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Seemingly defying gravity, it is said that the rock, now gold-gilded by scores of fervent pilgrims, balances on the cliff edge by a single hair of the Buddha. Proud natives believe that if nothing else, the Golden Rock of Burma will convince even the most skeptical visitor of the enduring power of Buddhism.
At the summit, in addition to the rock one can visit a handful of other shrines and view novices playing football on the flat roof of the monastery. The atmosphere is particularly charged during the pilgrimage season (November to March) but a trip up Kyaiktiyo during the other months grants breathtaking views over the jagged Mon landscape draped in veils of drifting fog.
Remaining at the summit for sunset is highly recommended and early birds are encouraged to rise before sunset to experience the crisp tranquility at dawn.
Kyaiktiyo Pagoda is located in Mon State, on the Paung-laung ridge of the Eastern Yoma Mountains, 210 kilometres southeast of Yangon. From the base camp village of Kinpun, the most energetic – and the most zealous – may opt to climb the 11 winding kilometres to the summit.
The majority however clamber into one of the trucks that shoot up and down Mount Kyaiktiyo sporadically, pilgrims and punters stacked like sardines on the padded wooden slats. The journey up and down is an experience in itself; there are startling views over the mountains and the waterfalls and it is hard not to fall into a carnival spirit as the excitable locals whoop and cheer with each sharp turn of the truck.
The legend goes that on one of his many travels, the Buddha imparted a hair of his to the Burmese hermit Taik Tha. In turn, the hermit gave the hair to the reigning king with the wish that it be enshrined in a boulder shaped like his own head. The king – who had conveniently inherited his father’s powers of an alchemist – along with his naga-princess wife managed to locate the perfectly shaped boulder at the bottom of the sea and chose the cusp of Mount Kyaiktiyo as an apt spot to place the shrine.
The boat used to transport the boulder to the mountain subsequently turned to stone. Today known as the Kyauk Thanban (‘stone boat stupa’) this boulder is also a place of pilgrimage and located just 300 metres away from Kyaiktiyo Pagoda.
Beyond the Golden Rock itself one can walk through a maze of macabre apothecary stalls and up out the other side to the stupa-clad peaks Kyauk-si-yo Zedi & Kyaiktiyo Galay Zedi, around which tea-shops and ramshackle lanes sprawl. You can loop back towards the Golden Rock along a ridge with a row of helipads offering views over the Mon mountains.
It is worth exploring these environs, and it is a good example of how so often in this country, just around the corner from a famous tourist attraction an understated, but no-less-charming Myanmar awaits.
Imperial cities, hallowed mountains and the western terminus of the Burma Death Railway.
Kipling, the man who created the romantic veil, and Orwell, who tried to rip it away.