On the pilgrim trail to the Golden Rock

Thursday, December 08, 2011
Kyaiktiyo, Bago, Myanmar
We were collected by Mr Win and Mr Sai again on Thursday morning to head out of Yangon and travel east to the Golden Rock at Kyaiktiyo.

We had to take a roundabout route to get out of the city as one of Buddha’s teeth had been brought to Myanmar on loan from the Chinese, as a goodwill gesture . The tooth was today being flown to Mandalay and so the airport road was closed for the procession. Soon though we appeared to be out in the countryside despite our guide’s insistence that we were still in Yangon. Their idea of suburbs is very different from ours!

The roads are generally very good and once out of Yangon the traffic was light. The standard of driving is high although slightly unconventional as most vehicles are still right hand drive despite the military government instigating a change from driving on the left to driving on the right as long ago as 1970.

Our first visit of the day was to Taukkyan War Cemetery where 6374 allied soldiers from the Burma and Assam campaigns of the second world war are laid to rest. Columns are engraved with the names of 27,000 more soldiers who died with no known grave. It was very sad to read the names of so many young British boys who perished so far away from their homes and families .

After a couple of hours’ drive through flat and fairly uninteresting terrain we reached the town of Bago. Here we stopped to see four giant sitting Buddhas and the huge golden Shwemawdaw Pagoda which is actually taller than the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon we had seen the day before. We also visited a shrine to Bago’s Nats. These are spirits, still worshipped as they have been for many centuries here. Mr Sai was hoping that there would be some music and priests present but that wasn’t to be, and so as a consolation he took us to a snake monastery where we were able to peer into a room to see an enormous boa constrictor. This is said to be 115 years old and the reincarnation of a famous monk.

For lunch we were taken to a tourist restaurant where we joined a few other small tour groups. I decided to give the Myanmar soup a try. Everybody else had finished eating before my soup turned up and I was not particularly taken with it . Still it had to be tried. We haven’t as yet found any local food to get excited about.

We travelled through rubber plantations in the afternoon and as the terrain became more undulating passed many fruit farms. Mountains appeared on the horizon and before long we had reached the town of Kyaiktiyo. We were to be staying with pilgrims on the top of the mountain tonight and Mr Sai, already aware of our penchant for beer, suggested we might want stop in the town to buy some to take up the mountain. We had packed small overnight bags and at about 4.00pm the driver dropped us off at the bottom of the mountain. Here we were to board a truck for a 45 minute drive up the mountain. We should then have an hour’s climb to the top.

Mr Sai was coming with us. The trucks only left when they were full. There was one there that already looked overloaded. We were assured that they could squeeze us on. The alternative might be to wait another 30 minutes and so we climbed aboard . Narrow boards spanning the width of the truck provided seating for 42 people, 6 on each row. It was a very tight fit. Mr Sai had to stand and I had my knees dug into the back of a fat monk sitting in front of me. As the truck started up and lurched forward there were screams as everyone grabbed hold of someone close by to prevent been thrown off. What a journey it was! They call it a rollercoaster and that’s a fair description. We hurtled around corners and flew into the air as we hit rises, before climbing at speed around hairpin bends. All you could hear was groans all around. It was so uncomfortable. For some strange reason foreigners cannot travel all the way to the top on the trucks. I was so thankful for this rule which meant that we were able to get off at the half way mark, battered, bruised and legs shaking.

Then we started the climb. This was very steep. We were told it would take an hour but it took us quite a bit longer than that. It was quite pleasant though as we were walking past little eating places, souvenir stalls and stalls selling weird and wonderful herbal remedies. Porters were on hand to carry luggage if necessary and you could also be carried up by sedan chair. We watched large groups of Japanese tourists and Thai tourists being carried up. It required tremendous strength on behalf of the bearers as the gradient was so steep. They all had to stop for rests from time to time but with some particularly large tourists they had to make several stops . We chose to walk and carry our own bags. (Mr Sai helped by carrying the beer. What a good guide!)

We were staying at the “Mountain Top Hotel” and dropped our bags off and hurried to the Golden Rock as the last rays of sun hit it. We had to buy special permits and join the pilgrims as we approached the holy rock which is perched precariously on top of another rock. Beneath it is a sheer drop. It is covered in gold leaf and particularly spectacular when illuminated at night.

At a height of 3600 feet it felt a little cooler here and many of the pilgrims, who would be sleeping under the stars, were kitted out with scarves and woolly hats. A small town, catering for all the visitors, spread along the mountain top and Mr Sai joined us to eat at a simple restaurant later. We had a good chat with him and learnt a little of his life as a tour guide including a very scary experience he had in 2009. He became acquainted with an American tourist who had started to attend the same bible group as Mr Sai . The man subsequently made world news by swimming across the lake to Aung San Suu Kyi’s house. Because of his acquaintance with him, Mr Sai was held and interrogated by the security forces for 30 hours. He also lost his job.

Our hotel, built onto the rock face, was of a higher standard then we had expected and we had a comfortable night From our windows we had a magnificent view of the surrounding peaks and rose early to see the sunrise. After a poor breakfast we started our descent.

The road seemed even steeper on the way down. Some tourists were taking the sedan chair option to get down and their bearers had to be really surefooted not to slip in their rubber flip flops. We sauntered past all the souvenir shops and eventually reached the truck stop. There we boarded a truck and waited for it to fill up. This took another 30 minutes. Then we had to wait another 20 minutes for the ascending trucks to arrive before we set off once again to suffer the agony of the rollercoaster ride. It didn’t seem quite so bad this time, maybe as we knew what to expect.

The comfy seats of our minivan, which was waiting for us at the bottom, felt heavenly. It had been a really good trip, one which not too many tourists have the opportunity to take. We were really glad to have had the experience but once was probably enough!

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