Although Kyaiktiyo, also known as Golden Rock, is one of most incredible sights anywhere, we offered the visit as an extension to the Myanmar photo tour because it is a more arduous journey. It started with a ride (by private mini-bus) to Kyaikhto, about 160km from Yangon, which took about five hours.
From the base station, the only access to the hilltop is by foot (only done by the most hardy pilgrims), or by custom busses, which are just large pick-up trucks with seats. As the sign says, the fare of 3,000 kyat (US $3) includes life-insurance.
Each bus carries 35 passengers seated on hard benches in the back. We were part of the few lucky on the front, although even there it is quite cramped and bumpy. The trip takes one hour, not including a stop mid-way, necessary because on the upper segment, the road is one-lane. I’ve read that because it is too hazardous, foreigners are not allowed to ride that segment, but we were able to do so, which saved 45 minutes of uphill walking.
The amenities at the hilltop hotels are quite basic. During mealtime, as one of the legs of my chair plunged through a hole in the floor which was covered with linoleum, I almost fell. However, we were just a few minutes from the Kyaiktiyo pagoda. Near the entrance, young men were playing Chin Lone, a no-hands version of volleyball, using as a net post one of the ladders provided for climbing into the busses.
The focus of Kyaiktiyo is the Golden Rock, a large granite boulder covered with gold leaves pasted on by devotees. The gravity-defying boulder lies on an inclined rock slab with a small area of contact, overhanging for half its length.
On top of the rock, a small pagoda has been built. It is said that it is a strand of Buddha’s hair enshrined in it which miraculously prevents the rock from tumbling down the hill.
While the Golden Rock is a wondrous sight at any time of the day – there is nothing like it anywhere else – it is most beautiful at dawn and dusk, when it glows magically.
Due to its remote location, the atmosphere surrounding the Golden Rock is much more charged with mysticism and devotion than other sites we have visited. Pilgrims light up candles, pray and chant through the night.
The Golden Rock is the third most important Buddhist pilgrimage site in Myanmar after the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon and the Mahamuni Pagoda in Mandalay. Food and souvenirs are available at the nearby Potemkin village, where the ambiance is more festive.
When time comes to go to sleep, many pilgrims camp right on the plaza, wrapped in thick blankets against the chill of the hilltop location (1,100 meters elevation).
With the exception of a few, guesthouses cater to Burmese people. Probably due to the more arduous journey, the number of tourists is still relatively small, which contributes to the quality of the atmosphere.
On the way back to Yangon, we made a lunch stop in Bago. There, this cyclo driver was reading a newspaper featuring a picture of some folks who looked awfully familiar.
Our photo tour group made it into the news !
See more photos of Kyaiktiyo