Ernie goes to Kyaiktiyo (Dec 2016)

A Journey to Mon State

The golden light of the setting December sun flooded the hillsides of Mt. Kyaiktiyo, casting a warm glow over the crowds of pilgrims gathered around the gravity-defying Kyaiktiyo Pagoda. Balanced on a single strand of the Buddha’s hair, according to local legend, the pagoda, also known as Golden Rock, is the third most important pilgrimage site for Buddhists in Myanmar. For myself and my fellow interns at Mizzima, it represented an opportunity to get away from the dusty, congested streets of Yangon to the emerald highlands of Mon State, if only for a couple days.

Our journey began in the early morning at Yangon Central Railway Station, the downtown terminus for railway lines from all across the country. An Upper Class ticket from Yangon to Kyaiktiyo set us back 2400 kyat each, which got us padded seats and footrests for the nearly six-hour train ride. We sped through the small towns and green fields outside of Yangon and the neighbouring Bago Region, making a few prolonged stops along the way, before the distant hills of Mon State appeared on the horizon.

Hairpin Turns and Steep Inclines

Mon State lies between Bago Region to the north, Tanintharyi Region to the south, Kayin State to the east, and the Andaman Sea to the west. Named after the Mon, the predominant people group in the state and the founders of the earliest civilizations in Myanmar, the region was once dominated by large city-states that extended their influence across much of Upper and Lower Burma. The First Anglo-Burmese War in the early 19th century brought the region into the fold of the British Empire, where it remained until Burmese independence in 1948. Kyaiktiyo Pagoda is located at the northern tip of the state, close to the border with Bago Region.

Once at Kyaiktiyo, we piled into the back of a small truck for 500 kyat each and settled in for the ten-minute drive into the town of Kinpun, at the base of Mt. Kyaiktiyo. The town seems to serve no other purpose than to be a gathering point for travelers heading up to the summit, and we paid another 2000 kyat each to squeeze into a retrofitted dump truck with at least 40 other passengers. For the next 30 to 40 minutes, the crowded vehicle went full bore up the hill, deftly navigating the hairpin turns and steep inclines just feet away from dropping off into the forested ridges below.

There are limited hotel and guesthouse options at the top of the hill, and we ended up getting a single room for the five of us at the Kyaik Hto Hotel. The room was quite modest for the price we were paying, but it was only a 15-minute walk to the pagoda, and we split the cost five ways – just under 25,000 kyat each. We had to pay another 6,000 kyat for a foreigner’s entry pass, good for unlimited entry for the next two days.

Upon a Hermit’s Head

It was late afternoon by the time we began making our way towards the pagoda, joining the monks in their dark red robes, the porters carrying stretchers and woven baskets back and forth, the pilgrims of all ages, and the occasional tourist or two. Our path took us past the ramshackle stores and restaurants that lined the main thoroughfare, until we reached the main gate and a set of stone stairs, where we were instructed to remove our footwear.

A wide square opened up in front of us at the top of the staircase, humming with human activity. Snack vendors called out their wares as groups of pilgrims staked out valuable floor space and set up blankets and rugs for their overnight stay. Tour guides wended their way through the crowds, chattering away at their camera-wielding clients, while kneeling worshipers burnt incense and lit candles on a narrow shelf facing the pagoda.

The Kyaiktiyo Pagoda itself was a beautiful sight, the gold leaf-covered boulder gleaming in the rays of the setting sun. Kyaiktiyo is a Mon phrase meaning “pagoda upon a hermit’s head”, based on the legend of the pagoda’s origins. There was once a man, Taik Tha, a local hermit, who lived contemporaneously with the Buddha. Upon meeting the hermit, the Buddha decided to give him a strand of his hair. Taik Tha then gifted the strand of hair to a king, who agreed to keep the hair underneath a boulder shaped like the hermit’s head. The legend goes on to tell how such a boulder was found at the bottom of the sea and secured in its current position on Mt. Kyaiktiyo.

Sunset at the Golden Rock

A group of men stood on the shadowy ledge behind the pagoda that evening, touching the boulder and applying gold leaf and leaving small offerings. It should be noted that direct access to the pagoda is limited to men only, though the walkways around and beneath the boulder were filled with men and women meditating and chanting towards Golden Rock.

Su Swe Zin, a university student at the Yangon Institute of Economics, was one of the many devotees that made the journey with her family from Yangon to Kyaiktiyo Pagoda earlier that day. “My younger sister has a holiday today, so we decided to come,” she said, adding that this was her fourth visit to the pagoda.

The five of us lingered at the pagoda, taking photos and enjoying the cool mountain air until the sun had fully set behind the distant purple hills. Lamps at the base of the pagoda lit up the boulder in a blaze of artificial light, as pilgrims continued to pour into the square. In the semi-darkness, families and extended groups of travelers sat together and shared meals, while young couples held hands and took selfies in the moonlight.

Rose and Gold above the Dawna Hills

After a fitful night of sleep, the kind you get when you share two single beds with five people, we were back at the pagoda to watch the sunrise. It was a much different scene from the night before, as many of the pilgrims in the square had packed up and left in the early hours. After making a quick loop of the complex, we found a quiet platform away from the square, looking east towards the Dawna Hills. The morning sky was now filled with hues of rose and gold, and we watched as the sunlight slowly filled in the misty valleys below. When the sun had fully emerged from the edge of the world, we descended the mountain and began our journey back to Yangon.

Behind the Scenes

The above piece was originally written for Mizzima as a travel article, and they ran it under the headline Tourist pilgrimage – Escaping Yangon to visit mesmerizing Kyaiktiyo in their weekly publication (Mizzima Weekly – Issue 1, Vol. 6, 5 January 2017). They also put it up on their website here. My recollections of the trip as recounted in the article are mostly true, except for the fact that I was terribly ill for almost the entire time. My allergies kicked into high gear about 30 minutes into the train ride, and my nose ran like a faucet. The constant irritation and wind affected my eyes as well, and I was a pathetic, drippy mess by the time we pulled into the train station in Kyaiktiyo. I became slow and cumbersome in my impaired state, and this languid discomfort lasted for much of the next two days. On the way back to Yangon, I took the bus with another intern, instead of the slower train, and it was a miserable experience – eyes and nose running constantly, achy joints, a persistent headache, and wildly swinging body temperatures. The allergies persisted for another few weeks, at various points veering into cold and fever territory, and I can confidently say that Golden Rock broke me.

It is absolutely beautiful, though, like a dream, and I’d recommend it to anybody with an extra day or two, even if you have to bring a few extra tissues.

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