adventures in kyaiktiyo (part one)

words alexandra von arx  ||  images alexandra von arx & brooks von arx

(Kyaiktiyo is a small city in Myanmar’s Mon State famous for Kyaiktiyo Pagoda, also known as the Golden Rock, that sits atop Mount Kyaiktiyo. It is a small temple built on the top of a granite boulder covered with gold leaf. The boulder itself clings almost magically to the side of the mountain. According to legend, it is held in place by a single strand of the Buddha's hair. The Golden Rock is the third most important Buddhist pilgrimage site in Myanmar.)

The bus “station” in Yangon that I departed from was no more than a designated curb at the corner of a large mall. Local and regional buses pulled up to the edge of the sidewalk as an attendant leaned out the doors and announced their destination. Passengers would have about 20 seconds to leap onto the still-moving bus before the doors slammed shut and the bus sped away.

I stood in the back of the crowd, desperately trying to listen to the barks of the conductors, but after the arrival time for my bus came and went, I started to panic. Noticing my growing anxiety, a few locals converged around me as I tried to explain where I was going. Suddenly, one of them shouted in recognition and, grabbing the straps of my backpack, dragged me down the road while flagging down a bus that had just begun to pull away. The doors mercifully opened and the man quite literally threw me inside. Disheveled and disoriented, but delighted, I collapsed in my seat.

After this initial whirlwind, the bus ride itself was fitful. By the time we pulled into a dim station at 1:00 AM, I was dazed and exhausted. I clung to the scrap of memory in which I had been told that in order to get to the Golden Rock itself, one shouldn’t disembark at the first bus stop but at the second, in the town of Kin Pun. There, you could catch a truck that would take you up the mountain to the Rock. I remained patiently in my seat as people began filing off the bus, fiddling with my headphones until I looked around and realized that I was the only one aboard. I tried to ask the driver if I was in the right place, if the bus would continue, but he didn’t understand my Burmese. The bemused attendant was gesturing impatiently for me to disembark. Feeling the familiar wave of panic begin to swell inside my chest, I grabbed my backpack and stepped out the doors. I found myself in a pitch-black alley in the middle of a deserted outdoor market. The small road was lined with empty bamboo stalls. The bus’s taillights suddenly lit the area with a morbid red glow as its engine revved and the driver steered it out of sight. I was alone.

Or so I thought. I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned sharply to face a young Burmese man, no older than myself, with an acne-scarred face and shock of bleached blond hair. “I know where you go,” he said in heavily accented English. “Come.” Not wanting to believe my luck, nor that I may be about to be kidnapped or assaulted, I followed him through the market until we came upon a large, long building filled with light and noise. As we walked in, I discovered it was a de facto guesthouse, compete with raised platforms along the walls where people were dozing on bamboo mats covered with tattered blankets. In the back was a bustling teashop.

The young man was talking rapidly to a woman who seemed to be the building’s manager. After a moment, he turned to me and said, “Okay. Truck leave 6:00 AM.” Relief washed over me. Nodding my thanks, I moved toward the side of the room, hoping to doze away the five hours until the truck arrived.

At 4:00 I was woken abruptly by the same blond young man. “Time to go?” I asked confusedly. He nodded, and I quickly gathered my things and followed him out into the brisk morning air. Through the fogginess of my sleep-deprived brain, questions about the time and our destination floated to the edge of my consciousness. Why are we leaving two hours early for the truck? How are we getting there? Why...? However, my inability to communicate any of these thoughts and my general resignation that the course of this trip was now out of my hands kept me silent.

We wound our way back through the market, guided by sporadically placed halogen lamps that illuminated several scattered stalls selling water bottles, walking sticks, small plastic flashlights, and snacks. The young man handed me a long, thick walking stick and then ushered me aside. Growing increasingly wary, I asked if we were going to meet the truck. My new friend, whose name I would later learn was Tastas, shook his head and mimed something with his fingers. I looked at him incredulously. “We’re walking?”

He nodded but was quickly distracted from my dumbfounded expression by the arrival of two more members of our party. Tastas spoke with them enthusiastically, and I returned their animated greetings with a weak wave. Before I could consider running back toward the guesthouse and a bed and food and light, Tastas took me by the hand and guided me to a small path leading into the woods that was already clogged with people. I clutched my walking stick as the sight of the market faded and the ground began to slope steeply upward.

Thus began my five-hour trek up Mount Kyaiktiyo, the most fascinating accident I’ve ever had.

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