Thanks to Karen for the help with the translation!
The Golden Rock is one of the holiest pilgrimage sites in Myanmar. It is a round boulder which sits on a cliff and looks as if it would roll down the mountain at any moment.
According to legend, Buddha gave a strand of his hair to a Hermit who brought it to the king and instructed him to build a shrine for the sacred hair . The shrine was to be made out of a rock in the form of the hermit´s head . The king looked for such a rock on the seabed and fortunately, he had supernatural powers because he was the son of a magician and a sea dragon princess. He eventually found a rock and brought it to a mountain in a boat and balanced it on the strand of hair.
Anselm and I decide to visit this special place and make our way to Kyaiktyio , which means ” pagoda on the head of a hermit .”
15 kilometers beforethe city, the traffic starts to build up and it eventually came to a halt. We suspect it is caused by an accident or a road block, and we weave our way through traffic. Fully loaded buses and cars wait patiently and only motorcycles manage to push through. After a few kilometers, the scene changes : Empty buses pulled over by the ditch , people park their cars and walk on foot , carrying large bundles with them. It dawns on us , these people are here to see the golden rock. Today is Independence Day , a holiday in Myanmar , and apparently locals take advantage of this day to visit the shrine.
Once again, the traffic reaches a halt. Traffic regulations are mere suggestions for Burmese drivers; they squeeze their way through any opportunity to get ahead of each other. As a result of this, there is a stand still on both directions. There is no room for motor vehicles to move or turn around and it leaves very little space for bikes, forcing many to swerve into tiny trails along the road.
We finally reach the village at the foot of the mountain where we were met by thousands of people filling the streets , shops and restaurants who were only too happy to make their cut for the year. A steep road leads up the mountain and several people advise against cycling up, so we leave the bicycles at a hotel and take a truck like the rest of the pilgrims.
This is the only means of transportation to the golden rock. The path is so steep that the only way to get there is to hop into one of these incredibly strong trucks. Concrete slabs pathed the curves up the mountain that were purpose-built for pilgrims of the sacred shrine. A truck leaves the station every minute, packed to the brim with passengers. Fortunately, only 50 people are allowed on each trip and the numbers are closely monitored by the police at another station. However, it is still very crowded and as each wooden bench seats up to six individuals.
In an insane speed, it goes up the hill. The driver makes abrupt twists and turns and thoughts of the truck possibly tipping over come to mind on numerous occasions.
I hear people scream while they cling to the metal bars .The ride lasted about half an hour and as the passengers disembarked, other pilgrims wrestled their way to secure a seat back down the hill.
We continue on foot , tailing the pushing crowd towards the golden rock. There are food and water sellers by the side of the road trying to make ends meet. The closer we get to the golden rock, the more boisterous and heavier the crowd gets: Music blaring from speakers , people burning incense sticks and falling to their knees facing the direction of the rock. A woman quotes Buddhist verses from a book with tears streaming down her face . A large crowd of visitors and believers gather around to stick gold leaf and touch the rock in devotion and awe.
These practices of worship and adoration has nothing to do with the actual teachings of the Buddha. In fact, I believe that if he knew what was going on, he would turn in his grave or jump out of Nirvana.
We continue to push through the crowd with very little success. The heavy congestion in the area gave enough space for only a small walkway for the people to push through as many of the pilgrims plan to spend the night here. They brought food and blankets to sheild themselves against the sun during the day, and at night, it served as protection against the cold. It gets cold up here in January, 1,000 meteres above sea level.
We make our way down the hill on a truck but the journey back seem even more dangerous than the way up. In a frantic pace, it speeds down the hill. The people scream and laugh every time we go over a bumb, lodging several passengers a few centimeters into the air. Well, perhaps their fearlessness springs from confidence in earning enough good karma and belief in reincarnation.
We make it safely down and it is dark by the time we arrive. We pick up our bikes and make our way out of town . The road is still blocked, with people and motorcycles weaving their way through the stationary vehicles stuck in traffic. A few kilometers later, we cycle off-road into a rubber plantation where we pitch our tents in the dark.