I have had a mystical notion of Burma (now Myanmar) for years. The fact that it has been difficult to reach, generally closed and politically tumultuous intrigued us even further. The timing of recent government reforms was perfect for us to include it on our itinerary. We decided to do Myanmar without Ava and Kayan as we were advised that the medical facilities and infrastructure are challenges. In hindsight, we could have taken the kids, but going without them enabled us to do a few off-the-beaten path things like trek and stay in a monastery. Our travel partners were my parents and this gave us some time to bond with the generation ahead of us. Meanwhile, Sandeep’s parents were on baby duty back in Kerala.
One of our first stops in Myanmar was Kyaiktiyo, about 130 miles northeast of Yangon. Kyaiktiyo is home to the Golden Rock, a 25 foot boulder precariously teetering on a cliff. Its position is said to be possible due to a single enshrined strand of Buddha’s hair, which allows for just the right balance. Private vehicles are not allowed in the area, and the ride up from the base of the mountain is only possible in the back of an open air truck, efficiently outfitted with seven benches, each seating six people.
I embarrassingly admit that to being ‘that tourist’. The one who takes pictures of an entire family on motorbikes, people hanging out of trucks or clinging onto the back of buses. This was our chance to experience what it’s like to be ‘those people’. Even though our rears took a beating and the truck huffed up like the little engine that could, it was wonderful. During the half hour ride, we had the opportunity to literally get up close and personal with locals and in touch with nature.
Our hotel was a 10 minute uphill walk from the designated drop off point, and we recruited porters to help us carry our bag. They must not have been used to carrying 20 kgs at a time, because an intense negotiation ensued about which one would be brave enough to take the bag up. Finally one hardy gentleman agreed, and hoisted another back on top for good measure.
My mother, who doesn’t have the lung capacity to walk uphill, was ported up by four men in what looked like a very comfortable sling chair.
The official statistic is that Myanmar welcomed only 300,000 tourists in 2011. However, our experience is that we all seemed to be after the same targets, and tour buses galore followed us wherever we went. Since we were told that most foreign tourists don’t visit Kyaiktiyo, so we imagined getting some peaceful time with the boulder. However, the Golden Rock is a pilgrimage site and draws Buddhists from all over Myanmar as well as the rest of the world. Some pilgrims believe that three visits to the rock in one year will bring wealth and recognition. (That’s a great marketing technique if I’ve ever heard one…). Unfortunately, only men are allowed to touch the rock, so I suppose the women search for their wealth and recognition elsewhere. As a tourist, the experience was somewhat anticlimactic due to the crowds. The boulder itself is quite a sight and I would have loved to enjoy it in serenity. Luckily, the camera is able to ignore crowds.
Determined to find a peaceful spot, we decided the following morning to take a walk to a monastery that we were eyeing across the valley from our hotel. The entire night, we heard monks taking turns reciting prayers and we wanted to walk to the source of the readings. The monastery was not on the tour bus route. It requires climbing half an hour of continuous steps to reach. During the early morning trip, we saw a village waking up and collecting water.
At the top we found the peace we sought. The quiet view from our hidden monastery of the Golden Rock in the distance was almost more rewarding than the view of the Golden Rock from its own platform. When we found ourselves jostling herds of tourists, we initially thought that the trip to Kyaiktiyo was a mistake. However, with some adjustments, and off-the-beaten-path adventure we were able to experience a slice of the Myanmar of our imagination.