Hiking to the Golden Rock
Last time we visited Myanmar, we spent about three weeks in the country. In that time, we visited almost everything we wanted to do. The only exception was seeing the Golden Rock Temple (Kyaiktiyo in Burmese). This temple is literally based around a massive rock, painted in gold, that sits miraculously hanging off the edge of a cliff. Because it’s out by itself, we didn’t take the time to see if last time. This is even more of a reason to visit it this time, when there was nothing else that really sparked my interested.
I left the morning of Day 2, leaving the ship on the first shuttle out. Arriving at the train station, which happened to be right where the shuttle from the ship drops off, I found that the next train was leaving at 11AM, giving me about two hours to essentially wander. I decided to go find breakfast, and I stumbled upon a small restaurant not far from where we stayed three years ago. I asked them what is good here, and the immediate reply was “dosa”. Knowing exactly what dosa was after India, it was an easy decision. Dosa is a large crepe that you dip into different savory sauces, some spicy and some not. Delicious! After ordering, a guy invited me to his table to join him, which I happily did. He is from Yangon and teaches English, so he spoke pretty well. He told me about his school where he works, about his wife who has been working in Bangkok, Thailand, for the past two years in order to earn more, showing me pictures of her. He lives in an apartment not far from where we were, but he said he certainly enjoys the countryside more. It was interesting getting to know him in this short time chatting.
Getting to Golden Rock was not easy by local transportation. I know there are other ways, but the simplest in regards to leaving Yangon was to take a train to the city of Bago, then either a train or bus to Kyaikto (I wasn’t sure if there was a train doing this route), and then a pickup taxi from Kyaikto to Kinpun, the town known as the base camp for getting to the Golden Rock.
The train has two different class tickets, upper class and lower class. The lower class ticket for this two-hour journey costs 600 kyatt (about $0.45), and the upper class ticket costs 1,150 kyatt ($0.85). An easy decision, I went with the upper class. The train car itself was pretty standard, I’d say just a step below Chicago’s “L” trains but with more comfortable seats. I was pretty happy with it!
Train travel is one of my favorite ways to travel. I’m not 100% sure why, but it just feels to adventurous to be on a train. Maybe it’s because historically it’s that classic way of getting from one place to another, dating back to the 1800s. And maybe it’s because it’s that form of transportation that really isn’t used much in the US any more. Either way, I would almost always prefer to take a train rather than a bus.
After two hours, we finally arrived in Bago, and I walked about 20 minutes to the bus station, where I was completely confused about what happened there. A man greeted me at the road that enters to the bus station, and he said he was the “bus company manager”. I knew right away this was a fabrication – if he was, he wouldn’t be hanging out on the side of the road like an aggressive sales person. He then took me to one bus company where the only bus in the station area was waiting. He said it’s going to Kyaikto, so I jumped on and paid him 3,500 kyatts, just under $3. Soon after, the same guy gets on the bus and says that it’s the wrong bus, and he gave me my money back and told me I had to get off the bus. I looked around at the locals, hoping for help. I kept trying to repeat the name of the town (Kyaikto) with little success. Finally, someone nodded to me in agreement that this bus was, in fact, going to Kyaikto. I stayed put in my seat with the same amount of money I had before entering the bus station. About 5 minutes later, a different gentleman came onboard and asked for 2,000 kyatts. I paid, and we were on our way. I have no idea what was going on and why there was so much confusion. At first, I thought it was a scam with the first guy. But then why would he come onto the bus to give me my money back? Always an adventure!
I arrived in Kyaikto and got off the bus along the main road. I then asked around for where the pickups leave to head to Kinpun, the base camp. After I found the place, I picked up some snacks and a coke as I waited for the truck to fill up. About 30 minutes later, I was in Kinpun and had found my accommodation for the night.
I realized I have made a turn in my expectations of quality. When I arrived at the guest house, I was shown a room that cost $8 for the night. It was a simple bed, concrete walls, no windows, and a pretty thin mattress. I then asked if there were other rooms, and they said they did have other rooms, but they cost $17 per room. I asked to see it. The mattress was much thicker and more comfortable, it had its own shower. A/C, and was just much more comfortable. I went with the $17 room. Five years ago, I wouldn’t have even looked at the $17 room. But here we are: 30 years old and going for “luxury”.
That evening, I strolled around the small town, had a tea at a little tea shop/family restaurant, and got dinner. Kinpun is essentially two roads the intersect, with stores lining the road going north. Because the Golden Rock is one of the most important Buddhist sites in the country, many people, Burmese, Thais, Malaysians, Europeans, etc., come through here. I enjoyed the town before waking up early for my hike up to the Golden Rock.
Hiking to the Golden Rock Temple
I really didn’t know what to expect on the hike up to the Golden Rock. From Kinpun, I knew that it would take around four hours if I go at a decent speed, but I am one that loves to stop quite often for views. I started just before 7AM and started walking north out of Kinpun, where the paved road quickly turned into a dirt path. As I was leaving the town, a monk was having a tea at a little family tea shop, and he called out to me in English, “Wait! I’ll come with you!” He explained that he will be walking up 1.6 miles (very exact) to his monastery, so he would accompany me. Interested, I waited for him to finish his tea and we were on our way.
Unfortunately for me, his English wasn’t great, so I had a hard time understanding most of what he was saying – I caught maybe 33% of it. When I would ask a question, very rarely would he understand. However, I listened intently for the next hour as we walked up to the monastery, right along the way where I was heading. Halfway, we had a beautiful view over the Burmese mountains, and he stopped and said he wanted a picture of me. I don’t really mind when people want a picture of me, but I always make sure I get a picture of them in return. He was loving the views!
The hike was interesting because of the amount of homes along the way. At least every five minutes or so, I would come up to someone’s home, and almost every one of them also operated a store out of their home selling cooked foods or snacks or drinks or souvenirs. They would set up their homes so that the home was on one side of the path, and the other side was either a place to sit or was another part of the store. This meant that all hikers would walk through between their home and store, under a tarp connecting the two sides. The hike ended up taking me about five hours with all stops, and I think I must have walked through 30-40 homes/stores like this. There was never a lack of things for sale like water and snacks.
Along the way, the path has many nice views of the surrounding green mountains. In the distance, I was supposedly able to see the western border with Thailand. A few of my favorite places were homes and tea shops that had seats overlooking lovely views of the countryside. About ¾ of the way up to Golden Rock, I stopped at one and had a coke. Coke always tastes better with a view!
The Burmese love tea (as do I). When you go to a tea shop, you will order a tea, and they will serve you a cup of tea very similar to Indian tea. It’s a natural tea with various spices it in, making it a thicker and almost milky tea. In Myanmar, when you order a tea, they bring you this cup of tea and there are always thermoses of green Chinese tea on the table. This is a right for anyone going to a tea shop, to be able to fill up their tea over and over again with this Chinese tea. Nothing made this right more clear than when I ordered a coke at this place with a view. After taking my seat and taking my first few sips of the refreshing cola, the owner sets a huge glass of tea right in front of me. Order a coke, get a free glass of tea. I thought it was humorous since these two certainly don’t go well together, and that is plenty of liquid together.
Around noon, I finally arrived to the top. The last half a mile was on a steep paved road, around an 18% grade. I now understood why it requires these massive trucks to get up to the Golden Rock, if one decides to go the easy route (which most people do). I was one of the few on the path that I saw going all the way up from Kinpun. The top of the mountain was full of vendors selling food and souvenirs, lining the road to the entry to the temple. I paid the foreigner fee of 10,000 kyatt ($8) and made my way in, taking my shoes off before entering, as is custom for all Buddhist temples.
Many people are disappointed when they get to the Golden Rock. It’s a long journey here, and some people probably hype it up too much to their own detriment. Going in with no expectations is always better. I loved it. I was fascinated by how this massive rock is still sitting on the side of this cliff. It seems like it could fall at any moment. Legend goes that there are two Buddha hairs that are miraculously holding the Golden Rock in place. Almost humorously, a golden pagoda sits on top of the gold-painted rock, which makes it look like one of those birthday party hats.
I spent the entire afternoon marveling at the rock, the views of the mountains, and having small interactions with Burmese who were visiting the Golden Rock. There is a platform that leads directly to the Golden Rock in which only men are allowed (apparently Buddhists aren’t immune to sexism, either). Men can purchase a small golden leaf from a counter, and they can then go and put this golden leaf on the rock. There is a bridge directly under the rock in the exact location the rock would fall, if it were to fall, and this provides some great views of the enormous rock. Around the Golden Rock was a large area of tiles, where no one is allowed to wear shoes (the official temple area). There were some smaller temples around but nothing that seemed impressive to me. I loved seeing all the people there.
Just like in India, many Burmese are curious enough about foreigners that they oftentimes ask to have pictures with them. As reciprocation for being in a picture with them, I always ask if I can have a picture with them as well. Some staff members have been asked to be in so many photos that they now charge to have pictures – not just to make money but to ensure they don’t spend all their time getting their picture taken when all they want to do is walk around a pagoda.
Throughout the day, I found various places to sit down and just enjoy the moments. At one point, I walked out of the temple area, where there was a long line of teashops and restaurants, and I had myself a tea. I then continued on further and visited a pagoda on top of a hill which is about ½ mile from the Golden Rock. I then took a seat adjacent to the Golden Rock. And then took a seat on the top area beside the Golden Rock. For some reason, I couldn’t get enough of it.
Had I taken a truck to get to the top, I bet I wouldn’t have been as enthralled as I was. But the fact that I got myself to the top from Kinpun, one step at a time, I think I enjoyed it more along with that sense of accomplishment.
I did, however, need to take the truck to the bottom because it was getting dark. The last truck is said to leave at 6PM, and the sun started setting just after 5:30PM. I watched every minute that I could as the sun went down and the Golden Rock lit up with surrounding spotlights. Seeing it in the dark was an entirely different experience, and a magnificent one at that. It was incredibly beautiful as its golden skin shined in the night. I took in every moment that I could, and then I rushed to get to the last truck departing for Kinpun.
In short, the truck ride was a roller coaster ride. It’s a large truck that sits about 45 people in the back in open air seating. All the seats were full, so I was up front with the driver. With these 15% descents, the drivers did not take it easy. In the midst of the ride, I felt like I was either on a roller coaster or in a video game. It did not seem real how quickly they were taking these hills and turns. Three of the trucks drove together, so I could see the one in front of ours. On the verge of getting sick, I was happy to have arrived in Kinpun.
Bago: The Former Mon Capital
After a night in Kinpun, I took a bus back to Bago to explore for the day. I wanted to get back to the ship that night, so I had just that one day to visit. I arrived in Bago around 11AM after a 2.5 hour bus ride, and I just started walking around the city. I found the Shwe Mawdaw Pagoda. While the city of Yangon has the Shwedagan Pagoda, this one in Bago is actually a bit taller but not as impressive around the outside. It is certainly a site worth visiting because of its size and importance, but the one in Yangon is certainly nicer to visit.
I had originally planned on renting a bicycle in Bago, but similar to Forrest Gump, I just started walking. And so I walked. I found some fried banana snacks on the street. Hungry for a more comfortable environment for food, I ran into a shopping center and had lunch at the food court (still Burmese food, and it was still only about $2.50 for the meal of pineapple rice with chicken). I then realized that I had two options, I could walk to a few of the sites, but they were a distance away, so I would have to expend a lot of energy in the afternoon heat. Or I could simply get a taxi from place to place. Because the taxis are so inexpensive, it was an easy choice. I paid just over $0.50 (and I was certainly “ripped off” compared to what locals pay) for the 15 minute motorbike taxi ride to the Myatha Lyaung Buddha.
In Theravada Buddhism, which is especially prevalent in Thailand and Myanmar, the image of the reclining Buddha is an important one. Buddha is said to have achieved nirvana, the highest state of mind, when he was meditating under a lotus tree. These reclining Buddha statues show Buddha literally laying down with one hand propping his head up. This is exactly what the Myatha Lyaung Budda is showing, and it is certainly a large reclining Buddha!
The Myatha Lyaung Buddha is located near several other Buddhist sites, including another reclining Buddha. While the Shwethar Lyaung Pagoda Reclining Buddha just north is now indoors, the massive Myatha Lyaung statue of reclining Buddha is all outdoors. This means that if you’re in the area, you can certainly see reclining Buddha popping up over buildings. A bit later on, I climbed to the top of a nearby Pagoda, and I loved seeing this large reclining Buddha in the middle of this forested city.
The Shwethar Lyaung Pagoda, like I mentioned, is another reclining Buddha located just north of the first one. The Shwethar Lyaung Pagoda is more decorated, more elegant, is now indoors to preserve it, and is certainly more famous. This reclining Buddha was created in the 9th century here in Bago, and it really is quite magnificent to see. The backside has detailed images and a short write up of how this Buddha was eventually built – how the prince of the Mon people married a woman who was Buddhist, how she was about to be banished when they realized she was following Buddhism, and how she redeemed herself. Afterwards, the prince, the king, and the entire royal family became Buddhists, along with their entire land.
Finally, I made a visit via tuk tuk (motorized rickshaw) to the Mahazedi Pagoda. This one, unlike most other pagodas, has steps in several directions that lead towards the top. Just like the Golden Rock platform, only men are allowed to go up the stairs. I climbed up the stairs to see stunning views of the surrounding area. The reclining Buddha was in the near distance, the far distance had the Shwe Mawdaw Pagoda, the largest golden pagoda in Myanmar, and I could see tens of other golden pagodas dotted around the city. While in the city, I didn’t realize how forested it is. But from up above, the city seemed to mostly be covered in trees. Smoke rose from many different places as locals burned wood to cook food. It was a view that was hard to step away from. Once at the top, three boys around the age of 10 started following me around. They didn’t speak any English, so they got very nervous when I would say anything to them. They followed me around for several minutes, quietly, until they finally got bored and went down below, seemingly going home for dinner.
Wanting good food again, I took a tuk tuk back to the city and then went back to that same shopping mall. There was a Thai place that looked good, so I was craving that. What I didn’t realize is that they had a huge terrace overlooking the city, so I was able to have a nice quiet dinner with fantastic views of the Shwe Mawdaw Pagoda. Almost done with my food, the electricity in the entire city went out. I saw for a few moments until the mall’s generator kicked on. While I still had dim lights, the golden pagoda that was just shining so brightly was now dark as night. Just a reminder that even some of the most important religious sites in Myanmar aren’t immune to everything!
Train Ride Back to Yangon
For convenience sake, I took a train that evening from Bago to Yangon. It is more convenient because the bus station in Yangon is far outside the city center, and the train station in Yangon is exactly where the Semester at Sea shuttle picks up to go back to the ship.
The last shuttle leaving to go back to the ship from the train station in Yangon was 9PM. Missing this meant I would need to get a $15-$20 taxi to the ship. I was told the train was about an hour and a half back to Yangon from Bago, and it was originally supposed to leave at 6:55PM. That should be plenty of time, I thought. When 7:20PM rolled around and the train was just starting to pull up to the station, I had my doubts. The upper class tickets were all sold out, so I purchased the standard ticket ($0.50 compared to $1 of the upper class). It was quite a different experience. The train car was pretty dirty with various trash and scraps on the ground. The seats were hard plastic compared to the cushioned seats of the upper class. These I didn’t mind. However, the worst part was the prevalence of moths and other bugs attracted by the lights in the train cars. Hundreds of moths and other bugs flew around the train car, seemingly landing on me every minute or so. I was actually pretty bothered by this, so I was swatting bugs off of my legs and arms for the next hour and a half.
The timing couldn’t have been cut any closer. With the last shuttle leaving at 9PM from just outside the train station, the train arrived in Yangon at 8:54PM. I sprinted off the train, outside the station, and quickly found the bus. As soon as I took my seat on the bus, the door closed and we were on our way. I was very fortunate with many factors outside my control, to have just barely made it in time.
And just like that, I was back on the ship and sleeping in my own bed.