Pilgrim for a Day (Kyaiktiyo, Burma)

Wake up, pseudo-pilgrim – the agonizing bus ride – how can monks take shortcuts? – The golden rock

I woke up in Kyaiktiyo to the sound of Buddhist prayers streaming through my open window.  The air was smoky from villagers burning trash and farmers practicing slash-and-burn agriculture.   I was in Kyaiktiyo, the destination of thousands of Burma’s Buddhist pilgrims.

The town was swarming with pilgrims, monks, and villagers walking with baskets on their heads full of cured meats, vegetables, fruits and beverages.   I ate a quick breakfast and jumped into the river of people rushing to the taxi stand.  The “Golden Rock” was a shrine on the top of a nearby mountain, and we would need to take a taxi to a base camp before hiking an hour to the top.

Two old Mitsubishi heavy-duty trucks were parked at the taxi stand to be loaded with people.  Pilgrims walked up a ladder to an elevated loading dock and squeezed into the bed of the trucks.  The trucks had been converted into veritable sardine cans by inserting eight wooden beams across the bed, each beam seating six people.  8×6= 48 people in a truck bed.  I thought we were full, but I guess we weren’t “full full”: couples were swapped for groups of three, groups of three were traded for groups of four to ensure overcapacity.  We took off, moved for ten feet, stopped, let two people hang off either side of the truck, and accelerated up the mountain.

The seats were designed for Asian proportions, and though I’m not a tall guy, my legs were painfully crammed under the beam in front of me with my toes on the ground and my heels in the air.  I could not stop thinking about how painful it would be to crash in this position.  The entire truck laughed at the goofy foreigner as we swung around turns.  As we approached a curve, the driver would brake and I would head-butt the lady in front of me, then as he swung around the turn and I would elbow the child to my left, only to fall backwards into the lap of a monk as we accelerated out of the turn.  It was comical, yet excruciatingly painful.  I rode up the mountain in this manner for the entire 45 minute ride.

At the base camp, bare-chested porters carried people up the mountain on bamboo palanquins.  It was hotter than Hades, but I decided to walk up the hill masochistically like the pilgrims.  To my surprise I was passed by Buddhist monks being carried on these palanquins with video cameras in their hands and cell phones on their ears.  What the hell, man?

I crested the summit and patted myself on the back for finally dodging the government entrance fee collectors.  But of course, I was caught by those tricky G-men.   I am not doing too well at my boycott of Burma’s government.  When I first decided to come to Burma I envisioned myself surreptitiously sneaking over fences and slipping past sleeping guards.  No way, man, these guys are damn good.  I am 0/3 right now.  Future visitors be warned: enforcing the boycott is not as easy as it sounds.

As I handed them the money, I glanced at the tourist registration form.  Guess how many tourists had been there today?  Three.  One from Taiwan, one from the Netherlands, and me.

The Golden Rock itself is exactly what it sounds like: an enormous rock covered in gold leaf that teeters over the edge of a cliff, looking like it’s going to fall at any second and smash the tourists viewing it from below.  A single stupa rises from the top of the rock and elevates a small glass container high above the mountain.  The container is said to hold a few of Buddha’s hairs, which miraculously hold the rock on this impossible perch.

Below the Golden Rock the hill drops into a misty valley sprinkled with dozens of small golden pagodas, each one isolated in the uniquely South East Asia mixture of mountain forest and green jungle.   Across the valley a narrow stone path snakes upwards to a string of large pagodas and monasteries strewn along the ridgeline.  Somewhere in the distance a speaker projects a monk’s voice into the air and sends his prayers echoing through the valley where they mix with the buzz of thousands of crickets and create an intoxicatingly spiritual soundtrack for the pilgrims.

I removed my shoes and followed the pilgrims to the foot of the rock.  Hundreds of devout Buddhists circled the shrine and directed their prayers to the stupa encapsulating the sacred hairs of the Buddha. Women are not allowed to come into direct contact with monks and they are not allowed to be physically above men, so they were restricted to a separate section below the rock.  The women lit incense, faced the rock and pressed their foreheads to the tiled floor.

Gold leafs floated through the air as I approached the rock.  The faithful squatted by the rock and applied gold leafs to its surface.  Men sat cross-legged rubbing long strands of wooden beads and quietly reciting their prayers.

Though there were only three tourists visiting the Golden Rock, of course one of us had to be a nut-job.  A Dutch guy stood on the far side of the rock, attempting to apply gold leaf to the one section you were not supposed to touch.  A caretaker tried to stop him, but the Dutchman ignored him and starting opining on the inequality of Buddhism.  “Go away, silly man!” he shouted, “Who made you the boss here?  I am doing this for the women.  They aren’t allowed to see us apply the gold leaf, so I’m doing it for them!  Since when do you make the rules?”  Right back atcha, buddy.  Respect the caretaker and respect rules of the shrine, save the protest for later.

I spent the whole day at the top of the mountain observing the pious struggle through the heat to demonstrate their devotion to Buddha.  Old ladies passed by me one foot at a time.  Their bony fingers gripped bamboo walking sticks and their weathered faces focused two squinted eyes on their destination.  I watched them respectfully and mused on the different natures of our journeys.  These people save money for decades to make this pilgrimage one time in their lives, yet in three days I had visited not only this sacred site but glorious Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangoon.  For the second time in two days I had confronted the reality of poverty and again I meditated for hours on this matter.

The sun slowly sunk towards the horizon and disappeared behind the green mountains.  I hopped back on the bus for another bone-crushing journey down to the base camp.  The ride was so bumpy the kid in front of me started projectile vomiting off the side of the truck, which triggered about three other people to do the same.  With my legs losing circulation and my chest pressed against the back of this vomiting child, I understood why people waited their whole lives to make this journey: it’s not a money issue, it’s just really uncomfortable!

Jokes, jokes, jokes. I went back to my room, packed my bag and prepared to depart for Inle Lake early the next morning.

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