After seeing the sights in Yangon, we left early one morning for our excursion to Golden Rock (or Kyaiktiyo) pagoda. Along the way we stopped off in Bago (formerly known as Pegu), founded in the sixth century, and which served as a capital city for both the Mon Kingdom and the Myanmar Empire during various periods from the 14th to the 17th century.
First we visited the Kyaik Pun Pagoda, which is home to the Four Seated Buddha shrine, a 90 foot statue with images of the four Buddhas sitting back to back facing four directions. This shrine was reported to have first been built in the 7th century and renovated in the 15th century.
Bago is also home to the Shwethalyaung reclining Buddha….this 180 foot long and 56 foot high Buddha rests its head on mosaic glass pillows. It was first completed over 1000 years ago, and was rediscovered by the British in 1881, when it was restored.
Our next stop was the Kya Khet Wine monastery, an eminent Buddhist teaching center for monks from neighboring regions.
This monastery used to service hundreds of monks, but its numbers have declined significantly over the past several years, as monks were participating in the political demonstrations occurring around the country. This resulted in an effort by the government to downsize some of the larger monasteries. It’s expected that this facility will now be able to grow once again. We had a chance to observe the monks as they prepared for their lunch, which is their second and last meal of the day (which can be tough for the young novitiates and is why many of them drop out after only one or two months).
They obtain the food for their lunch by walking along the road in the early morning with a special alms bowl to collect food . This is not viewed as begging, but is instead an opportunity for the laypeople in the vicinity of the monastery to “make merit.”
After another great lunch with lots of fresh vegetables at the Hanthawaddy Restaurant, we made a brief stop at the Shwemawdaw Pagoda, which is actually the highest pagoda in Myanmar at a height of 375 feet (many people credit the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon with this distinction even though it is just under 325 feet)….
Originally built in the 10th century to a height of 70 feet, it has been restored several times due to earthquakes (three in the 20th century alone), and is said to hold hair and tooth relics of the Buddha. The stairways leading to the pagoda are guarded by huge white mythical beasts which are half lion and half dog.
It was now time for us to proceed to Kin Pun “base camp” where we were to ascend to view the Golden Rock pagoda, considered by some to be the second most sacred site in Myanmar (after Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon). Upon our arrival, we had to squeeze into an open truck to travel about 10 kilometers straight up a winding, narrow road…
The truck dropped us off, but we still had to walk three kilometers, which may not seem like much, but was straight up a very steep incline. There are porters who will carry you from here…
…but this seemed to defeat the purpose of the “pilgrimage” experience. This was the first time that I was glad I had only brought along a small pack, having left the rest of my luggage back at the hotel In Yangon, but even so, I was happy to have a porter carry my bag to my hotel…[One can also hike the entire distance up to the shrine, which requires a full two days to hike up and back, and is reported to be a wonderful experience and opportunity to connect with many locals along the way.]
The Golden Rock suddenly and spectacularly comes into view from the steep path up the hill. It is a geological phenomenon as only a very small portion of the rock is making contact with the rock on which it sits. Why doesn’t it roll off? No one knows, and it has been sitting precariously in this fashion for at least 2,000 years through rain, wind and earthquakes. It appears to defy gravity.
There are, of course, several Buddhist myths about this rock, one of which is that a hermit had a piece of Buddha’s hair. He gave it to the King asking him to house the hair in a rock shaped like the hermit’s head (I have to admit, I don’t see the rock looking like a head). The King went down to the river to choose a rock on which he could build a stupa to house the Buddha’s hair. Many other rocks were rejected and thrown aside before this particular rock was chosen and placed on this ledge. Then the stupa was built on top of it, which houses the hair of the Buddha.
The Kyaiktiyo shrine complex consists of several viewing platforms, pagodas, Buddha shrines and nat spirit shrines. Worshipers gather in the area around the rock to pray and make offerings. Only men, however, are allowed to enter the platform closest to the rock to apply gold leaf to the shrine.
There were hundreds of people making the trip to this sacred monument the day we were there. It was apparently a religious holiday and so many Myanmar people were paying their respects. It was amazing to see the hordes of people arriving to light candles, and to camp out on the platforms surrounding the Golden Rock with their blankets and baskets full of food.
We were lucky to have arrived when we did, as there were workmen with bamboo getting ready to build scaffolding around the rock to conduct maintenance of the shrine. This apparently occurs only once every ten years. It was to be completely covered up for about one month.
The next morning, we took some time to appreciate the Golden Rock and to understand its significance to the Myanmar people before proceeding the three kilometers back down the hill to catch our open truck to base camp and then on our way to an early afternoon return to Yangon (or so we thought).
Somewhere between Golden Rock and Bago, we came to a dead halt along the road with a traffic backup as far as we could see.
Our driver and guide advised us that they had heard earlier in the morning that a truck had partially damaged the bridge ahead, but they had not warned us of this as they had hoped it would be cleared up by the time we arrived. When we inquired as to another route, we were told that the only other way back to Yangon was on a road that was not often traveled, most likely required a four wheel drive vehicle and passed through a part of the country that could possibly be unsafe due to rebel activity. Were we going to be stuck here along the road overnight?
After assessing the situation, it was decided that we could get across the bridge on motorcycles if we “were game.” We would have to travel for about one hour via motorcycle to a restaurant on the other side of the bridge, where we could eat lunch, while waiting for a van from Yangon to pick us up. This was another moment I was grateful for the small backpack and also glad we had visited all of the sights in Bago on our way to Golden Rock. Our guide rented motorcycle taxis, and we were on our way…
…weaving through the other traffic that was at a standstill….
…going off road when the traffic totally blocked our way…
…and getting across the bridge…
and having time for a beer before our van picked us up…
This was not a planned part of our itinerary, but I have to admit, we are still talking about our motorcycle adventure!
While we didn’t get back to Yangon in time to relax, we did get back in time for a delightful dinner with the principal of one of the schools in Yangon, before getting packed for our early morning flight to Mandalay the next day.
[Check out our Small Group Tour to Myanmar in October 2013].