Getting up at 5.15 in the morning never is fun. We were told by our guesthouse in Yangon, however, that it would be sensible to be at the bus station early to secure tickets for an early morning direct bus to Mount Kyatkiyo, better known as the Golden Rock. So we get up early.
We shouldn’t have worried.
Life insurance included
Only a few people are interested in making the journey to one of the holiest Buddhist sites in Myanmar at this particular time. We have to wait an extra hour for the bus to fill up with enough people to make the trip profitable for the driver. But then we go. After 4 hours filled with Myanmar pop, rock, rap, hip hop and a melancholic cover of Abba’s ‘I have a dream’ we arrive at the village of Kyatkiyo where trucks leave to take us up to the Golden Rock.
The truck drivers try to cram 48 people into the truck bed with eight closely spaced metal benches. For taller people like me (1.88 m) it’s a tight fit. The 40 minute ride feels like a ride in a rollercoaster, closing my eyes it’s just like riding Space Mountain – less intense but with more risk of falling out. Luckily life insurance is included in our 2 USD ticket….
To experience the Golden Rock at its fullest and see the Sunset and Sunrise we’ve chosen to spent the night on the top of the mountain, near the sacred rock. Taking the last truck of the day back down would mean we’d miss the Sunset and the first trucks up start too late for Sunrise. The drawback is that as foreigners we have to stay at an overpriced hotel.
As we check in to our hotel and see what 98 USD gets us, we’re not very happy. It’s worth 10 USD. Tops. But we were told this was the best of a bad bunch so we have to suck it up. Better get out quickly and see what the Golden Rock is all about. At first sight it doesn’t impress us much: Just an oval shaped rock painted gold with a small stupa on top.
But the longer we stay, walk around a bit and see the colors of the rock change with the slowly setting sun, the lights getting on once it gets dark, and watch the growing number of devotees who’ve come to pray and light candles, the place starts to grow on us. This is what we’ve come for.
Many local pilgrims
What also makes the Golden Rock special is that it’s the only place in Myanmar that sees thousands of local visitors, pilgrims mostly, many of whom sleep in the open air near the rock. The combination of religious devotion and a festival atmosphere is fascinating.
We walk around to take it all in until our feet hurt from walking barefoot most of the time. Luckily we’re not to squeamish about getting our feet dirty as shoes (and wearing socks) are forbidden on a big part of the mountain top. Something else that is forbidden: Women are not allowed to approach the rock to worship and add gold leaf to its surface. They have to keep their distance. Bad luck for Eugénie.
The next morning we get up at 5.15 again Sunrise (we’re on a holiday right?), but somehow it is less mesmerizing than Sunset the night before. After breakfast we take the truck back down again. It’s busy as many pilgrims, after a night of praying, are leaving at this time too. We get seated just behind the cabin of the truck this time and strangely enough these seats have a little more leg room.
Short stop in Bago
Back at the Kyaktiyo bus station we have to wait a long time as the first possible bus leaving for Yangon is completely full. Bummer. We want to make a stop at Bago on the way back and this way we’ll get there well past noon. Once in Bago we’re dropped somewhere along the main road. We’re approached by some touts who want us to take a tuktuk tour of Bago with ‘their friend’. As no other opportunities arise and we don’t know where we are in the city we succumb.
The ‘friend’ turns out to be OK, but we get the feeling that we’re not taken to all the places we want to see. The most important sights seem to be in the tour though: the impressive Shwemawdaw Paya (with a golden domed stupa even higher than the Shwedagon Paya in Yangon), the Maha Kalyani Sima, the Four Figures Paya (with four standing Buddhas), the colorful Kyaik Pun Paya (with four giant 30 meter high sitting Buddhas) and the snake monastery (with a snoozing python).
At the end of the day we take a rambling mini-bus back to Yangon. It’s been two exhausting days, but we wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
We visited the Golden Rock and Bago in December 2014
Travel tips Golden Rock
Visit – As a foreigner you have to pay 6 USD entrance fee. The best time to go is during the pilgrimage season (November-March) which coincides with the dry season in Myanmar. It’s possible to hike up and down (hard) if you want to save the fare for the truck.
Stay – Charging $ 98 for a room that is no better than a $ 10 room anywhere else in the world is nothing more than stealing in our book. As a foreigner visiting the Golden Rock, however, you are at the mercy of the four very overpriced hotels where foreigners are allowed to stay. Location, location, location, as they are all close to the Golden Rock
Our ‘superior’ room at the Kyaik Hto Hotel was not much more than a concrete box with an attached badly ventilated bathroom which made the whole room smell musty. Worn carpeting on the floor, also under the sink that’s situated in the room, and of course no Wifi make for very low value. The big cheerless breakfast hall seemed in need of an overhaul. On a positive note: breakfast buffet was OK with much choice.
Eat – Near the Golden Rock is one restaurant street with many restaurants having mostly the same menus. Waiters are shouting at passersby to come in, making for quite a fun spectacle. We choose the restaurant that seemed to have the most enthusiastic waiters.
Transport – We took one of the few buses that go directly from Yangon to Kyatkiyo. More buses go to the nearby town of Kinpun, where you can change to pick-up trucks for Kyatkiyo. Every Saturday there’s also a train from Yangon to Kinpun.
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