Among the top three most important Buddhist pilgrimage sites in Myanmar is the Kyaiktiyo Pagoda on the Golden Rock (the other two are Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon and Mahamuni Pagoda in Mandalay). Located some 200 km away from Yangon in the Mon state, the 24 ft pagoda has been built on a granite rock. Painted in gold and with the hundreds of thousands of gold leaves lovingly pasted on it by thousands of devotees that visit the pagoda, it is known as the Golden Pagoda.
Legend has it that Buddha had given one strand of his hair to a hermit, who had tucked it into the tufts of his hair for safety. Eventually, the hermit gave the sacred hair to the king with the wish that the hair be enshrined in a pagoda shaped like the hermit’s hat. The king found the perfect place at Kyaiktiyo, where on a granite rock a pagoda was built and the strand of hair enshrined. It is believed that the strand of hair prevents the balancing rock from rolling down the hill.
To get to Kyaiktiyo, there are two options – either to take a truck from Kinpun (about 20 km uphill) or to walk from there. It is about a 4-5 hour walk uphill. Most people nowadays prefer to take the trucks that operate continuous trips up and down the hill. Each truck has about 7 wooden rows with the capacity of 6 people per row. It costs 2000 kyat per person. For a more comfortable journey one can opt to sit in the front next to the driver. There is capacity of 5 people and it costs 3000 kyat per person. The truck does not leave until the seats are all full. We were four people in the front, and we offered to pay for the fifth person as well, so that we did not have to wait to have it filled up.
The road uphill is narrow and extremely steep. Sitting in the front seat the ride is like that of a roller coaster as the trucks wind their way swiftly and steadily up the hill, with the occasional downhill slide. We sat tensed our feet occasionally straining forward as though to support and brake the sudden movements. The driver however was confident and self-assured as he navigated the road with a nonchalant countenance all the while chewing steadily on his betel nut. The road is narrow so it is common to see trucks stopping at specific locations in order to enable trucks from the other direction to pass. Street vendors wait for the trucks to halt and then they rush forward to sell their products.
From the truck stop to the pagoda is a walk about 20 minutes. After a certain point, everyone has to remove their shoes and socks and walk barefoot (it is worth carrying an empty bag / plastic in which to carry your shoes).
Along the way there are many shops selling handicraft items, caps, garments and food. There are also many locals who offer to carry visitors on wooden palanquins. From monks, elderly people and children – there were also many tourists who availed these services. I captured the moments on my camera - it seems somewhat ironic to see tourists sometimes become the object of curiosity of other tourists.
Near the golden rock is an enormous open space, large enough for two football fields. All around in the corners as well as in the center, people had occupied some space and set up their camp. They had mats and cardboards to sit and lie down on. They had their blankets and personal items. They were families who had come together from different nooks and corners of Myanmar to spend the night at the Golden Rock and to pray and make their offerings at the sacred site.
The Kyaiktiyo pagoda perched on the golden rock commands a magnificent view of the valley. Men and boys can walk right up to the rock and plaster gold leaves on the rock. The rock gleams different shades of gold through the day. The glow during sunrise and sunset are especially beautiful. People light candles, offer incense, and make offering of food and flowers. Being so high up in the mountains and listening to the chanting and hum of the prayers gives a surreal feeling – of being a part of the earthly world and at the same time of being above it all.
Behind the pagodas there are stalls – hundreds of stalls selling food, handicrafts, garments, herbs, and stalls to charge the mobile phones. We visited the stalls in the evening and it was lit bright and filled with color. Young girls stood outside the restaurants, and with strong voices beckoned passersby to try the food in their restaurants. With so many options it was actually quite difficult to choose. We tried out the pancakes on one of the stalls at the side of the road, which was simply made and delicious.
If you make a visit to the pagoda and if you have the time, it is worth staying in a hotel up on the mountain. Though more expensive than Kinpun (at the foothills), staying up at the mountain gives you the opportunity to the see the sunset. The last truck downhill leaves around 6 pm so if you stay at Kinpun you would have to cut short the view of sunset at the pagoda.
There are many things beautiful and sacred about the place. The early morning view of the Golden Rock and the feeling of being so high in the mountains, amidst the fervent prayers and chanting of the devoted pilgrims, was definitely one of the highlights of my visit to Myanmar!