Golden Rock n' (attempted) Roll

Trip Start Nov 06, 2012
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Trip End Feb 01, 2013


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Flag of Myanmar  ,
Wednesday, January 9, 2013

No visit to Myanmar would be complete without a visit to Mt. Kyaiktiyo, the Golden Rock, the country’s second most important pilgrimage site. It is essentially a large rock, balanced precariously on a cliff edge and, in true Myanmar style, covered in gold. 

En route, we stopped off at the Taukkyan War Cemetery, where over 6,000 Allied Soldiers are buried. The cemetery is very well maintained and, despite the booming voice coming from the speaker system of the temple over the road, is a very peaceful final resting place for the soldiers who died during the Burmese campaigns in the war.

We continued our journey towards the bling boulder, stopping to buy a big bag of “ice potato” following a recommendation from our guide that it was delicious.  It was not delicious - it tasted of the ground and got stuck in our teeth.  Still, you have to try these things, don’t you?!  A second culinary stop we made was at the village which provides all of the snake head fish, fresh and dried, to the restaurants in Myanmar.  There were thousands of the fish for sale from a number of stalls lining the main road.  On our return journey, in order to win favour with the women in his life, our guide stopped to buy a healthy supply of dried fish for his wife and mother-in-law: “they’ll love me for weeks for this!”.

On arrival at “base camp”, we transferred to a large truck, which had been fitted with rows of benches, each of which was to seat six people. There were numerous such trucks, which bombed up and down the mountain as and when they became full. No self-respecting driver would leave without a full load of fare-paying passengers. The sizing of the “six people” clearly wasn’t done on Western bums but, once we got going, it was definitely safer being packed in like sardines on one of the best (and most scenic) rollercoaster rides we’ve ever been on. We were bobbing up and down like the locals, trying not to crush them to death every time the driver took another corner at breakneck speed - insane not just for a truck, but a truck on a mountain road. About 45 minutes walk from the summit, we were let off the truck and, along with the pilgrims, continued our ascent by foot.

The Golden Rock is the centrepiece of quite an extensive complex, which includes a handful of hotels (foreigners are permitted to stay in only two of these), buddha images, rest houses for pilgrims, restaurants and an already well established “tourist-tat” market. To anyone who visits Myanmar in a few years from now and moans that tourism has “ruined the country”, we say to you now that there is already a plethora of tourist souvenir shops and “hello, water?” women. These have been here for years to cater to the domestic and, it seems, mainly Korean, tourist market - it definitely cannot be blamed on the West!

Women are not allowed to approach the rock so A and our guide crossed the small bridge over a chasm to apply gold leaf to the rock. Up close, it is incredible how this rock balances on the edge of the cliff. Our guide was keen to demonstrate that the rock wasn’t fixed down and offered to pay one of the locals a bribe to show A how much the rock moved with a bit of muscle power (it turns out he’s done this before and the rock wobbled). A was not keen on this and didn’t want to be blamed for having a role in destroying one of the holiest sites in Myanmar. This didn’t stop our guide from kicking it but, thankfully, alone he wasn’t powerful enough. The rock itself, both up close and from afar, was an incredible sight in the soft glow of sunset. It was also incredible to witness the faith of the pilgrims praying close to the rock and all over the complex. 

We really enjoyed chatting to our guide over dinner that evening and learnt a lot about traditional wedding ceremonies and his adoration for Kristen Stewart. Apparently the Twilight films are very popular here - especially with Myanmar men. That evening, we may have dropped a faux pas by asking if the TV show on in the bar was a karaoke competition. Turns out that the woman “singing” is Myanmar’s most popular female singer and that she was giving a special concert. Hmmmm. Special indeed!

It was cooler at the top of the mountain and our guide had been wrapped up in a fleece since about 4pm and by dinner was shivering. A remained in a T-shirt (V had succumbed to her fleece by this point). The choice of restaurant proved to be a mistake as, for the first time on this trip, the following morning, A was spectacularly ill and didn’t fully recover until after Bagan. He was a trooper and managed to survive the rollercoaster truck ride down the mountain. Our star of a guide, who seems to know just about everyone, managed to talk the driver into giving us the seats in the cab, which was a big help.

On the drive back to Yangon, we stopped off at the aptly named Snake Monastery to see a huge Burmese python, which is apparently the former head of a monastery reincarnated in the form of a snake. Whether or not this is true, the snake was indeed enormous and happy enough to receive offerings of money from the locals. The snake’s keeper and his family, including his two year old son, sleep in the same room as the snake. As docile as the snake appears, we can’t help wondering what if it wanted a midnight snack?

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