Tuk-tuks, trucks and buses take us to a Buddhist place of pilgrimage
05.08.2011 - 05.08.2011 28 °C
Bago to Mt. Kyaiktiyo, Myanmar
Leaving our Bago hotel early we checked out and waved down a passing tuk-tuk ride heading to the bus station. Confirming suspicions from the previous day our ‘bus tickets’ with assigned seats merely ensured that the agent we had purchased them from would ensure we boarded the next private bus bound for Kyaiktiyo. With the Agent paying a significantly lower fare for our passage, we were on our way. We had overpaid for our ticket to Mt Kyaiktiyo or the ‘Golden Rock’ by out five dollars. Lesson learnt. No real harm done!
Riding the bus to Kyaiktiyo we were soon passing the now typical rice fields and stilted bamboo houses. To our western eyes the scenery was both fascinating and alien, yet, as the only westerners on the bus we were the only passengers that paid any attention to what lay outside. The majority asleep or watching the Myanmar version of a comedy show – Chaplin style visual humor studiously avoiding the remotest reference to politics, religion or sex. Nothing here that could insight the population…well unless they wanted to watch something that was actually funny!
Arriving in Kyaikhto after a few hours on the bus we were immediately assaulted by groups of taxi scooter drivers wanting to take us the ’20 kilometers’ to Kinprun. From Kinprun trucks would take us towards our final goal. As the only reason a traveler might alight in Kyaikhto it was obvious where we wanted to go. Yet the pushy sales technique, stretching of the truth regards the distance to Kinprun and my absolute intent of avoiding scooter rides (one of the most dangerous forms of transportation in SE Asia) we left the taxis behind to various cries and went in search of the pickup trucks that we knew ran the actual eight kilometer trip to Kinprun. Fortunate, as is often the case, a young boy who was touting bus tickets and accommodation showed us the narrow alley, that crossed the railway tracks, that we had to follow to the pickups. Grateful, for his assistance we were soon in the back of a large pickup, on wooden boards, bouncing towards Kinprun.
From Kinprun large Chinese Hino and Japanese Nissan trucks would take us to within an hours walk of the Golden Rock and summit of Mt. Kyaiktiyo. As with much of the transportation in Myanmar these ran to no schedule. When the eight, thin, wooden boards in the back of the truck where full, with roughly, 45 passengers we would leave. For over an hour we waited for our truck to fill. Whilst waiting a veritable conveyor belt of food sellers offered their wares. Soft tapioca pudding, sweet rice cakes and hot corn on the cob were amongst some of the more identifiable culinary delights on offer.
Finally, we were ready to leave just as the afternoon monsoon began. Missing from our truck, of course, was a roof. Whilst we had been undercover waiting for passengers as we left the comforts of the village we were soon getting rained upon. Our stuttering start did not help. Advancing some 30 feet, just sufficient to exit the dry safety of a stationary roof we collected more passengers. Two minutes later we stopped to purchase gasoline, bought in a small plastic container and poured into the gas tank via a primitive stand and piece of cloth to act as filter.
After our generous soaking we were soon heading into the mountains. Strangely, before departing we had failed to notice that our driver was the Myanmar equivalent of Nigel Mansell. Every corner on the switchback road was entered and exited as fast as possible. Every straight length of road, no matter how long, gave opportunity to accelerate as hard as possible. With the rain still falling the effect for those perched on a thin four inch plank of wood in the rear of the truck was a fusion of Disney rollercoaster and water boarding. As the rain continued to penetrate through our failing rain capes we tried, invariably in vain, to maintain our upright position and ignore the jungle draped, roadside drops that populated the majority of our journey. With a number of locals show clear, physical signs of motion sickness we eventually reached the truck station, happy to walk the remaining hour to the top of the mountain.
Alighting from the truck the mist that had enveloped us at the base of the mountain provided little opportunity to view our new surroundings. Bamboo huts and thick tropical jungle were just visible on the periphery of our visibility. So too a steep, wide concrete road that would be our path to the summit. As rainwater cascaded down the road I resolved to walking barefoot, my flip flops offering no grip on the wet road. As we walked shuttered huts confirmed that few tourists would be passing this way during the monsoon season. For us we yet again felt like virgin travelers pushing the boundaries of western exploration, visiting areas seldom seen by our non-understanding eyes. Yet this sacred Buddhist site is, during the November-March pilgrimage season, flooded by the faithful charging the region with magic and devotion.
Declining the offers of a sedan ride to the summit we continued apace and were soon at our hotel, perched high on the summit. Oversight on our part and failure to listen to our requests by our tour agent in Yangon had seen us booked into a government hotel. The first time I have stayed in a government hotel and not something I hope to repeat – purely from a desire not to provide any unnecessary funds to an insidious regime that treats the citizens of Myanmar in such an odious manner.
With rain and humidity drying ourselves, at the hotel, was challenging. So with daylight still available we set out for the final assault on the mountains summit, still wet from our journey. A brief walk past shrines and temples led to the Golden Rock itself. For there, floating high above the coastal plains, with wisps of cloud rushing past, almost within touching distance of the heavens is the prayer and wish drenched balanced boulder stupa of Kyaiktiyo. Rivaling the wonders of the Shwedagon Paya or the breathtaking beauty of Bagan it felt only proper that like any proper pilgrimage our journey to the summit should have involved a certain amount of hardship.
Legend states that the boulder maintains its precarious balance due to a precisely placed Buddha hair in the stupa. During dryer months pilgrim chants, candles and meditation continue day and night, yet, for us the boulder was deserted. Few hardy souls were making their pilgrimage today. Returning to the hotel we secured a surprisingly good supper as the wind continued to howl and the rain fell – it was forecast to continue on the mountain for the next 10 days.
Leaving supper we made one of our better decisions and returned to the golden boulder to experience this scared sight at night. With a slight break in the rain but the wind still whipping the clouds over the rock in dramatic style we made our way back to the overlook. Clearly on pilgrimage two Buddhist monks soon reversed the typical conversation exchange, in this scenario, asking to have their pictures taken with up. With good English we were able to spend some time afterwards understanding their pilgrimage. Travelling from Yangon, sleeping on the floor of the monastery, rising at 6am their trip to the rock was both spiritual and exciting for them. The opportunity afforded of speaking to westerners and being able to introduce us to their family was clearly also a novelty. After talking at length about Myanmar, England and of course football (slightly surreal!) we exchanged email addresses and goodbyes. A great experience and worth our toil to reach the summit of Mt. Kyaiktiyo.