Kyaiktyo--the Golden Boulder on a cliffside

Trip Start Feb 29, 2004
Trip End Apr 12, 2005

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Flag of Myanmar  ,
Friday, April 30, 2004


On the Road
Hmmmm, it's good our visas are 4 weeks long because it's looking like half that time is going to be spent in transit on these appalling bloody roads! Unbelievable, they are. Even major 'highways', like the one between the capital Yangon and the second biggest ciy, Mandalay, are only one lane wide at some/most points. Trucks, busses, ox carts, bikes, peds, they all have to slow down, often stop, and squeeze by each other along the way. Oh, and that doesn't include stopping for whoever happens to be on the road flagging it down for a ride, either. It's funny that most of the 'luxury' A/C (HA!) busses have the word 'Express' in their names somewhere. Talk about blatant false advertizing...

So onward and southeast-ward we pressed on the bus to one of the holiest Buddhist sites in Myanmar, Kyaiktyo (pronounced something like 'CHAI-tee-oh'), where a huge golden boulder sits precariously on top of a wooded hillside, complete with gilded pagoda perched atop it with the all-obligatory hair relic entombed inside (this was a claim we were to see many times throughout Myanmar--how many hairs did Buddha have, anyway?!?!?).

We stayed in a guesthouse in Kinpun, a small village which seems to exist only to provide lodging, food and souvenirs for pilgrims (and tourists) who are on their way to or from the holy rock. AK-47's and rocket launchers made from bamboo seemed to be a favourite from the huge stockpiles in the little store stalls lining the village's main (dirt) street.

A small boy of maybe 6 or 7 approached us with a plate of bananas balanced on his head and a big smile spread across his face, which was also covered with tanakha, the pale yellow traditional face paint used all over Myanmar. "Hi there, friends, how 'bout some bananas? They're super, sure!" he spouted in perfect English. We laughed and asked where he had learned his English. "From tourists," he reported. His name was Coco (!!) and we found out later he is 12 years old. Oops. Time and time again, we'd try and judge the age of Myanmar's people, only to be wildly off. Young kids seemingly of 12 or so would turn out to be 20, and those who looked 35 might well be in their early 20's. We soon gave up trying to guess!

The next afternoon when we decided to go up to the rock was an interesting endeavor in itself. We thought it'd be a simple matter of taking a pick-up up the mountain as we'd been told by numerous people, easy as that. Hhhhmmmmmm...not quite. First, it started to rain, so we waited. The Banana Kids showed up and, sensing they had us cornered, convinced us to buy hats, a true fashion faux pas but it provided a lot of laughs for everyone, so money well spent. Eventually other people showed up and the pickup filled, nicely close but manageable. But still we didn't leave. Oh, God, no...not another mini-van episode of "Honey, get the crowbar, I think we can still fit a family of 5 in here somewhere...". Ohhh, yes. Small children were gathered up and put on parents' laps to make room for more. And then teens were scooped up onto parents' and grandparent's laps for more space. The Evil Overseer--er, I mean the truck guy--indicated that my diagonally-wedged legs were taking up the space where another body could feasibly be shoved in. I laughed and invited him to try, miming my loooooong legs and the fact that they couldn't actually fold up or be chopped off. That's one constant so far in Asia-never show you're angry or frustrated, always keep smiling as you barter or argue and you might have a chance. ..

He smiled back and made some indication towards the front of the pick-up. Daren and I looked at each other and smiled-"Yessss, we can sit up in the cab!!" we said gleefully to each other and clambered over several people to get out of the truck. Mistake. He actually had meant we could stand up just in back of the cab and pushed up in front of the first row of sitters, where we would be trying to hang onto the cab roof for dear life up the twisting and turning mountain road for 45 minutes. No way, bud. We pointed to the cab, which he smiled at and we thought we'd settled it. But he wanted an obscene amount of money, so we refused and turned back to take our original seats. Too late, a family of 20 or so had already mushed into our spots in the back.

We smiled and tried to convince him he was seriously jeopardizing his karma by being an asshole and screwing us over like this, and the people in the truck even seemed to be grumbling for our sake. I imagined them to be muttering, "That man is treating our country's guests like shit-he can't do that!! Oh, those poor two big white people...". In fact, I think they were probably saying "I HATE this goddamn truck and this evil bastard. Every year we come here to visit the holy rock we have to wedge in with 45 people into this bloody vehicle, even though it clearly says only 25 on that damn sign over there...Oh well, at least those two big, white foreigners aren't in here anymore-they each took up the space of 2 or 3 people!"

In the end, they actually somehow managed to put even MORE people into the first truck and then eventually left and we had to wait for another truck. It wasn't all that bad because 1)the new truck guy wasn't an evil bastard (or maybe the monks in this truck said something to them to the effect of 'Hey, treat these people a bit better, ok?'). and 2) we got some super-jumpy seats on the back of it (on a plank of wood) and had some real thrills and wooooohhoooooo moments going over bumps and around curves. We laughed til we almost cried with the other people in the back who were similarly whooping and giggling it up. I was still making scenes by making weird oooohh noises, but it only caused more laughter, so good enough.

The next cruel moment came when we were chucked out of the truck at the bottom of the huge hill just below the boulder. A sympathetic monk motioned for us to get back in if we were going up to the rock, but the pick-up people barred our way and indicated we had to walk up. We found out later that it was due to a foreigner (or several?) falling off the truck at some point and being either injured or killed. Oi, we were beginning to really resent this fucking rock.

But we were determined not to give in, so up we hiked. And hiked. And hiked. Oi, it was steep. And guys with litters kept offering to carry us up, of all things. For a mere $10, I think they finally offered, but we stood fast and kept plodding upwards, upwards, upwards. One hour or so we trudged (I'm pretty sure Lonely Planet fails to mention all this...), up switchbacks and grades that would surely be illegal in most countries. Through a final makeshift tunnel of bamboo and grass, filled with little tourist/pilgrim souvenir stalls selling all manner of weird and stinky stuff like dark, oily ointment dripping through dead animal parts and mysterious plants-you apparently rub it on your legs and it helps your legs to be strong enough to get to the top of the mountain. Sure...The boar heads, bear paws, bird bills and dead snakes provided some good photo opps at least. Every stall we passed seemed to produce several small children who would follow with outstretched hands saying, "Present??", a tactic we soon started to use ourselves on THEM! It caused either laughter or a very very confused look...

We went past some musicians in a little jam session and after I did a horrible little impromptu Irish jig as they clapped their hands, I was rewarded with laughter and--voila, a 'present' of a very small tanakha branch of my own! The earlier nastiness with the pick-ups vanished with the good cheer of these nice people.

In the end, we did make it to the top, just in time to pay our $6 (where is this money going?????) and get to the rock as the sun set, gorgeous...As Daren went into the Men Only section where he could actually get right next to and touch the rock (and put gold leaf on it if he was so inclined), I was literally grabbed by a Myanmar woman and dragged to a place where she and her friends could have a photo taken with me. What the??? Quite bizarre, but she fearlessly held my hand and pulled me close like we were best of friends. They were adamant that Daren take one of us with my camera and then a monk took another with their camera. Daren was the next victim/subject to pose with them and then they went on their way, smiling and laughing with their new souvenirs. Huh???? It was a day of knitting moments, for sure.

The next concern was getting down the mountain to the trucks before the light faded too much to see the road (we tried to look pathetic and hitch a ride with the trucks going down, but they still wouldn't pick us up). We hot-footed it past all the present kids, past the present-giving musicians, past the animal goo and finally the litter guys, only to find out we'd missed the last pick-up at 18:00. Shit, was this ever going to end??

To finish a long story, we had to pay 10,000 (bargained down from 16,000) to 'charter' a pick-up. Turns out it was going down the hill to the town anyway. Oi...

Lessons learned: NEVER leave your seat, don't bother to read max capacity signs and DO believe "Last bus/pick-up/boat at xx:00" signs... :)

Next, we go north...
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