A crowd-free pilgrimage to Kyaikhtiyo

Wunna (Meiktila)
The Golden Rock is perched precariously on the cliff edge. (Photo – EMG)
The Golden Rock is perched precariously on the cliff edge. (Photo – EMG)

The Kyaikhtiyo Pagoda, or the Golden Rock, in Mon State is one of the most popular places of pilgrimage among local and foreign visitors. Despite its all-season accessibility, tourists tend to come here during the summer and winter.

We set out on our journey to the pagoda one early morning. As we passed through the sleepy town of Kyaikhto, I still was half asleep and half awake, but could see the road lined with endless rows of rubber plantations. The Kinpun base camp had sprung into life when we arrived.

After having sweet beinn mont (pancakes) for breakfast, we started inquiring about how to get to the pagoda, itself perched on the top of a mountain. The bus fees are Ks 2,000 (US$1.80) for adults, Ks 1,000 (US$0.90) for children, and Ks 3,000 (US$2.72) for front seats. 

With my companions prone to motion sickness, we decided to sit in the front. The ride through the hills was a real roller coaster, jolting us out of early-morning drowsiness despite a sleepless night.  As the bus negotiated a steep climb, some passengers were actually praying for safety. But others didn’t care: a newly-wedded couple had no qualms about acting lovey-dovey while other youngsters were taking selfies.

On our arrival in Yatetaung on the mountain top, it was cool and misty unlike the foothills’ hot and humid conditions. 

A four-wheel drive bus like this plies between the Golden Rock and the foothills. (Photo – EMG)

“We operate over 150 mountain buses. Since the month of Kason (between May and June), mountain bus services are provided on a rotational basis. Even when it’s raining, we still drive up the mountain so that the pilgrims can pay homage to the pagoda. Each bus accommodates nearly 50 passengers. During the monsoon, around 20 buses are in service during weekdays and 30 buses on weekends. It’s about nine miles from the Kinpun base camp to the platform,” said an on-duty Mon driver. 

The Kyaikhtiyo Pagoda stood majestically in the mist, truly a golden sanctuary of calm lulled by the soothing sounds of bells.

From the mountain top, the Sittaung River was visible in the distance beyond the mountains. I spotted only a sprinkling of pilgrims probably because of the monsoon. But the solemn sound of the pilgrims’ prayers reverberated through air loud and clear. 

Amid the rumble of distant thunder, a refreshing cool rainy breeze blew in through the pagoda platform.  

“We weren’t sure whether or not we could visit the pagoda during the monsoon so we had to call a few guesthouses on the mountain. At this time of the year, we don’t need to push each other to get on the bus. Accommodation is also conveniently available. We can pay homage to the pagoda in peace as it is not crowded. The only concern is that the bus station is rife with pickpockets, and the pilgrims must take every precaution there. 

“Even though I always make a pilgrimage to the Kyaikhtiyo Pagoda once a year, this was my first pilgrimage in the monsoon. I plan to come back around the same time next year,” said Nilar Win, a pilgrim who’s a native of Meiktila.

This staircase offers easy access to gift shops, guesthouses and restaurants. (Photo – EMG)

The golden boulder on which the small pagoda stands is perched on the cliff edge, much to the amazement of all visitors. On the platform, Thai, Chinese and French tourists enjoyed taking photos of the pagoda.

“This is the strangest sight I’ve ever seen. I can clearly see the gap between the boulder and the cliff when I put my head down to look at it. I can even shake it,” a Thai tourist said.

On our way to the restaurant area via a staircase, we didn’t find many touts as we’d expected. Because of the monsoon, some restaurants remained closed and there was not much competition like in the summer and winter. 

“We came to work here from Kyaikhto. We get Ks 40,000 (US$36) per month. It’s pretty quiet during the monsoon. We can sit and watch a video if there aren’t any guests. Only two restaurants are operating so we don’t need to compete with each other,” said a Mon girl in her early 20s. 

After lunch, a storm was threatening. But the golden Kyaikhtiyo Pagoda glittered in the mist. As dusk was falling, the spotlights were turned on to illuminate the pagoda. After a spiritually uplifting day trip, most pilgrims invariably were on their way home, and so was I after praying for wealth, health and another smooth pilgrimage back to the pagoda.