Myanmar: Where Even the Rocks Are Paved With Gold

Posted by on Mar 7, 2013 in Architecture, Asia, Burma, Myanmar, Religion | 0 comments

Golden Rock, which is known locally as Kyaiktiyo Pagoda, is located in the Mon State of Myanmar. It’s a 210 kilometer drive from Yangon. (That’s 126 miles). This is one of the most sacred sites in Burma. The candle-lit vigils, prayers, travelers, tourists and photographers all combine for an interesting outing. Those who visit seem as if they’ve been summoned and perhaps even captivated by some secret siren’s song. Recently I journeyed to Golden Rock on an incredibly hot day to learn of its allure.

The drive from Yangon to the Golden Rock takes approximately four hours, passing through Bago and then into the Mon State. I took a day trip from Yangon, which of course involves a very long day indeed. If you were to take this trip, you would be departing at 5 a.m. from your hotel, and returning at around 5 p.m. Most tourists stay overnight at Golden Rock, and that makes the trip a bit easier from a physical and logistical point of view. However, the hotels on-site are not of a very high standard. The best hotel at Golden Rock is the Kyaik Hto Hotel.

 

Golden Rock,  known locally as Kyaiktiyo Pagoda.

Golden Rock, known locally as Kyaiktiyo Pagoda.

I set my sights on Golden Rock, an image that has become iconic for Myanmar. I had always wanted to take a definitive photo here, but it never seemed worthy of taking a full day’s journey just to see this singular destination. Yet after visiting Myanmar over a period of 20 years, I decided that it was about time.  What I was about to learn (and have seen many times in the past), is that the trip is more about the journey than the destination. This slice of wisdom cannot be overstated. How you get there, as well as whom you travel with and befriend along the way can make all the difference in the world.

 

As previously noted, I departed Yangon (a city undergoing rapid social-political change in recent times) at 5 a.m. with my guides. To me, 5 a.m. is a horrible time to go anywhere, even on the best of days. However, in Myanmar, any negative thoughts about one’s early rising tend to quickly disappear once the sun starts to glimmer on the horizon.

 

Novice monks in Bago

Novice monks in Bago

It is magical watching rural Myanmar wake up. The mist rises over the rice fields and pagodas. People are waking up and going about their business. Monks leave their temples and walk through the villages for their morning alms. Temples glimmer in the orange-laden first light of the day. As soon as I got out of Yangon, and the sun was rising, I felt a sense of excitement for the journey I had just embarked upon.

 

Our first stop was Bago, at 7 a.m., just after the sun had risen. We went to Kyaikpun Pago, famous for its four gigantic Buddhas. It was beautiful in the early morning light, and I had it all to myself.  Bago is an interesting place. Legend says that was founded by two Mon princesses back in 573 A.D. The Lord Buddha predicted a Kingdom would arise in this very place – and it did.

 

The earliest mention of this city in history comes from a traveler named Ibn Khudadhbin, who visited here and wrote about Bago in 850 A.D. Exactly 1002 years after Ibn Khudadhbin’s account was first published, the British Empire annexed Bago. (Meaning 1852). Regardless, Bago has a strong focus in Buddhist lore.

Kyaikpun Pago

Kyaikpun Pago in Bago

As for Kyaikpun Pago, it comes from a Mon lexis: “Kyaik” (Buddha) and “Pon” which means “Four.” This makes perfect sense in relation to the Four Seated Buddha shrine here. It is about 90 feet high and is a statue showing four Buddhas . They are all seated back-to-back in four positions and in four directions. This amazing place was built in the 600’s A.D. by the Bago King Migadippa. It was renovated around the time of Columbus by King Dhammaceti.

 

Monks were passing by for their morning alms as I was leaving. I took some photographs, trying to blend in with the scene at large.

Monks collecting alms in early morning Bago.

Monks collecting alms in early morning Bago.

Next was the Shwethalyaung Reclining Buddha – it is 55 meters long and 16 meters high, making it the second largest Buddha in the world. The original Buddha is believed to have been built in 994 A.D, just before the First Crusade was launched in Europe. Locals were already in the temple worshipping the Buddha.

 

In a page out of Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Shwethalyaung Reclining Buddha, as massive as it is, was actually “lost” to the world in 1757 when it was pillaged. Then during the epoch of British India, the Shwethalyaung Reclining Buddha was rediscovered under a huge canopy of jungle growth. A restoration project began around 1880. The Buddha’s mosaic pillows were made an addition in 1930.

Worshipers at Shwethalyaung Reclining Buddha

Worshipers at Shwethalyaung Reclining Buddha

Leaving Bago, we passed Shwe Maw Daw Stupa, resembling the more famous Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, but it is actually larger.  It is often called the “Golden God Temple.” It is 375 feet in height, which would be a home run at Yankee Stadium. It is the tallest pagoda in Burma, no doubt about it. It was built around 1000 A.D. Yet it was destroyed a few times by horrendous earthquakes, including a terrible one in 1917 and again in 1930. The original pagoda here is said to have housed two hairs from the Buddha. These hairs were personally given to two Mon merchants by the Buddha during a trip to India.  Tooth relics of the Buddha were added in 982 A.D. and 1385 A.D.

 

Family members of the novice monks join the procession

Family members of the novice monks join the procession

As we were leaving Bago, there was suddenly a traffic jam, which seemed a bit strange for 7:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning in rural Myanmar. Yet it turned out there was a procession of novice monks (and their families) on their way to the temple, and a head shaving ceremony. To become a monk you must make certain changes, wear certain clothing and of course, shave your head. There’s no time limit on becoming a monk. You could become a monk for 20 days or even 20 minutes if you wish. There’s no clock ticking, per se. Shaving one’s head is an important ritual that  has a deep meaning about making a serious pledge.

 

A novice monk procession in Bago.

A novice monk procession in Bago.

I was lucky to encounter this scene in a village as the novice monks were riding about on horseback, faces painted, and wearing colorful costumes. This was truly a stroke of luck. In a juxtaposed situation, a similar ceremony in Yangon carried out by a similar troupe would be carried out in motorized transportation. There were probably ten novice monks, from as young as five years old to their early teens. The entire families of these ten children also took part in the procession — first the elder men on horses, with elaborate umbrellas, next the novice monks, followed by the women. There was a long procession of the prettiest girls in the village, all carrying gold.  The reason for this is simple: The Burmese do not trust paper money, made from ink and paper, or even digits on a computer screen. Yes it’s barter to facilitate trade. The Burmese people, in general, have always worn gold in some fashion. This is their “IRA” so to speak. Gold has been a measure and store of wealth since almost the dawn of human history.

 

A teenager about to become a novice monk

A teenager about to become a novice monk

Near the end was a portable “band,” with drums and a keyboard on the back of a bicycle with a loud speaker.  There was also one man dressed up in a traditional manner and he was busy dancing. It was, in a word, festive. It was more than that — it was authentic.  And best of all, as a Westerner, I was on hand to see it. Although I have seen a head shaving ceremony a few years ago in Yangon, I had always wanted to see this sort of procession in a more rural environment, so it felt like a very lucky day for me. Once again,  it’s not the final destination, it’s the journey.

 

Having taken in this wonderfully unexpected ceremonial procession, we still had about a three hour drive to the base of the Kyaiktiyo Golden Rock. Arriving at the base revealed a chaotic scene. I was the only foreigner there, but there were literally hundreds of local pilgrims. It is required for visitors to board the open air, back part of a truck, and then drive 45 minutes to the top. Every time a truck pulled up, people scrambled for position inside the truck’s carrying area. Several  came and went, and still I couldn’t get on board.

 

Eventually, I was able to climb up small stairs and crammed myself into the back of a truck. This was purely a “cattle class” drive. I knew it was hot that day, but from the air conditioned car I hadn’t realized that the temperature was actually 42 C (107 F) out in the full power of the Sun. The truck raced up the mountain at breakneck speed. As such, I was often feeling a little less than safe. But these are the risks one takes …

The truck was so packed I felt like a refugee rushing to the border.

The truck was so packed I felt like a refugee rushing to the border.

The truck stopped three times on the way up: twice to ask for donations, and also to wait for other trucks to come down – as the final approach was too narrow for two-way traffic. It was unnerving and even harrowing at times.

 

Finally we arrived. In the distance I could see the big golden rock. By now there were not hundreds, but thousands of pilgrims in the area, most of them staying overnight. I had always thought that the Golden Rock was painted gold — that seemed logical on a certain level. However, this being Myanmar, I learned that it is actually completely covered in gold leaf. My guide said that it was indeed two metric tons of gold leaf. That’s pretty impressive if it’s true.

 

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It is amazing that despite numerous earthquakes, Golden Rock has never fallen down.

The Burmese people attach gold leaf strips to the Golden Rock. This is not surprising as gold is such an ingrained part of their socio-economic culture. Women are not allowed to touch the rock but men can affix golden leaves. Real yellow gold leaf is more than 90 percent pure gold – 92 percent to be exact. The only way to know for sure about the gold that’s a part of Golden Rock would be to examine the purity of each strip of gold attached to the rock. Objectiveness might infer that there’s real gold of varying purity, as well and gold that’s not real. Could very poor pilgrims afford real gold? Regardless, this only adds to the mystery and allure of the place.

 

The Golden Rock is considered sacred to the Burmese. There is a small stupa on top. Legend says it is kept in place by a single strand of hair from the Buddha. The hair was given to a hermit by the Buddha. The hermit then gave it to his King (who was named Thagyamin), with the instruction that it should be placed under a rock that resembled the hermit’s head. Hence the name “Kyaiktiyo,” which means “Pagoda on a Hermit’s Head.”

 

Golden Rock is an impressive site, and it lived up to the photographs that I had seen of it in the past. I photographed the pagoda from a variety of angles. Then it was time to make our way back to Yangon. First, I had to board my “favorite” truck for another 45 minutes of frying pan hell. (Please be aware that there is a way around this for Remote Lands clients — for a price, a private truck can be hired).

Taukkyan War Cemetery

Taukkyan War Cemetery contains the graves 6,374 soldiers who died in World War II

 

We took the highway back to Yangon and stopped briefly at the Taukkyan War Cemetery, which contains the graves of 6,374 soldiers who died in World War II.  These men paid the ultimate price.  The Burma Theater had a wide range of issues: The Burma Railway, as a path to India, Karen rebels fighting in the anti-Japanese resistance, crude oil and other tangents. Taukkyan also provides a remembrance for the 27,000 Commonwealth soldiers who died fighting in Burma. Many or most of those buried here are from India and Africa. Five soldiers buried on-site were given the Victoria Cross.

 

My trip complete, I returned to Yangon, more tired but wiser on many levels. The journey is indeed more important than the destination.

 

Why not contact Remote Lands today at info@remotelands.com to begin planning you own journey to Myanmar and beyond?

 

Jay Tindall

Jay Tindall is co-Founder and COO of luxury Asia tour operator Remote Lands Inc. He has lived and worked in Asia for over 20 years and currently resides in Bangkok, Thailand.

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