After my quick stop-over in Bago where I had all the temples and sights to myself, I arrived in Kyaikhto town, where the madness began. Thousands and thousands of pilgrims were making their way up the mountain to pay their respect to the most important monument of Buddhist faith – Kyaikhto, the golden rock.
I had arrived at the peak of pilgrim season. We were squeezed in tightly on the army pick-up trucks that took us up the mountain on windy roads in a frightening speed. Western tourists were a rare sight between the pilgrims arriving from all over Myanmar and neighboring Buddhist countries. Young and old were squeezed in the trucks, the 90-year-old ladies as well as the new-born babies and off we went. I was happy I survived.
And then reality hit me….in my (naive and foolish) imagination, Kyaikhto was standing all deserted on a cliff almost tipping off the edge and I imagined witnessing some monks offering their prayers in all solitude…but, I was greeted by loud music, flashlights and thousands of people that were camping on the grounds of the area and the actual sacred monument was looking small and almost lost in the turmoil. Faith and worship differ between Christian and Buddhist or Hindu faith. While going to church and paying your respect to God is a rather calm and solemn affair at least where I come from, here in Myanmar it has a party-like atmosphere with deafening electro music, food stalls, flashing neon lights and a whole lot more people. I had pictured the place completely differently in my mind and was a little shocked on my arrival.
The place was so crowded and there was a constant flow of people arriving and leaving through the whole day. Naively again, I had thought that all the pilgrims who did not sleep in the few hotels and monasteries up the mountain had to leave in the evening before sunset and that the place would be deserted for sunset, giving a calm and peaceful atmosphere and perfect photo conditions. Within this idea, I had booked a totally overpriced room on top of the mountain (96 USD for a room that would be less than 20 USD in the rest of the country). And again, not at all, everyone was camping on the grounds, there were only small corridors where one could walk, the rest of the space was covered by sleeping people. It was a powerful experience to witness all those people practice their faith and the group spirit, but it was also very tiring, since we Westerners were considered an attraction swell and as soon as I slowed my pace, someone jumped up to take a picture with me. My face was hurting from smiling after a couple of hours up on the mountain, and I am not even exaggerating. Even monks wanted to have their picture taken with me!
However, between all the noise and the people, it was still a powerful experience and I can understand why some of my friends urged me to got. But I guess I would have enjoyed it more if I had a more realistic conception of what was expecting me so I hope this post will help those preparing a trip to the famous Golden Rock.
Only men are allowed to touch the holy rock.
When researching, I always saw pictures of the rock only…no people in sight. Now I know that everyone just cuts the masses out to let the monument shine.
Young nuns circling the pagoda.
Food stalls at every corner.
Sunset – not as peaceful as I had hoped but beautiful none the less.
The next morning at 6 a.m. everything was already in full swing. From 4 a.m. on, the vendors have started selling their toys, among them some horns that make the sound of cars honking. And then I realized that it was not the arriving trucks that woke me at 4 a.m. but the vendors advertising their toys. I almost lost it at that point….
And then again, a few minutes later, I came across these monks collecting the almoses in all serenity in the early morning, chanting quietly while all (and literally all) the bypassers dropped a few coins or bills in their cups. It was a humbling sight. I felt humbled and moved. It was a beautiful scene.
Thank you, Myanmar, for all you have shown and taught me!