Our final stop before returning to Yangon was one of the most holy sites in all of Myanmar: the magical and majestic Golden Rock, or Kyaiktiyo (pronounced something like “Chai-tea-oh” in Burmese).
This significant Buddhist pilgrimage site is focused on a massive, holy, golden boulder perched precariously on the edge of a mountain and topped with a stupa. Devotees believe is the rock floats just above the ground against a backdrop of breathtaking nature, balanced on a single hair from the original Buddha. The complex is accessible only by foot and apparently can only be reached during the dry season. (More info if you’re interested)
The place sounded spectacular and fascinating. We really wanted to see it but were rapidly running out of time before our flight, so we decided to travel American style, doing a whole lot of traveling for a short stay. 😉
We got up early at Inle Lake and got a cab to the Heho airport – about an hour’s drive. A slightly longer flight took us to Yangon, where we caught another cab to the bus depot. We got slightly hustled at the station – we paid for what we thought was the first class bus direct to Kinmun, the small town that serves as a base camp for the site. We ended up on a “local” bus that made a ton of stops and dropped us off at the town on its route that was a bit further from Kyaiktiyo. To get to Kinmun, we took motorbike cabs – our packs wedged in front of the driver while we sat on back and could enjoy the gorgeous scenery and late afternoon sun as we made our way over the curving roads. It was unexpected but the nicest part of the journey.
We sorted out a hotel and transport back to Yangon for the next day. The last bus left at 2 in the afternoon, so if we got up at a decent hour we could make it up the mountain for an hour or two visit to the Golden Rock and still be back in time.
There are two ways to make it up the mountain. Ambitious people with more time than we had can walk one or both of the ways along mountain paths. For us, it was the more standard method. Good sized flat bed trucks, kitted out with tremendously narrow wooden benches in the back, regularly transport visitors from Kinmun to the highest vehicle-accessible point on the mountain. From there, it’s about a 45 minute walk the rest of the way along a steep, twisting, shop-laden road to the entrance of the complex.
The trucks start running around 6 a.m. We didn’t quite make it on the first departure, but it was still pretty early and a morning chill hung in the air when we climbed from the concrete platform into the still relatively empty bed of the truck. The drivers don’t leave until they’ve packed as many people as physically possible into the back, so we ended up sitting around for about 45 minutes until the rows of passengers began to resemble a can of sardines.
We were really astounded how many people they managed to squeeze into the space. They may do this for financial reasons, but it could also be a safety measure. The ride up and down the mountain is like a roller coaster without the safety bar and being packed in so tightly may prevent passengers from flying out over the edge! We happened to be at the front both times, so could brace ourselves against the wall in front of us; even so I came out of the ride with some black and blue marks, and I don’t know what folks in the middle of the truck did to stop from bashing into each other on some of the more dramatic hairpin turns! 🙂
After the wild and wonderful ride up, we began the walk to Kyaiktiyo. It’s not too long, but it is pretty steep, so I paced myself and enjoyed the amazing views over the valley and some nice people watching while Roman powered ahead. We met up at the entrance and had our first view of the floating Golden Rock together.
I have to say, it IS pretty darn spectacular. 🙂 The giant boulder has been completely covered in gold and was lit up by the morning sun as we approached it. It looks like someone has gone and carved away the earth beneath it; how it may have come to be sitting so perfectly on the edge of a mountain defies easy explanation. I couldn’t get up close – only men are allowed direct access, but even from a distance, it is impressive!
Like at all other buddhist sites we’d visited so far, the vibe was peaceful while still being lively. There was a good number of pilgrims and monks wandering around, chatting with friends, sitting in prayer and making offerings, but it didn’t feel crowded at all. The air up there is crisp and clean and full of cheeky swallows winging wildly about – it actually made me a bit homesick for Switzerland (in a nice way 🙂 )
After we’d gotten our fill of all the gorgeous sights, it was time to head back down the mountain. Another looooong wait till the truck was filled meant that we made it to town just in time to grab our things, check out and hop on the bus to back to Yangon.
Pilgrims arriving at the truck station in the morning
A first view of the Golden Rock
Male pilgrims affixing gold leaf to the rock
A Buddhist nun lighting a candle in offering
Applying gold leaf
The view from the mountain
If you didn’t feel like walking the last 45 minutes to the complex, it was possible to be carried up! Can’t believe people actually do this, but this guy seemed to really get into the part. 🙂
Stopping for some fresh coconut on the way back down – unfortunately I think I got a tainted coconut because I got sick soon after.
Burmese soda on sale at one of the small road-side shops
Pilgrims piling into the truck
On the way down we shared the front bench with a group of very sweet older women all dressed in matching traditional garb. This is them, holding on for dear life on the truck ride down the mountain. It was risky letting go to take the photo but I’m glad I did. 🙂