Last Sunday it took us 3 ½ hours by car to return from our two days’ excursion we organised with a friend to visit Golden Rock (or the Kyaiktiyo Pagoda) in Mon State. This place is an important pilgrimage site for Buddhist people. Another such significant place in Myanmar is Mount Popa, close to Bagan.
It is seven hours drive both ways from Yangon (you can rent a car with a driver, take the bus or the train) and it is true, as we already heard, the Golden Rock is actually not that impressive. It is a small pagoda situated on a granite round rock which is covered in gold leaves. The rock looks like it’s about to roll over the cliff’s edge. The legend says that a strand of hair from Buddha prevents the rock from falling down the Kyaiktiyo hill. There are many replicas of the rock and the pagoda on top of it around the area.
In the dry season I would hike the road up or down to the pagoda even if it takes approximately 5 hours. The scenery is beautiful and the site is at 1100 m altitude.
For us it was adventurous because of the rainy season. On Saturday, after leaving Yangon we opted for the shorter but slower national road (instead of taking the Naypyidaw highway) which took us through the city of Bago so we arrived late afternoon at our Golden Sunrise hotel in the village of Kinpun at the base of Mount Kyaiktiyo.
After a short walk to the centre of the village we returned to the hotel’s restaurant where we spent some hours having a nice dinner over some drinks.
Kinpun is a small village and it is quite poor. As the tourism is only incipient there is not much infrastructure. But everywhere, the villagers are building or renovating. For this reason it was really good that our hotel was situated outside the village and we enjoyed a quiet night and morning.
The main activity of the village is organising and driving trucks full with pilgrims and tourists up and down to Golden Rock. The pagoda is situated 45 minutes by truck from the village and one way ticket costs the same for locals and tourists: 2500 Kyats. The fee for locals is quite high as nobody seems to just walk up the hill, at least not in the rainy season. And they do not allow other cars to use the road. The road is good, in cement, but very often steep. The whole process of driving the people is very well organised: the trucks do not leave unless full with 45 people. This means on each row 6 persons.
Well, it seems on the way up they were not so strict and allowed us to sit only 5 instead of 6 people of our row which was quite comfortable given the narrow piece of wood which luckily has some padding on it. On the way back we had to wait some good minutes for others to fill in the empty seats. Now, if you have to sit on a row with other Westerners it can get quite uncomfortable as we are not at all the “petite” size of the locals. And, of course, it rained. Not a lot and sometime we had a bit of sun but it was enough to cover ourselves in colourful rain coats. It was fun, the air was fresh and the hills green with clouds resting on some slopes. The truck stops twice for the people to be counted to make sure nobody was picked up on the road without paying.
Once up you only have a short walk to the entrance of the pagoda. The tourists have to pay an entrance fee of 6000 Kyats. There are some works in the compound of the pagoda and the first thing we observed climbing the stairs to the main platform were young locals, men and women carrying on their back and head construction materials like cement or bricks. They seemed in a rush probably being paid on the quantity they bring up. The heavy bags of cement were carried on the back and tide up on the men’s foreheads. You do feel very sad as you look at their small frame and you are wondering how it is possible to carry the heavy bags on steps and quite a slippery path to the pagoda.
The rain did not stop by the time we reached the Golden Rock and my camera was quite wet but I could not leave without a picture of the famous rock.
Even if it is the low season we could see many pilgrims and some tourists. We stopped to have a tea on the way down to the truck. At the entrance of the pagoda you have one hotel. You can even choose to stay up on the mountain and have your things carried up by porters. This activity seems also very well organised: already at the arrival of the trucks you have porters waiting to load different things for the people living there or for the market they have. They carry huge amounts and I was again struck by their strength. And then you have the porters carrying up to the pagoda old or weak people on stretchers.
The drive down the hill was more dangerous than going up. We did not have the seats in the first row which are the best so we were carried from left to right or pushed in the front row with every move of the truck.
After lunch we left Kyaiktiyo village and started our trip back home. But we stopped several times before entering the highway to Yangon to buy green grapefruits (the area has grapefruits and rubber plantations), charcoal for the grill and we walked on a bamboo bridge and admired the very long bamboo load one local was tugging behind his boat.
On the highway which has two lanes on each dirrection you have people walking, goats passing but in general it is a decent stretch of highway on which you can speed your car and forget the frustration of the slow driving in Yangon.
It was a very welcome trip and it was beautiful to leave behind us the rice fields and watch the green hills appearing on the horizon.