FolkestoneJack's Tracks

The golden rock

Posted in Kyaiktiyo, Myanmar by folkestonejack on January 14, 2017

Amongst Myanmar’s many remarkable pagodas, the pagoda at Mount Kyaiktiyo stands out as one of the most unusual. This 24 foot pagoda sits atop a golden rock which in turn is perched on a bolder at the peak of the mountain. The rock is said to be balanced on a single strand of the Buddha’s hair, though it can’t be that precarious to withstand the many pilgrims crossing the bridge to plaster on yet more gold leaf!

The golden rock

The golden rock

A visit to the golden rock is as much about the experience of the journey as the destination. Our tour bus had delivered us to the basecamp at Kinpun where we transferred to an open truck (un-reassuringly a sign hanging from the roof of the truck station revealed that the 2,000 kyat fare included life insurance!). For most locals this means being crammed into trucks that hold about 60 passengers (roughly 6-8 passengers per row, tightly packed on narrow benches). However, our group were lucky enough to get a truck to ourselves with the luxury of space.

I was surprised to find that the crazy, rough and fast ride up the mountain road didn’t induce my fear of heights in the way that the drive to the Eagle’s Nest had last year. I was certainly aware of the nasty hairpin turns and steep inclines, but maybe I wasn’t looking hard enough for the sheer drops along the way! Having said that, I was worried that the downward leg would be rather more exciting than the outward journey.

Fares include life insurance

Truck fares include life insurance

On reaching the truck stop at the top of the mountain we clambered out, paid our foreigner entrance fees and walked the short distance to our hotel for the night – Kyaik Hto Hotel. Aptly described as a so-so hotel by our tour leader the Kyaik Hto offered basic rooms in chalet style terracing on the mountainside. Comfortable enough for a night’s stay, though the thin walls and late night karaoke would later contribute to a challenging night of sleep.

The hotel is located directly off the main route up to the holy site, with a constant stream of pilgrims, monks and basket carriers passing at all hours of the day. The route here is also lined with tourist shops offering a variety of souvenirs, including mini golden rocks by the hundred.

At the entrance a small set of battered metal lockers offered space for western tourists to store their footwear, though I’d taken note of the suggestion to carry a shopping bag ready for this purpose. Indeed, I had half expected to see the incongruous sight of bags advertising other UK supermarkets on my wanders inside but no-one else seemed to have done this.

The Kyaik Hto Hotel

The Kyaik Hto Hotel

As our stay coincided with the weekend, holiday and full moon many more pilgrims than usual were making their way past the chinthe guardians and into holy grounds. Everywhere you looked, be it on the terraces, on the main square or in the unlikeliest corners families were settling down with makeshift beds for their night on the mountain top (something foreigners are forbidden from doing). Basically, any space that could be used for sleeping was filled – sometimes just leaving a narrow pathway to thread your way through.

There must have been a few thousand pilgrims and only a relatively small number of western tourists amongst them (I counted no more than 20 besides ourselves over the course of the evening). In our obsession with the impact of the tourist invasion of Myanmar it is easy to forget that the changes here have also opened up the country to its own people. More Burmese nationals are travelling around their own country than ever before, especially to holy sites like this.

Improvised tents on the mountain top

Improvised tents on the mountain top

Nevertheless, the number of foreign visitors is steadily increasing. In 2012 there were just 60,000 foreign visitors to the golden rock, but by 2014 that had doubled to 120,000. Although the final total for 2016 is not yet in it seems likely that it will have increased by a significant margin again (the total for the first half of the year is 70,459). To put this into context, the pagoda sees around 2 million visitors every year, whether local or international.

Our walk up the mountain pathway led us to the crowded upper terrace around the golden rock. There were other smaller temples, columns and shrines around the complex but the golden rock is the main focus. It was fascinating to watch pilgrims passing through an airport-style security gate and then cross the small bridge to paste on their patches of gold leaf to the rock. The sight only became more beautiful as the sun set with the added dimension of the hundreds of candles that had been lit on the lower terrace below.

After a short night of sleep I rose early and headed back to the rock at 5am. I was really surprised to see that most folk were already on the move and were not waiting for the sunrise. I’d really expected to still see everyone wrapped up the mountain top, fast asleep, but instead I found myself in the middle of the rush hour! The sunrise gave the rock a lovely glow but overall I think the spectacle was much better at sunset.

Time for a hair-raising truck ride down the mountain

Time for a hair-raising truck ride down the mountain

We set out from the hotel for our journey down the mountain at 8am. The tourist police helped us get an empty truck for our group which seemed to be given priority at the various checks along the route. It was quite apparent that there was a substantial queue of trucks waiting their turn to run in convoy down the mountain. Only a few of the trucks coming up were filled.

The extreme steepness at the top of the mountain was more apparent on the way down by truck and I was very thankful for their good brakes. Soon the excitement was at an end and we returned to the relative calm of our tour bus for the drive south to re-join the rest of our group.

Although it was not immediately apparent to us, changes have been slowly altering the golden rock experience for many years. Our tour guide said that when he first visited in his youth the mountain top had been sandy, making it a necessity to hire mats, but now the mountain top is entirely paved. However, much more substantial change is coming – a cable car system is being built here at a cost of $20 million US dollars and a number of large resort complexes are under construction around the mountain.

Work on the cable-car system is underway at Mount Kyaiktiyo

Work on the cable-car system is underway at Mount Kyaiktiyo

At the moment the most obvious signs of the contruction were the extensive base for the main station, the substantial supports for the columns up the mountain and the concrete columns for the mountain top station. Once complete, Sky Asia will operate 43 cable cars on the route carrying 8 passengers apiece for the expected 10 minute journey. Early reports suggested a March 2017 opening date but that didn’t seem very likely from what we could see.

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