My Asian Wings flight touched down at Yangon International Airport in late morning. As usual, the plane stopped on the tarmac and we were bussed to the terminal. The domestic terminal is quite different from the international one. We exited the bus and walked a short distance to a small room, on the ground level, just inside the terminal. Mostly tourists, we waited for our bags to be carted from the plane. The cart stopped just short of the doorway where airline staff carried the bags into the small room looking for its owner. When I saw my backpack come through the door, I gave a slight wave to the staff member carrying it. Prior to giving it to me, he checked the number on my baggage ticket with the one attached to the bag. After confirming they agreed, he handed me my bag and I was off.
As I got to the arrivals area, I saw my name on a white sheet of paper held by my driver –Htwe (pronounced “Trey”). Kyaw had arranged for Htwe to drive me to Kinpun Base Camp for a two night stay where I would visit Golden Rock. After introducing himself, Htwe called someone on his cell phone and then handed it to me. It was Kyaw, my Yangon-based travel agent. Kyaw asked if a member of his staff could accompany us and act as my tour guide. He indicated that Tan was interested in moving from his administrative team to being a tour guide. Kyaw indicated there would be no charge to me for Tan’s services. After telling Kyaw that was fine with me, the three of us headed for the car and we were off to visit Golden Rock. After flying from one destination to the next in Myanmar, it was nice to relax in the back of Htwe’s car and take in the scenery from Yangon to Kinpun Base Camp, which is the jumping off point to visit Kyaiktiyo Pagoda, commonly referred to as Golden Rock.
Being the third most important pilgrimage site in Myanmar after the Shwedagon Pagoda (in Yangon) and the Mahamuni Pagoda (in Mandalay), Golden Rock is located at an elevation of about 3,600 feet on top of Mt Khaiktiyo. On top of the golden rock is a small pagoda that’s over 20 feet in height. Legend has it that a hair of the Buddha is holding the golden rock in place keeping it from falling.
Kinpun Base Camp, located about 10 miles from the summit of Mt Kyaiktiyo, is a three-hour drive east of Yangon via auto or bus. There are two options for reaching Golden Rock from Kinpun Base Camp. One is to pay a small fee (about 2 USD) and sit in the back of an open truck. The 30 to 40 minute ride is very interesting. First off, the truck does not leave Kinpun Base Camp until it is full – which is about 35 to 40 people sitting on seven very narrow benches that span from one side of the truck’s open bed to the other. The benches are not spaced very far apart from each other making it a cramped ride especially for taller people.
The second option is to hike, for several hours, on a trail that’s about 7 miles to the summit. It’s a little more of a direct route than the paved roadway that the truck takes. It’s uphill, the entire way, and one should be in decent shape to attempt it.
About halfway to Kinpun Base Camp is the town of Bago. It’s a great place to get out and stretch your legs and see some incredible sites. We ended up stopping here on the way and the way back. Bago can be a great day trip from Yangon. You can either hire a driver for the day or take the bus. During our time here we saw,
• Shwemawdaw Pagoda, built in the 10th century, is Myanmar’s tallest pagoda and is similar in style to the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon.
• Shwethalyaung Reclining Buddha – according to Wikipedia, with a length of 55 m (180 ft) and a height of 16 m (52 ft), it is the second largest Buddha in the world, after the 74 m reclining Buddha in Dawei (Tavoy). The Buddha is believed to have been built in 994, during the reign of Mon King Migadepa. It was lost in 1757 when Pegu (which Bago was previously known as) was pillaged. During British colonial rule, in 1880, the Shwethalyaung Buddha was rediscovered under a cover of jungle growth and restoration began in 1881.
• Naung Daw Gyi Mya Tha Lyaung reclining Buddha – a more recent, outdoor version of the Shwethalyaung
• Kyaik Pun Paya – a four-sided Buddha pagoda that was built in the 7th century and later renovated
• Kambawzathardi Golden Palace – built in the 16th century, it is the former home of one of the Burmese kings
• A pottery maker located outside of the city. The owner showed us how they make some beautiful pots.
• The snake monastery where a python, about 17 feet long, lives in captivity.
It was mid-afternoon by the time we got back on the road. Upon reaching the small town of Kyaikto, we turned northward for about 15 minutes until we came to Kinpun Base Camp. We turned into the driveway of the Golden Sunrise Hotel (twelve rooms built about 10 years ago). The hardened dirt parking area had a number of large puddles from the recent rains that we tried to avoid as we made our way to the small check-in area. The rooms were nice, had western-style toilets and a covered, outdoor restaurant where I ate breakfast (included in the rate) both mornings and one of the two nights that I was there.
We got going early the next morning. The best way to get a seat on the truck heading to the top was to get on the first one of the day. There is a covered parking area about a half-mile from the hotel where the trucks wait and fill up with passengers. We got there a little after seven in the morning. We were one of the first ones there – probably in part because it was the off-season. During peak season, I would imagine it would be much busier. You climb a ladder to get into the back (bed) of the medium-sized truck. Once filled, the area is very cramped – especially for us taller people. My knees were jutting into the back of the person in front of me. There wasn’t much elbow room. You have to sit up straight. It was a lot of fun though to be crammed into the bed of the truck with mainly locals from throughout Myanmar coming for the pilgrimage. It reminded me of the Indiana Jones attraction at Disneyland, but a little less comfortable. This is a great way to interact with the locals. They seem to enjoy the facial expressions and reaction of the tourists as the truck bounces and grinds its way up and down the mountain.
When the truck is full and everyone is seated, a man stands on the ladder looking into the back area taking payment one by one. Prior to arriving in Myanmar, I had read about the truck ride to the top of My Kyaiktiyo. The info that I read indicated the truck would only take foreigners to Yahtetha, which is about 80% of the way to the top. From that point, they would have to walk the rest of the way on a paved road that appears to be seldom used. When the man was taking payment, he indicated the cost was 1,500 kyat to Yahtetha and 2,500 to the top. This was the first that I had heard that foreigners could ride to the top. The few other tourists in the truck were also surprised. Tan, my tour guide, was with me. Htwe stayed back at the hotel, and we found out later, went back to sleep. I decided to get off at Yahtetha because I wanted to see what kind of a climb it was from there to the top. Tan didn’t care. He had taken the truck and hiked from Kinpun to the top before.
We didn’t wait for the truck to fill completely. We took off when there were about 25 people in the back. That was good because it gave me a little more room for my legs. As we took off, we got out of Kinpun and up the steep road fairly quickly. You could hear the truck grind through the gears as the road got steeper. There were quite a few curves on this narrow, winding road. It’s probably a good idea they don’t let people drive to the top. The road isn’t quite wide enough for two-way traffic. It was a pretty fun ride to Yahtetha. The front row was able to stand and hold onto a railing above the cab where the driver and a few others were seated. We had to pull to the side of the road and wait at a turnout part way up the hill. About 10 minutes into the wait we found out why – a truck coming down the hill apparently had the right of way. As soon as it passed, we were back on our way. We reached the small town of Yahtetha. There’s another covered area for the trucks to park. At this point, Tan and I got out. Having been up this way before, Tan knew which way to head. I probably would have figured it out sooner or later, but it was nice to have him. The road the rest of the way is pretty steep, much more than I thought it would be. Since Tan had not eaten yet we stopped at a very, very small place (it looked to be the front of someone’s home) to get some breakfast. After ten minutes, we were on the road again. A little further up, we came to a sign that read “short cut” where we turned onto a series of steps. It took about 30 to 40 minutes to get to the top from where we exited the truck.
Being the rainy season, it was really foggy and windy at the top. I kept thinking that the wind would blow the clouds away. I kept hoping the skies would clear; however, they never did. Once we got to the top, we came to the Mountain Top Hotel, one of two hotels located at or near the summit. Just past the hotel we came to the Ministry of Culture office where we entered to pay our $6 USD zone fee to visit Golden Rock. From there, it’s just a short walk to the rock. It’s foggy, windy, drizzling and cold. Unlike Bagan and Mandalay, the rainy season was in full force in this part of the country.
The Golden Rock sits precariously on top of an even larger boulder. It’s pretty spectacular. Legend has it that a hair of the Buddha is holding the golden boulder in place and keeping it from falling. Getting up close, from an angle, you can see there is very little of each boulder touching the other. The golden boulder gets its color from the gold leaf, which is constantly being attached. Similar to Mahamuni Pagoda in Mandalay, only men are allowed to perform this function. Due to the weather, good photos were hard to come by. My next time here, I would love to come on a clear day and spend the night on top of the mountain and experience the rock when it is all lit up.
After viewing the Golden Rock, Tan and I sat in a little café drinking some hot tea, partly to keep warm, hoping that the skies would clear. They didn’t. In fact, it started to rain harder the longer we stayed there. We made our way to the next truck that was waiting to take people back down the mountain. About half full, we climbed up the steps and took our seats in the back of the truck. We were under a covering, which kept the light rain off of us. We knew that it was going to be wet going down the hill. I had my poncho on by this time, which would help a little. Tan had an umbrella which we would find would be of no help because the wind, going down, would be too strong to keep it open. As we took off, it was only a light rain. Within minutes, the skies just opened up and it was really coming down. Tan was defenseless. Within 10 minutes we made our way down to Yahtetha and pulled under the covered carport where someone climbed the ladder and collected fees from everyone. It was coming down pretty good when we took off after a 10 to 15 minute wait. About 5 minutes into the ride it stopped raining. I thought “yes”. This was great. My hopes were short-lived. In a matter of minutes, it was coming down again. This time, harder than before and it didn’t stop. The poncho worked great in this situation. Tan was totally drenched. The only real problem I had was my shoes. I wore my Nikes because I wasn’t sure how much walking/hiking we would be doing and I might need something with a little more grip than my flip-flops. The rain was coming down so hard that the bottom of the truck bed was filling with water. That wasn’t so bad; however, with every curve came a wave of water from one side to the other that thoroughly covered my shoes and anything in its path. It wasn’t too long before we were back to Kinpun Base Camp. Htwe was nowhere around. I wasn’t surprised because he had no idea what time we would be returning. So, Tan and I walked the half-mile back to the hotel on the side of the road. Squish, squish, squish. At least, I was fairly dry underneath the poncho. Tan looked like he had just gotten out of a shower.
After showering and relaxing for a little bit, the three of us headed out for dinner, this time in Htwe’s car, to eat at a café next to the spot where the trucks depart. We had a beer, chatted about our day on the mountain and had a nice Myanmar meal. It was nice and relaxing.
I didn’t realize until I looked at my Facebook page days later and saw the post from my daughter that today was Father’s Day. Wow, I was so caught up in seeing Golden Rock and the time with the two guys that I had forgotten all about it.
It was a very relaxing Monday morning as we headed down the road towards Yangon. We had become friends in the short time that we were together. Htwe was telling up about his family and what he enjoyed doing. We got on the subject of music and he said his favorite song was John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads”. So there we were, rolling down the road singing at the top of our lungs, Take Me Home, Country Roads. It was a lot of fun.
My time in this forgotten country was just about up. I reflected back on the sites that I had seen, the culinary experiences and, most of all, the people that I had met. I was so glad that I made the trip here. It was truly an experience of a lifetime.