Monday, February 9, 2015

My Buddhist Pilgrimage

The famous Golden Rock which draws Burmese pilgrims from all around the country
I had arrived at a tourist attraction without even realizing. After not seeing any westerners since crossing the Thai border, except for James, a British tourist cyclist I met just over the border and cycled with for two days, all of a sudden there was a herd of them. Where was I? Kyaiktiyo, the famous Pagoda that sits atop a golden rock that is precariously (and supposedly) balanced on one of Buddha's hairs. As the Lonely Planet states, "Legend states that the boulder maintains its precarious balance due to a precisely placed Buddha hair in the stupa. Appar- ently King Tissa received the Buddha hair in the 11th century from a hermit who had secreted the hair in his own topknot. The hermit instructed the king to search for a boulder whose shape resembled the her- mit’s head, and then enshrine the hair in a stupa on top."  This pagoda is so well-respected in the Burmese Buddhist culture that people here make a pilgrimage to it every year from November to March.  

Besides the swarms of backpackers, I also found myself with a group of tour cyclists: 3 Germans and a Brit.
The town at the base of the Golden Rock

What to do? Visit the pagoda along with the mobs of people, or carry on? I couldn't decide but one this was for sure, I was done for today. My legs couldn't go any further, so James and I found a guesthouse. The day before had caught up with me, the noise, and the early mornings. It is impossible to sleep in here, as the morning buddhists prayer and songs start at about 5:30 and carry on for a few hours.

James was my cycling companion for a few days, but he carried on to Yangon rather than doing the pilgrimage

James was on a tight schedule and meeting friends in Yangon, and I decided to make the Golden Rock a day trip and a day off of the bike. The next morning I cycled up to the town at the base of the temple where tourists have to take a open ceiling bus, still some 12 kilometers above, or walk. Guess what I opted for? After finding a guesthouse that had been recommended by some Spanish cyclists I had encountered, I packed up my small bag of items and set off for the pilgrimage “hike”. I thought the path would be crowded, after all, it has religious significance. The man at the hotel told me it took 4 to 6 hours to hike, as it went uphill the entire way, but being the optimist that I am and knowing that I usually hike faster than the stated time, I thought I'd be up in two hours.

Very simple housing for the locals

Or perhaps I wasn't going to go as quickly....No sooner did I set off did I reach a tourist police booth. You have to be kidding me? How was I going to cause a problem, I was hiking a well marked trail? I caught the policeman so off guard, he had no books for me to register, just a chair to sit in and an empty booth. He signaled for me to wait, so I sat down in the chair. After 5 minutes of twiddling my thumbs, I fibbed and told him I had friends to meet at the top, so he had me write down my name, passport number, and hotel. To my surprise he started escorting me. Yikes! Was he really going to escort me the entire four hours? Thankfully he dropped off after 10 minutes and I was alone and on my way. The path was pretty abandoned and lacked others pilgrims. The only foot traffic were locals walking between villages and houses, or carrying goods up from below. I did meet a few local tourists coming down, but no one going up. At one time this had been a heavily trafficked path as souvenir and food stalls, which were also residences of the local villagers, lined the way. It was absurdly impossible to get lost! I had packed a 1,5 liter water bottle, but in all honesty I didn't need it as there were plenty of beverages for purchase along the way. I stopped twice for snacks and kept a pretty good pace the whole time. Setting off in the heat of the day, I felt like I was on a stair master on the hardest level possible. I stayed motivated seeing the locals walking down in sarongs and flip flops, the national shoe of Myanmar.

The handmade souvenirs, guns made out of bamboo sporting the words Rambo USA and a date, quite amusing for a sacred pilgrimage

Some of the friendly young monks I encountered along the way.  With all the pagodas in here, the area is crawling with them.
There were kilometer markers, or so it seemed but it took me almost the entire ascent to figure out how they worked. Unlike a few road markers I've seen that are in kilometers, the trail marked distance in miles, I finally realized, divided into 8 equal parts. An odd way to calculate the distance, but once I discovered the logic, I knew how far I had left. To my surprise the hike took me a full three and a half hours. Close to the top I came across the trucks that carted people up and down and by their speed and sharp turns on the curvy road, I realized I was smart to have walked the 8 miles (12 km) as I probably would have gotten sick on the truck. Besides the vendors asking me if I wanted to buy water or coca cola, the hike up had been the most pleasant and quiet 4 hours I'd had since entering Myanmar and I had truly enjoyed myself and all the great scenery of the mountains.

The red signs indicates a village sign and the yellow marker is the mile post, which had me baffled for a bit, probably due to the heat and lack of oxygen.......
More views, mountains and hills in all directions

Views during my hike up
One of several pagodas I encountered along the hike up.  Looking in every direction, pagodas dotted the hillside

A decorative entrance to a pagoda
At the top, of course there was another tourist checkpoint. Since I arrived later in the afternoon, I tried to press my luck and in a friendly way bargain with the tourist police to give me half off the entrance fee. He didn't seem to think that was very funny. Nor did the women at the entrance gate when she saw my shorts were above the knee. I had forgotten to bring my skirt to pull on for the visit to the pagoda. She gave me a sarong and helped wrap it around me. She took my shoes (you have to go shoeless in pagoda's) so I would have to return to her.

Looking like a local with the skirt

At first sight I was shocked by the Burmese definition of a pilgrimage. There were masses of people sprawled over the ground. They had brought mats, food, entertainment systems, you name it. If they were in some sort of conversation, they were playing with their mobiles or taking selfies. Vendors were everywhere, and I had a quick flashback to my arrival in Hong Kong, when I witnessed all the Philippine maids take the streets on Sunday, their day off. It was the strangest sight. There were very few western tourists, this was a hotspot for local tourists, or at least during this season. I had seen pictures of the Golden Rock and could easily see it when I reached the top, but overall I was a bit disappointed, unable to understand how this was a sacred event for Burmese Buddhists. It was far from peaceful, calm, and meditative at the top. I, however, felt like I had had a more spiritual experience hiking up, or perhaps it was just a well-needed break from all the noise.

The view from the hike and one of the straighter sections of the road up by truck

I was glad I chose to hike rather than ride in the back of this truck.  You can see the one westerner compared to the amount of local tourists.
Loads of people walking to and from at the top

I headed down to gather my shoes and wouldn't you know the tourist police who had given me the sarong was eager to collect two dollars for using it. Of course I put up a stink. I feel like this country completely takes advantage of tourists thinking we have an unlimited amount of money. I know two dollars is a misery, but I wasn't about to fork it over to her, a corrupt tourist police. I was happy to spend my money on food and drink and support the locals, but not the tourist police. You see the Spaniards had warned me that they had finally protested with all the absurd entrance fees at the tourist sites and were able to finally avoid them. I decided to follow in their footsteps and the police woman was upset, but she knew she had no right charging me for the sarong. In Thailand they give them to all tourists wearing shorts or a tank top without any hassle.

Yes, it is an impressive rock and pagoda to see, and insightful to experience a buddhist pilgrimage

To my amazement there was quite a bit of civilization up top
After my encounter with her and with less than an hour at the pagoda with mobs of pilgrims, I decided that I was going to hike back down and enjoy the calm and serene environment. At the base of the entrance I saw a familiar face. As I mentioned in my last blog, I had been following the blog of a Scotsman who was currently touring around Central Myanmar, and there he was walking up the steps of the Golden Rock. “Are you Ian Mitchell?” I stopped and asked with a big smile on my face. I was pretty sure I recognized him from the photos in his posts, not to mention he was one of the only westerners and was sporting a bike jersey. I took him completely off guard. I had emailed him a few times asking some questions, and it finally dawned on him, that is who I had to be. After being stopped by a good handful of strangers myself on my trip who knew me, it was fun to surprise someone else. We started talking and then decided to go for a drink, which is when we realized we were staying at the same hotel and so we made plans to meet back there in the evening.

A few too many people for me, which is why I opted to walk down again......

My hike down was effortless in comparison to the way up and even more peaceful as sunset approached. I arrived down to the bottom in about two hours and used my head light for the last 15 minutes. It was absolutely delightful! I had managed to hike the entire 16 mile (24 km) pilgrimage, and although that seems like an absurd activity for a “rest” day, it was a huge rest from all the noise and bumps on the road.

More monks on the way down, watching a game of volleyball
It always amazes me how happy the children are in southeast Asia with so little......

Sunset approaching on my descent
I found Ian and we went to dinner while swapping route information and travel advice. Ian's month visa was coming to an end and he was cycling over to Thailand using the same road I had to cross. Between reading his blog and that of other tour cyclists and asking him countless questions, I felt well prepared to cycle through Myanmar.

Ian Mitchell, just the way I saw him in his blog posts.  He was on the road before me, but also headed the opposite direction

The next morning I took advantage of a decent internet connection at the hotel before starting. Feeling refreshed and with a new sense of confidence, I was back to the battle field. Stay tuned for my next post with another my hospitable encounter with some Buddhist monks.......

1 comment:

  1. Great ongoing story. You have created a wonderful life for yourself. Stay well, travel safe!