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30 September 2005

Today I went to see the famed Golden Rock stupa called Kyaiktiyo today. The small stupa sits atop a large boulder, balanced precariously on the cliff top - which it is only able to do because of a stragegically placed hair of the Lord Buddha. The boulder has been covered in gold leaf, and men are allowed to walk up to the boulder and add some more gold leaf to it; not us girls, of course, we may sully it with our presence. The stupa is Myanmar's second most sacred sites, after Shwedagon Paya.

I ate my breakfast nice and early, and was waiting up at the "car gate", where the trucks leave from, by seven o'clock. There were a handful of other tourists waiting, but I sat seperately, as I'd been told about a bit of a scam they have going here. They will tell you that you may have to wait for a really long time for enough passengers to arrive to fill the truck (which is a tipper truck with planks of wood across the back for seats), but if you like you can charter it for a total of 25,000 split between how ever many of you are there. The guy that told me about it said that he'd not been in a rush and agreed to wait. As soon as the other tourists had paid up and left, another truck arrived, filled up with locals straight away, and followed the tourist truck up the hill, with him paying just the usual fare of 500 kyat.

Buddhist monks recieving alms in Kyaiktiyo, Myanmar Inevitably I was approached and asked if I wanted to pay extra to go now - no, that's fine, I'll wait. The only problem was that the other tourists had the same idea, much to the annoyance of the driver. The next hour passed pretty painlessly, as lines of bare-footed monks in burgandy robes walked sedately passed, pausing to allow the faithful to deposit food into their alms bowls. At eight, a large number of locals turned up, giggling at the fact that the tourists were still there. We all piled into the truck, but the driver - irate at missing out on his daily scam money - was determined to get something extra. He said that there were not 45 passengers on the truck (we can only have been short by a few) so the white folk would have to pay more. I maintained that I was happy to wait, and got away with just paying the 500, but the rest (two Germans, two Israelis, an American, and a Korean) folded at 1,600. Of course once he had the money, he allowed the other passengers that he'd been holding back to jump aboard.

The journey up was fun. The boards in the back were so close together that each person had their bum on the knees of the person behind, and the person in front's bum resting on their knees, so it was certainly cosy. The language barrier didn't stop laughing and joking, and there was a generally fun atmosphere in the back. After forty minutes or so we reached Base Camp Two, and started walking up the steep road. I found the climb pretty gruelling, but then I'm not the fittest of folk - though I might inadvertantly get fit over here, if I'm not careful! There was another option to walking: deckchairs had been tied with string onto thick bamboo poles, so you could chose to be carried up by four porters. The weighty Korean immediately opted for this, and stretched out, lording it in the home-made sedan chair. I feel dreadful if anyone carries my bag for me, so there was no way I was going for that option. View through the mist climbing up to Golden Rock stupa, Kyaiktiyo, Myanmar

As I ascended, the mist closed in - or maybe it was a thick cloud. I wondered whether I'd be able to even see the rock through the fog. I tried to sneak past the checkpoint where you must pay the $6 entrance fee - trying to avoid paying admission fees in Myanmar is de riguer over here, as it means less money goes to the government (a good way to justify being tight). The guard asked for my passport, which I didn't have, but fortunately (or was it?) he just let me give my number, rather than sending me away. It was just another five minutes to the famous, gravity defying rock, and I approached it with bated breath.

Golden Rock stupa, Kyaiktiyo, Myanmar

My reaction to the stupa was, coincidentally enough, exactly the same reaction that Natalie had the first time the Southern Cross was pointed out to her: "is that it? That's really crap!" And so it was. As for it balancing miraculously, it's nothing that applied mathematics and physics can't explain - I was tempted to draw them a diagram. The views from the rock were meant to be pretty stunning, but I could hardly see ten metres ahead of me. Unimpressed, I retraced my steps through the gloom, and began my descent, arriving at the bottom at 1030. I had hoped to find a truck full of people sat with engine revving, so I could jump aboard and leave immediately. This way I could return to the guest house by 1200 checkout, and make my way to Bago as I had planned. Things were not to work out like that.

There were a couple of trucks, but no one was sat on or around them, or looking at all as if they had any intention of heading down. I was beckoned over to one of the small eateries (actually, I was beckoned to a number of them, but chose one), and invited to sit and wait, and drink free Chinese tea. It didn't take me long to realise that I wasn't going to make it back by twelve, so I resigned myself to staying another night. I fingured this was probably for the best, as - even if I did get away - I'd only end up with a similar situation the next day, and didn't want to miss getting back to Yangon for my train. So I sat and drank tea, and watched kids playing, and cats fighting, and dogs scratching, and men watching television, and women gossipping. A couple of hours later I was still sat there, and the rest of the foreigners were also waiting.

A presumably injured man was brought down from somewhere. He was carried in a hammock, suspended by a pole supported by two men, and laid carefully down under cover. A good while later a truck with many people on, arrived from further up the hill and the man was loaded into it. The few passengers that had already gathered awaiting the next down-bound truck also got in, but I was told not to when I asked. With hindsight I should just have got in anyway, and probably would have done if it hadn't have meant stepping over the injured man to do so. The truck pulled away, and with it any hopes of getting down for a fair price in the forseeable future.

Some of the foreigners were keen to go, and negotiaitions began. I decided that, as my plans had already gone out the window, I would wait it out, and see where the adventure led next. The American man said likewise, and the two of us ordered some food at the place I'd been sat at (and very tasty it was too!). A short while later the Israeli couple came over; the figure being discussed was in the 3,000 region, but the guy had had enough and said he would walk down after a spot of lunch. The rest were in the truck for a good half an hour before they went anywhere...and then when they did pull away, it was only to the edge of the road, where they stopped and the barginning began again for another ten minutes.

Locals in in the river, Kyaiktiyo, Myanmar

Once we'd eaten, the four of us set off, and a very pleasant walk it turned out to be, and mostly downhill thankfully. I was glad of the cloud cover though. I got back to my accommodation some time after four, about two and a half hours since we'd set off. I'm sure I shall be aching tomorrow, though. The plan is to set off early, catching a pick-up to the town, then a bus back to Yangon. My train doesn't leave until six thirty, so I should be okay - fingers crossed.


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