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The Rock (Part II) – Kyaiktiyo to Bago, Myanmar | We're Not There Yet

I got a little off-topic with my money rant in the last post, so here is a bit more on our impressions of the actual pagoda:

The Golden Rock is a rock painted gold. It is also one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in Myanmar. The legend of the rock’s creation has to do with some supernatural influence and the placing of a Buddha hair in the stupa balanced on top of the rock. The sight is very impressive- not only is the precarious balance of the huge boulder a feat of nature, but the man-made plazas and stupas surrounding the rock is a sight in itself.

We are not Buddhists, so the actual trip to the rock was not as weighty as it may have been for families who have saved for a long time to be there, although the atmosphere was not at all what I would have expected of a sacred pilgrimage. First, we were herded into the back of a large flatbed truck- the kind that seems better outfitted for a bunch of pigs. There are about a half a dozen rows of wooden benches and six people per bench. This gets everybody nice and wedged in, which is necessary so that nobody falls out as the truck whips around hairpin turns and flies over the hills leading up the mountain. The initial jerk of the truck pulling out of the parking lot nearly had me on my ass (had there not been three pairs of knees tucked directly underneath it) and everyone started giggling. With each new bone-shuddering pothole and dramatic swerve in the road, we were thrown against each other and laughing like hyenas. The black-toothed man next to me indicated that if I need some support, I should feel free to grab onto the 12-year-old boy in front of me. When I did so at one particularly spine-tingling turn, the boy dissolved into giggles and started chattering animatedly at his mother.

Our ride

…it was a tight fit

We opted to get out of the roller coaster about 45 minutes from the top so that we could get some ‘hiking’ in. Lord knows that we need to introduce more activity into our lives, which consists primarily of sitting in hammocks in between afternoon beer hour and evening beer hour, but this was kind of a drag. There is an honest-to-God trail that leads from the town below all the way to the top, taking between 4 and 6 hours and probably offering amazing views, although people tend to start before dawn to get to the rock at sunrise or at least before the sun gets too high in the sky and starts roasting anything not under an umbrella. We decided to get the boost almost to the top and then walk the rest of the way, but this is apparently something only silly white people do. From the drop-off point, the trail becomes a road and just switchbacks up the hill to the top. Vendors yell at you to stop for a drink (sweat-streak red faces must make them think that all Westerners are on the brink of a heart attack) or at least a t-shirt. About 5 minutes after we started walking, we came across this awesome signboard that showed the cheerful, flip-flop wearing Buddhist pilgrims walking to the top (plus the wealthy Chinese in the sedan chairs) and two American tourists walking along with their cameras slung around their necks, hiking boots on, and spaghetti-strapped tank tops over short shorts (this is a disrespectful attire for visiting a temple, as a sign at the entrance to the pagoda announces to tarty tourists like the ones in the painting). I looked at R snapping happily away and then down at my own hiking-booted feet and felt a little disgust at myself; we really are all alike, aren’t we?

Q: Which one of these just doesn’t belong?

A: The trollop in the hotpants

Human labor is alive and well in Myanmar

At the top, we found the rock still there, still gold, and a bunch of Burmese people milling around or picnicking. There weren’t any other tourists there when we arrived, although we saw some on their way down as we were heading up; not doubt the kind of overachievers who got up at 3am to hoof it to the top by sunrise. Buddhist men (not women) can walk across a small bridge to the side of the rock and place a square of gold leaf on the face of the rock. That is how is stays so golden. We watched people pray and took in the view of the valley below and then realized that we had seen all there was to see and headed back down in the cattle car.Back in town, we went straight to the bus station and started haggling for tickets to Bago. All of the bus companies were trying to charge nearly twice as much as we had paid to come from Yangon, even though now we were only traveling half the distance. We tried bargaining at each place and walked away when we were told ‘That’s the tourist price!’, but eventually agreed to pay the same amount (3500 kyat or about $4.30 each) that we had for the longer journey. Luck was on our side when we got off the bus. We had declined the services of a couple motorcycle taxis and were trying to figure out how to get to our hotel when a small, wiry man on a scooter pulled up along side us, asked where we were going, then produced a business card of the hotel we mentioned and told us that he worked there. He convinced the two of us to climb on the back of his scooter (yes, that is three adults, two of us much bigger Westerners) and our backpacks on one little 100cc scooter. He didn’t charge us anything, but did give us a soft sell on taking a tour from him to the local temples. Happily, that is what we had intended to do in the first place- the Swiss couple we met in Yangon recommended we take a tour with Mg Hla of Myananda Hotel in Bago (as do we- he’s terrific!). So that’s what we did!

We had arrived so late that I thought the tour would be rushed or maybe cut short, but our guide did a great job of keeping up the pace, but still allowing us enough time to walk around and take all the photos we wanted. We visited 2 reclining Buddhas, 4 pagodas, and the ‘snake monastery’, which had an enormous python laying about (I’m not sure how she was because she was all curled up and digesting her monthly meal of 5 chickens, which we could identify as 5 lumps along her body). The snake is supposedly the reincarnation of the daughter of one of the head monks at the monastery, who has since died. No word on how a monk came to have a daughter, which we found more puzzling than seeing her reincarnated as a python.

Snake charmer

One of Bago’s two giant reclining Buddhas

Here’s the other one

Buddha garden

Stairway to Heaven

Evening haze

The whole tour took a little under 4 hours and we enjoyed every minute of it, even though our guide insisted on ferrying the two of us together on the back of his bike (better than him having to share profits with another driver). We didn’t mind; we had a fantastic time and he even set us up with bus tickets the next day to Inle Lake that were probably more expensive than we ought to have paid but still cheaper than what our hotel was trying to charge us. The bus ride was the best that we’ve had so far, but also much longer than any other we’ve had in Myanmar at 12 hours. We were promised air-con and by God, we got it! By the time we finally fell asleep over the blare of low-quality Burmese movies playing from the flatscreen at the front of the bus (why?), we were so cold that we were literally huddling together for warmth. We both brought our standard bus gear: a fleece and sarong for me over long pants and two thermal shirts and long pants for R. I can only imagine how the bare-shouldered monks in front of us fared. Still, it was a comfortable enough ride, even though it dropped us off at our junction a little after 3am with no onward transport starting til 7:30am. We stopped for coffee and then bargained with a taxi driver t take us the remaining 11km to Nyaungshwe, the hub town for Inle Lake tourism. Each time we take a taxi, or bus for that matter, I debate whether we have overpaid, what is the correct price, and what the alternatives might have been, but it is a fruitless effort. Prices are high and it seems that everyone is in on the game. It’s not the price itself, which is typically pretty reasonable, but the limited choice and sense that we are being taken advantage of is a bit unsettling. Anyway, it all worked out fine and we even took our cab driver’s suggestion on a place to stay, which we found was a better bargain than surrounding hotels once we had the chance to go out an comparison shop.

We are really packing in the activities- all the better for seeing as much as we can in 3 weeks- but there are only so many places we can afford to go on our budget and many places that we’d like to go are off limits to tourists or require a government permit or a whole lot of money to get to. We are making a conscious effort to slow down a bit and take in a bit more of where we are.