It was 5am. Our alarm bell bounced off the MDF walls of our box room, awaking us, groggy, for an adventure to the top of Mt. Kyaiktiyo in the Mon State, Myanmar. We’d heard from many a traveller that The Golden Rock was a marvel not to be missed, but the journey up on the truck, was what caught our attention.
“It’s quite the adventure” people said, “hold on tight! It’s certainly going to wake you up… Maybe walk back down, to be safe.” What was so bad about a truck drive up a mountain? It can’t be that bad, surely?
Well, this was Asia, and this was to be, in fact, quite the experience.
After eventually securing our place in the vehicle from Kinpun village, my travel companion and I climbed the ladder to be loaded into the open top truck along with an alarming amount of locals, like sardines packed in a tin. The air was cold, and the light had yet to appear above the horizon – I noticed the sign. “Ticket price includes life insurance.” Life insurance?! The ticket cost around £1.50 – surely that can’t be right, but I was grateful to some degree.
We set off an hour later than planned (they only leave if the truck is full), aiming to catch the sunrise at the summit, but merely managing to watch it rise as we did, hurtling up the side of a winding, narrow road.
As soon as we’d set off, the hairs on my arms were standing not only from the chill in the air. I was starting to see why we’d been warned to hold on tight. It was terrifying. Up and down and around bends and down again only to storm back up a road that didn’t seem possible for a truck weighted with a good 50 people to climb. I screamed, at many occasions, fuelled by adrenaline, grasping on to my friends hand and nervously laughing whilst the locals sat calm, although slightly pale in the face. Some covered their face in hopes to keep their morning tea down. The journey itself was spectacular – in a hold on for dear life kind of way – but it’s safe to say my friend and I became the attraction to the locals. They stared at us in wonder and amusement, the two foreigners wailing with cameras in the air, huddled for warmth and shielding necks with scarves from the piercing wind.
Suddenly the life insurance seemed necessary.
As we climbed, at impressive speed, the sun blessed the scene with its light. Valleys opened up before us, vast mounds of green and forest, as far as the eye could see. Breathtaking – in all respects. Small wooden shack buildings – homes and businesses – and blue tin roofs polka dotted the green. The road seemed to be the same height as the tree canopy as we neared the top, giving the feeling of safety when in reality, if we plundered off the edge we’d drop through the leaves and in to the depths… Palm trees and banana trees and all sorts of trees. Everywhere. Their beauty undamaged by the snaking tarmac.
Finally, after what felt like the longest rollercoaster, we arrived at the furthest point the truck would go, and hastily hopped off the top. Alive.
We joined groups of people, Buddhist pilgrims and tourists alike, and paid the fee for our entry to the site. As we passed lines of young monks, ritually walking with small cauldrons collecting donations, and climbed some more steps, the magnificent rock we’d risked all to see, came into view.
1100 metres above sea level, its a wonder how on earth this structure doesn’t roll off Kyaiktiyo hill. It’s magnificent. Essentially, its a massive granite boulder, perched almost impossibly overhanging the edge of the hill. The rock itself is around 7m tall, and atop that, is placed a 7.3m pagoda. Like the rock is wearing a decadent gold birthday hat. The entire structure is embellished in gold leaf, a practice held strictly for men (I’ll sweep past the sexism in respect to religion, here) – if you’re lucky enough (in this case) to be such gender, you can donate a small fee to add a splash of leaf yourself. I, sadly, could not. I could merely marvel from a safe distance – but what a marvel to behold.
Legend has it that the rock stays put, as it’s balanced on top of a strand of Buddha’s hair. That’s pretty neat. It’s truly stunning, and is the third most sacred sight in Myanmar after the Shwedagon Pagoda (Yangon) and the Mahamuni Pagoda (Mandalay).
We spent the day wandering around the small town at the summit, gazing at the giant stone in all angles, treated to a 360 view of the surrounding valley. Incredible. We ate traditional Shan noodles – native to the Shan state, but enjoyed across the country – and basked in the morning sun before deciding to head back down. On foot.
Three hours climbing back down through small villages and dense woodland was a stark relief to the adrenaline filled ascent. Totally worth it, make the pilgrimage. Take the truck, see the rock. Make sure you opt for the insurance… and hold on tight.