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Exploring Burma’s lesser-visited south offers a rare glimpse into its complex world of devotion and pilgrims, as InsideAsia consultant Charlotte Bower discovers. This article first appeared in issue #3 of East, the InsideAsia Tours magazine. To subscribe for free or download a digital copy, click here.
I’ve always wanted to be an explorer, finding parts of the world that other people had yet to see. Unfortunately I was born in the wrong era for that – short of lacing up my trekking boots and getting lost in the Amazon, there is not much left that has not already been reported. However, there are still places that hold the appeal of being little-known and little-visited, and Burma, only really open to tourism in the last few decades, fulfils all the requirements.
There is already a popular tourist route around the centre of the country, but to break away from the crowds – you only need to head south.
The Golden Rock, a day’s drive from Yangon, is the perfect example of a destination that doesn’t make its way into half the itineraries it deserves. I had the good fortune to make it part of my trip in May, slightly outside of the peak pilgrimage season, and counted only a handful of other Western tourists among the crowds.
Sara and I started our morning in Hpa An, where we had spent the last few days exploring its various caves and limestone peaks. From here a drive of around two-and-a-half hours brought us to the base of the mountain, where we had a quick (essential) ice cream break to take the edge off the 40-degree heat before boarding a truck to the top of the mountain.
The only way to get up the mountain to the Golden Rock is in open-top pickup trucks converted into buses, with wooden benches and flatbeds in the back. Our guide advised us to pay the extra thousand kyat (60p) for a seat in the driver’s cabin, and wisely so!
I’ve heard the drive described as everything from an exciting rollercoaster ride to a necessary evil. After experiencing the adventure myself, my feelings are mixed. The road is curved and steep, and the speed at which the drivers approach the hairpin bends leaves little to be desired. I was glad of my cushioned front seat and slightly concerned for the people behind me – but the smiles of the children as we got to the top told me that I was in the minority with my concerns.
On arrival to the top of the mountain, we left the truck and headed to our hotel. The area itself feels somewhat of an oddity – a mix between a small town and a theme park. Unlike us, who were planning on spending one night only, the locals here for pilgrimage (especially the ones who have walked up the mountain) tend to stay for a week or longer. As a result there are all sorts of food stalls, natural remedy counters, souvenirs and even balloons and cuddly toys to keep the children occupied.
After a quick break and a chance to shower away the sweat and dust of the ride, we headed to the pagoda itself. Golden Rock (otherwise known as Kyaiktiyo Pagoda) is not only visually stunning, but one of the most important religious sites in Burma. Teetering on the very edge of a cliff as though poised to tumble into the valley below, it almost defies belief. There are several legends surrounding its existence, all of which hinge on the belief that the boulder is balancing on a strand of the Buddha’s hair.
Visitors can walk around the rock to see its logic-defying position from all angles, but while men are allowed to approach it directly to affix gold leaf – women must keep to a viewing platform slightly further back. Women are traditionally not allowed in the direct vicinity of Buddhist monuments, as this is where sacrifices would once have taken place. Though the practice of making sacrifices has vanished, the custom remains. On this occasion, the viewing platform was close enough that I did not feel like I was missing out on the experience at all – if anything, it’s even more impressive from a distance than up close and personal.
The gilding of the boulder, now its defining feature, is a fairly new phenomenon – starting within the last 100 years. Applying gold leaf as an act of devotion at many Burmese temples and shrines – hence the ‘lumpy’ gold Buddha at Mahamuni Pagoda in Mandalay – but as not all of the rock can be reached from the access area it has to be regilded under scaffolding every five years.
However amazing the rock itself, the highlight of my trip was the people I met while I was there. Many had travelled for several days and would be sleeping on straw mats on the complex floor for the rest of the week. Most of them had never met a white person before. Our Burmese guide provided an invaluable connection to these people, whose stories revealed an image of life in the remotest parts of Burma. Of course we also had to pose for plenty of photos so they could tell everyone in the village that they had met us!
After staying for sunset to watch the rock glow orange in the dying light, we headed back to our hotel for the evening. The next morning, it was back to the trucks and down the hill to return to Yangon – which, in our absence, seemed to have transformed from a relaxed and leafy city into a sprawling metropolis.
Photography: Sara Pretelli