Squeezed in like tiny sardines in a tin can, knees tightly pressed against the bench in front of us, we braced ourselves for the ride up to Mount Kyaikhtiyo. The driver started the roaring motor and the open-air truck jutted forward, creaking and cracking up the steep mountain with its load of passengers swaying back and forth and sideways to the rhythm of its rumbling.
High-pitched squeals could be heard; and while some held their kitschy hats, I held my breath and laughed nervously. I wasn’t totally convinced the large-threaded wheels were strong enough to bring us to the top or if their robustness were but a facade to ease our fear.
Price of truck ride: 2000 kyats/person each way
The road only wide enough for one truck to pass at a time was extremely precipitous with a series of sharp hairpin curves all the way up causing the able driver to hit the breaks swiftly – turn, break, turn, break – with a jerking motion. The monster truck went onward, slowly and cautiously, grunting and puffing, making its effort be known until we arrived safely at our destination – a flat parking lot where we all hastily got out. The ride up was only about 1.5 kilometers and took no more than half an hour but it felt like we had been put through the ringer for a much longer period of time.
And thus began our visit to the sacred Golden Rock of Mount Kyaikhtiyo.
Once we found a good Samaritan in the form of a young Burmese girl willing to keep our backpacks in her family’s shop, we headed to the office to pay the entrance fee. I found the price for foreigners of 6000 kyats to be as steep as the ride up but we had no choice if we wanted to lay our eyes on one of Myanmar’s most sacred monuments. As is customary at sacred sites, we were obliged to remove our shoes and I, being a woman, had to keep my knees and shoulders covered (although I think this also applied to men).
We followed the direction of the crowd and came upon a precariously perched rock covered in gold sheets seemingly defying gravity but this wasn’t the sacred Golden Rock we had come to see – it was a smaller, less venerated (if at all) version.
Further down, I was surprised to see that the famous Golden Rock was part of a huge complex all nicely tiled (in marble?) like the reception of a luxury hotel; I expected it to be a sole attraction amidst the forest high atop Mount Kyaikhtiyo. Thousands of Buddhist pilgrims coming from all corners of Myanmar make their way to the sacred Golden Rock covered in several layers of sheets of gold leaves. It’s believed that the two boulders are held together by a single strand of Buddha’s hair keeping them from toppling over. After inspecting (with a dash of skepticism) every precarious angle and seeing that it has stood the test of time through harsh natural elements, maybe that was the only plausible explanation. Maybe.
Only men are allowed to enter the sacred sanctuary surrounding the Golden Rock and, in turn, only men are allowed to apply sheets of gold leaves on the sacred rock. The closest I was able to get to the rock was at the small gated entrance where I was stopped by one of the vigilant guards (though I wouldn’t dare be disrespectful by forcibly entering the premises). At the top of the sacred rock sits a small pagoda equally covered in gold, both shimmering in the sunlight.
Many of the pilgrims and monks sat on the immaculately clean tile floor enjoying a meal. They gathered around to chat sharing laughs and possibly a bit of gossip. We learned that many of them actually slept there (sometimes for days) before taking the long, long journey back to their homes.
The complex (as I like to call it) also consisted of a bunch of stalls lining a small staircase at the other end. Vendors selling heaps of paraphernalia, toys (wooden guns?!), voodoo artifacts (buffalo testicles?!), clothes and cheap souvenirs congested the narrow stairs beckoning visitors to spend their kyats. I was stunned by all the junk being sold and found this over-commercialization of a sacred site a little disconcerting.
In my mind, Myanmar is known as one of the most devoted Buddhist countries in Southeast Asia and all that commercialization seemed to contradict one of the most basic Buddhist teachings: detaching oneself from material possessions. But I learned that that only applies to those who took monastic vows and not to commoners. That explained why there was so much commercial activity going on!
The Golden Rock itself was somewhat impressive but, unfortunately, with the site being overrun by shops selling just about anything, I found it made it less authentic on a spiritual level and, in my eyes, greatly diminished its sanctitude. I certainly don’t mean to ridicule or minimize the Burmese’s love and devotion for all things religious; after having traveled for almost a month in Myanmar, I can attest to their unwavering loyalty but from an outsider’s point of view, it all seemed way too commercialized.
HOW TO GET TO MOUNT KYAIKHTIYO BY BUS
Not wanting to spend more time than needed, we decided to only make a pit stop at the Golden Rock on our way from Hpa-An to Yangon. We bought our tickets at a bus stand in Hpa-An thinking we would stay on the same bus the whole time. In reality, we never stepped foot on a bus but instead took 5 (!!!) different pick-up trucks (the most common local transportation). After about 4 hours of bumpy rides, we were finally dropped off in Kyaik Hto – not to be confused with Mount Kyaikhtiyo. There are daily buses from Yangon, Mawlamyine and Hpa-An all taking about 4-5 hours to reach Kinpun or Kyaik Hto.
Kyaik Hto is where most buses/trucks will stop; others will bring you to Kinpun directly, the town at the base of Mount Kyaikhtiyo (ask beforehand). From Kyaik Hto, you need to take a pick-up truck to the town of Kinpun (about a 20-minute drive). This last haul of the journey shouldn’t cost more than 1000 kyats (Burmese price). There might also be motorbike taxis offering to take you to Kinpun but this will be more expensive – your choice. And lastly, from Kinpun head to the terminal where the above-mentioned monster trucks will take you up to the Golden Rock.
Note of caution: There’s another town on the highway called Kyaikto – this is different from Kyaikhtiyo (I know confusing, right?!). Kyaikto is still far off from your destination so make sure NOT to get off here (unless you’re willing to pay for another bus/truck/motorbike taxi).
WHERE TO STAY WHILE VISITING THE GOLDEN ROCK
As mentioned previously, we only spent the day at Mount Kyaikhtiyo and then we headed to Yangon. But if you choose to spend the night, there are (I think two) luxury hotels at the top and a few basic guesthouses in the base town of Kinpun. If you decide to leave the same day, make sure to ask at the bus terminal in Kinpun at what time the last bus is to Kyaik Hto and then onward to your next destination.
Read all about my travels in Myanmar
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