One of the more magnificent but least visited sites in Myanmar is Kyaiktiyo, more commonly known as Golden Rock. Actually, I should amend that “least visited” part; not many foreign tourists make the trek to Golden Rock, but hundreds of thousands of Myanmar natives do in fact make the pilgrimage every year.
One of the factors that limit the number of foreign tourists is that getting to Kyaiktiyo is not the easiest of journeys. But the difficulties and lack of comfort only make it a more memorable adventure. Or at least that’s one of looking at it. Kyaiktiyo isn’t near any airports so you have to either rent a car and driver (note: the car may not have working AC and the driver will probably be chewing — and spitting — betel nut the whole way), or endure a cramped bus ride to get there. For my trip to the rock I opted for a bus from Yangon’s Aung Mingalar bus station to Kinpun, which is the closest town to Kyaiktiyo. The entire journey lasted about five hours, and wasn’t nearly as miserable as I had expected. Then again, I wasn’t expecting much in the way of a luxury ride, and the lack of AC or onboard porta-potties certainly didn’t bother me. The scenery was nice and the people on the bus were very friendly. The coolest thing I saw during the ride was a little teashop at the side of the road in one rural town we passed. It wasn’t the shop itself, but the sign that caught my eye: The Wuthering Heights Café. There MUST be an interesting story behind that establishment. Too bad I couldn’t have hopped off the bus for a quick tea break there.
The bus trip ends upon arrival in Kinpun, but you still have a way to go before actually reaching Golden Rock. In Kinpun you have to board a flatbed truck for the ride to the top of the mountain. The truck is uncomfortably packed — asshole to elbow, as the Tom Jans song says — with passengers. And because of the narrow rows, any large Westerners like me will find themselves not only with their elbows touching someone else’s body parts, but their knees touching their chin. No leg room on this rig. But then the real torture starts: the truck makes the ascent up the mountain with alarming speed. At some points, when rounding curves, I was certain that two of the wheels were not touching the ground. With each precarious twist and turn on the road the passengers would scream. Whether those shouts indicated glee or fear is uncertain, but I was certainly feeling very nervous. Imagine an incredibly scary rollercoaster ride. This was worse.
Once the truck reaches the top and everyone gratefully disembarks, you still aren’t at your destination. For the final leg of the ascent you must walk, and that requires a hike that takes the better part of an hour. Or you can pay a team of porters to carry you to the top on a stretcher. Really. I saw a few people taking advantage of that “quaint” service. I assume that they had some sort of physical handicap that prevented them from walking, but you never know. But I also saw an amputee on crutches slowing making the climb unassisted, an inspiring sight if I ever saw one.
Once you get to the top — and have caught your breath — and gaze upon the actual rock, it’s a pretty impressive sight. Walk up for a closer look, and it’s even more amazing; the rock teetering there on the edge of the cliff, looking as if it would fall off if you gave it the slightest shove. Many men and boys were scattered around the sacred orb, applying gold leaf to the surface of the rock. Women, however, were noticeably absent. And that’s because they are not allowed to touch the rock, or even approach it too closely, due to some sort of preposterous Buddhist regulation.
The best times to see Golden Rock are at sunset and sunrise. But if you want to be there during those periods, you must stay at one of the overpriced hotels near the top. That’s because the truck from hell stops making its runs before sunset and doesn’t start up in the morning until after sunrise. The hotels take advantage of this situation and over-charge for their rooms, but in the grand scheme of things it’s a small price to pay for the magnificence of Golden Rock at night, all lit up and glowing like an enormous lumpy grapefruit. The native tourists who come to visit Golden Rock are allowed to stay overnight and camp out at the top. And let me tell you, it’s like a big party there at night, a festive atmosphere overwhelming the entire terrace. Incense and candles are being lit, offerings of food and fruit are spread out in front of shrines, people are sharing meals together, and groups of friends and families gather in front of the rock to take photos. Lots of smiles and a feel-good vibe all around. Let it glow!