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To Be A Rock and Not to Roll [The Route Up Mt. Kyaiktiyo]

7 Aug

I was soaked to the bone, tired, dehydrated, and bogged by doubt. I had come to a fork somewhere in the middle of a road that was cloaked in a monsoon cloud. I flashed back to my climb up Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka which had occurred almost exactly a year to the day I now found myself [see previous post regarding the encounter with Adam’s Peak: https://startupkoan.com/2012/11/02/sri-pada-adams-peak-prologue/].  That had turned out to be an incredible experience — but this time I may have taken things too lightly. I was glib — not prepared, had no map, no food or water. There were 2 paths before me. I could see no more than 3m in any direction. The rain pounded down in a manner that I still cannot properly describe. This was invasive and insidious rain. I was carrying a pathetic excuse for an umbrella and wearing a thin poncho, windbreaker, t-shirt, shorts, and sandals. I had my camera and a small daypack tucked between my shirt and bare skin. Everything inside — the pristine U.S. dollars, my passport, hotel voucher, etc. — was in jeopardy of being ruined.  If I chose the wrong path, I probably would not have realized it for a long period of time, and then I would probably be too exhausted to walk back.  I stood there mutely, licking the rainwater pooling on the corners of my mouth — at an utter loss.  I was on a journey to get to the top of Mt. Kyaiktiyo in eastern Burma. The elevation is only about 1100m (3400ft), but this is no ordinary mountaintop. It is where the holy Golden Rock sits. The Golden Rock consists of a large round boulder — perched at a ridiculously precarious angle atop a small cliff-face. The boulder is covered with layers and layers of flattened golden foil placed by the faithful over the centuries. A 7m (24ft) golden pagoda spire has been placed on the top of it. Inside this spire is a single strand of hair which belonged to the Buddha.  It is this hair which keeps the boulder from rolling over the precipice on which it rests — oblivious to the winds, rains, earthquakes, and other natural and manmade disasters that smack against it.  From the second I had seen an image of the Golden Rock, I knew I had to make the journey.  I had come during the monsoon season which was the “off” pilgrimage season, and so the route would be more arduous and the conditions unpredictable.

Betel Nut seller - Bago market

Betel Nut seller – Bago market

My trip had begun that morning from Rangoon where I had booked a driver to take me about 150km east through the old town of Bago, across the mouth of the Gulf of Mottama, and then up to the small village of Kinpun. Kinpun is more or less a mountain base camp where travelers and pilgrims can pick up supplies before venturing to Mt. Kyaiktiyo. The most common way to get to the top of mountain and see the Golden Rock is to hop on one of the specially outfitted trucks which come and go during the morning until the late afternoon. These trucks have flatbeds with rows of wooden slats/benches that people can sit on. The trucks zoom up the winding road until they reach the Yatetaung bus terminal. No vehicles are allowed to go any further than this terminal. From there, one has to walk up to the top of the mountain which should take about 45 minutes to an hour.  I had reserved a room at one of the 2 hotels on the top of Mt. Kyaiktiyo which was close to the Golden Rock, so my plan had been to get to the hotel and check-in by 2pm and then spend the rest of day until sunset at the Golden Rock. I would come down the mountain the next day and my driver would meet me in Kinpun and take me back to Rangoon.  When I arrived at Kinpun on the day of my trip up the mountain, I found one of the trucks waiting for passengers.  I paid the truck driver around 1200 Kyat and climbed onto the truckbed and found an open slat to sit on.

A bit of a squeeze - but headed in right direction

A bit of a squeeze in the truckbed – but at least no rain

Sitting in the back of a truck - headed toward Mt. Kyaikhtiko

Securing bags while driving up

Within a few minutes afterwards, all the slats were occupied by other people — who seemed to be locals. There were no backs to the slats, but despite the cram and having elbows, knees, and arses in one’s face, it seemed cozy.  It was not raining at Kinpun and while the sky was cloudy there was the occasional glimmer of sun. The truck began driving up the mountain which transformed into a lusher landscape with each twist that took us higher. People were chatting and laughing along the way. One of the men who I assumed was an assistant of the driver was securing bags and luggage that had been stored in the front compartment of the truckbed while the truck was doing hairpin turns. I was cautiously optimistic that perhaps the monsoon would skirt around the mountain, but then — like we crossed some boundary — the heavens opened and the rain fell — HARD. Everyone in the truck put their heads between their knees and tried to shield themselves.  All voices abruptly quieted and only the swishy sounds of switching gears and the truck sliding along the wet road remained.  I remember clutching my camera and daypack tightly against my stomach and silently counting off the minutes — thinking that the 10 miles up to the bus terminal would not take more than 30 minutes.  But, as the rain kept hitting me, I dropped the counting and just steeled myself to stay warm and focused on the walk up to the top of Mt. Kyaiktiyo that was waiting for me.

Truck at Yatetaung bus terminal

Truck at Yatetaung bus terminal

When the truck pulled into the bus terminal — which was nothing more that an iron shed help up by a few posts — I disentangled my legs and arms from the person next to me, shook off the rainwater, and walked down the step-ladder that was affixed to the truck dock. I looked out of the shed and hoped to find a storefront with a roof to run under before figuring things out. As I scanned the scene, I met the eyes of a very young female Buddhist monk in pink who was barefoot and standing with other female monks collecting alms from a few people in the area. She didn’t have an umbrella with her and her robes were drenched. She struck me as completely ambivalent.  When the alms collection finished, she trudged off in the mud and disappeared in the mist like an apparition.  I darted out of the shed to a small building across the way. The mist was getting heavier now and visibility was starting to get reduced.  It was around 1pm and I had to get moving.  I found a sign in Burmese with an arrow pointing up and to the left. I interpreted this to mean: “Golden Rock – This Way”.  After a few strides up, I was confident I was headed the right way. Then, something made me turn around and look behind me. I did not see a single person around — anywhere. What happened to all the people who had come up with me on the truck?  There was no trace of them. The mountain and the rain seemed to be waiting just for me.

Rangoon Night

12 Mar

City centre neighborhood – Yangon, Myanmar (2011)

I arrived in Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar (Burma) on a thick and misty summer night in June 2011. Aung San Suu Kyi was still under house arrest and the military junta had not yet begun to relax its grip. On the day before my arrival, a plane carrying the actress, Michelle Yeoh, who was filming a movie (“The Lady”) in which she was starring as Suu Kyi had landed in Yangon. But, Yeoh was not allowed to enter the country and was forced to fly back to Bangkok. Yeoh had wanted to discuss the role and film with Suu Kyi, but the government decided to nix the visit.  It was extremely difficult for any foreign dignitaries or visitors to see Suu Kyi at her house which sat on Inya Lake.  In 2009, a wacked out American who had created makeshift paperboard fins swum the length of that lake to “rescue” Suu Kyi.  His “heroics” instead only succeeded in having Suu Kyi’s house arrest extended by the government. Before coming to Burma, I had screened a documentary called “Burma VJ” about the September 2007 uprisings led by the Buddhist monks and others which had been crushed by the government.  Most of these monks had either been arrested, beaten, and sent to Insein Prison where they were never seen again. Others managed to flee the country to Thailand and elsewhere.  I had heard that solo travelers who came to Burma could expect to get followed by government agents. Even more troubling was that due to all the economic sanctions on the country, one had to travel only with cash — pristine, unmarked U.S. bills to be exact. There was no way to wire money into the country or to use credit cards.  There were two currency exchange conversion rates — one was set by the Myanmar government and arbitrarily computed — and the other was set by the black market — which could only be found in the back alleys of street markets, or in the back rooms of hotels where foreigners stayed.  I read a few horror stories about travelers who came to Burma with U.S. bills which were not accepted because of small creases or the absence of a preferred circulation letter or number. These travelers ended up having their trips cut short since they could not fund things.  I had gone to my bank a week before I set off for Burma and asked for the newest printed U.S. bills they had and was able to receive newish bills in different denominations.  I then took extreme care to protect and keep these bills in the flattest state possible until I got to Burma. I knew that when I found a place in Yangon where I could change the U.S. bills into the local Kyat currency, I could expect to receive so many Kyat that they piled up like a literal brick.  So, I had visions of walking around with this brick of money in my backpack as I did my circuit through the country. In 2011, there were also rumors swirling that the military junta was planning to raze much of Yangon — including the magnificent Schwedagon Pagoda. The government had already moved the capital from Yangon to an obscure outpost in the middle of the country called Nay Pyi Daw and they were building duplicates of Burma’s iconic sights there.  Suffice it to say that this was a trip that would require strong presence of mind, thoughtful planning, and a little luck…

Monks in the rain - Yangon

Monks in the rain – Yangon

It was trade which had brought Theravada Buddhism to Burma over a millennia ago. When Sinhalese merchant sailors had left Sri Lanka and crossed the Bay of Bengal, they hit land in the mouth of the Irrawaddy River basin. This great river shoots up and curves through the heart of Burma — and that’s how the Dharma first spread. Within a few centuries, the teachings of Buddha had spread from Burma through all of Southeast Asia.  I had mapped out an intense itinerary through the core Buddhist sights of Burma and this meant that I would have to fly to some of the places on Burmese airlines — some of which had dubious safety records. I was to meet a travel agent in Yangon on my second day in order to pay for my plane tickets in cash since there was no other way to purchase tickets in advance. So, I was a bit anxious about getting this taken care of in addition to remaining within my tight daily budget. On that night of my arrival in Rangoon, I hopped into the first cab I found outside the airport. As we drove to my hotel, I saw and smelled the dilapidated state of everything around me — the unpaved roads, lack of street lights, muddy markets spilling out their wares in the street, and crumbling storefronts. The cab I was in had no windshield wipers. My driver had to stick his right hand out of his window and use a closed umbrella to wipe away the rain as he drove with his left hand! I was sitting in the back seat and the open window had me sucking in rain drop after rain drop. I could only laugh nervously to myself — and for a flash — I wondered if this trip would end up as a disaster.

Schwedagon Pagoda - perched above Yangon

Schwedagon Pagoda – perched above Yangon

This was a pariah nation and if things went bad for me, I would have little recourse and limited money to buy my way out. But, these doubts quickly vanished when something astonishing came into focus on the hill to my left. It was almost extraterrestrial in design and luminescence. I knew then that I was in for the epic. It burst.

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