bookworm, but that "quick hike" more than humbled me. Even though it was a relatively cool December afternoon, I was sweating profusely after the first five minutes, and had to stop several times to catch my breath during the continuing ascent.
With each step that I took, I began to appreciate the importance of the pilgrimage to Kyaiktiyo. In addition to those I left in my wake as I marched up the mountain, I saw hundreds more making their way down. A few elderly and disabled pilgrims, not to be denied the opportunity to visit this holy site, had hired teams of porters to carry them on stretchers. But the most amazing thing I saw was an amputee on crutches making the climb without any assistance. I tried to fathom the effort and dedication that it must have taken for that man to painstakingly struggle up the steep incline by himself.
Despite the chilly temperatures, many locals were planning to camp out overnight at the top of the mountain. It was going to be a party, judging from the staggering amount of luggage they brought, all of it carried by porters, stacked in long wicker baskets that were strapped to their backs. Even with such heavy loads to shoulder, those porters made the climb up the mountain almost effortlessly. I tell you, it had all the makings of a new Olympic sport.
When I reached the top, crowds were milling about the spacious tiled terrace that leads to several observation points and the Golden Rock itself. A sign at the entrance declared: "Footwearing is Strictly Prohibited on the Precinct Onward." Going barefoot, however, required an observant eye. The betel nut spitters were out in force, making the floor look like a kindergarten art experiment gone awry.
I zigzagged around clusters of pilgrims until I found a set of stairs that led down to an observation platform adjacent to the sacred boulder. Several men and boys were huddled next to the Golden Rock, some touching it reverently and praying, while others affixed more gold leaf to the boulder's surface. Women were noticeable in their absence. Due to strict Buddhist protocol, females are not allowed to approach or touch the rock.
By nightfall, temperatures had dipped considerably, but the number of people arriving had grown, swelling to more than a thousand. Bundled in layers of warm clothing, the worshippers lighted incense and candles, made offerings of food, ate meals together, and snapped photos incessantly. I walked around, passing an occasional foreign tourist with a nod and a smile, and immersed myself in this peaceful gathering of kindred souls.
The serenity and feeling of community that pervaded the mountaintop on that cold December night warmed my own soul and lifted my spirits. Meanwhile, Golden Rock, now bathed in floodlights, with the nearly full moon providing a celestial halo, glowed radiantly in the background.
Getting to Golden Rock
There are no flights to Kyaiktiyo, but you can hire a car from either Yangon or Bago to take you there. From Yangon the trip takes four to five hours. From Bago the journey averages around three hours. There are also direct buses that go to Kinpun (the nearest town to Kyaiktiyo) from Yangon's Aung Mingalar Bus Terminal (Highway Terminal). From the base camp at Kinpun, most people pile into a flatbed truck for the final ascent to the top of the mountain. That ride can cost as little as 800 kyat per passenger, or 1,500 kyat for a front seat-if you're really brave!
The Golden Rock entrance fee for foreigners is $6. You only have to pay this price once. I was able to visit the mountaintop one afternoon and again the next morning using the same ticket.
Golden Rock Hotel
My single room was a bit overpriced by the country's standards, but that was due to the location near the top of the mountain. Staying there saved me time, along with wear and tear on my body, since I didn't have to endure the gut-wrenching truck ride up and down the mountain an additional time. The staff at the hotel was very friendly and the restaurant food was quite good. Depending upon the time of year, room rates are $38 to $46 (single) and $50 to $60 (double). Kyaiktiyo
(+95-1) 502-479 (Yangon office)
UMA Spoken English Class
This language school is on the second floor of a building on the right-hand side of a narrow street, just after you have turned off busy Mahabandoola Road. The students-and the teacher-will be ecstatic to have a foreign guest help them practice speaking English.
129 Seikkanthar St.
Sign of the times
On the bus journey to Kinpun, east of Bago, I looked out the window on the left side and noticed a distinctive shop sign: "Wuthering Heights Café." I wish I could have stopped for a cup of tea and found out who was running this intriguingly named place-out in the middle of nowhere. If you have a chance to stop and check it out, make sure to write about it and post your article on ThingsAsian.
To find out more about To Myanmar With Love, go to ThingsAsian Press.
To read more essays from To Myanmar With Love, click here.
Published on 2/6/09