I am a writer and teacher, out and about in the world but with Nottingham never far from my heart.
Published February 15th 2015
Add this to your Burmese to-do list
For starters, don't go asking anyone for directions to "Mount Kay-ayt-ee-yo"; this thing to do in Myanmar is pronounced "Jay-at-tey-oo", and phonetic interpretations of the mountain's English spelling will be greeted with blank looks and shakes of the head.
It's not a bad silhouette...
Linguistical boundaries notwithstanding, Mount Kyaitiyo is a truly remarkable place to visit, and no trip to central Myanmar can be considered complete without a pilgrimage to its summit.
For the unitiated, Mount Kyaitiyo is a mountain at the northern extreme of Burma's Mon State. The 1,000metre peak affords some stunning views of the region's coastal plains, but its main attraction is something rather more mystical and grandiose. The vast majority of visitors here are drawn by the enormous Golden Rock Pagoda that is perched precariously on the mountain's summit.
Traditional Mon dancers in Kinpun, at the foot of the mountain
The story goes that an ancient Mon king was visited by a hermit who had been endowed with a strand of Buddha's own hair. The king - who helpfully possessed supernatural powers - was tasked with enshrining the sacred hair within a rock that resembled the head of the hermit, and found such a rock at the bottom of the sea. He transported the rock to the top of Mount Kyaitiko in a boat and deposited it there. Legend states that only this strand of Buddha's hair prevents the rock from tumbling over the precipice. But what about the boat? Well that was turned to stone on arrival and can still be seen resting on the mountain's summit.
The precariously positioned Golden Rock
The town of Kyaitiyo at the base of the mountain is only a four hour bus ride from Yangon, but planning a visit to the Golden Rock as part of a day trip is unwise. There are plenty of reasonably priced hotels and guesthouses in the town, and enough restaurants and evening entertainment to warrant a stay of at least a couple of days.
I opted for the first bus out of Yangon at 5am – necessitating a 3am get up, as Aung Mingalar bus station is something of a trek from central Yangon. This got me into Kyaitiyo with ample time to find a hotel and catch a few hours sleep before the hike began.
There are two ways to reach the top of Kyaitiyo. One way – the cheat's way, if you're feeling particularly mean-spirited – is to hop on the back of a pickup truck and be driven up the impressively winding road to the terminus about half a mile from the pagoda itself. The other way is to hike directly from the town, up a grueling seven and half mile trail. I choose the latter method; it might be a slog, but you can't help but feel a little smug when you trot past the hordes of people stepping off the pickups at the top.
It's a struggle, but the walk to the top is infinitely more rewarding than the pickup
Well rested and with a coffee and a chicken curry now in my belly, I was ready to start the hike. As the pagoda is visible from the street as you walk towards the trail, I scoffed at those who had informed me that the hike would take four hours. It wasn't until I found the trail snaking its way away from the pagoda and off into a nearby valley that I concluded that those people might be right.
The trail is hot, dusty and hard work, but the views of the nearby countryside are spellbinding. The route is littered with monastaries, smaller stupas and villages, providing wanderers with plenty of things to explore along the way. Also, as the Burmese are almost universally warm and outgoing, you won't be short of people to chat to while en route.
Seven miles and zero furlongs in; almost there!
And don't fear, there are also plenty of "rest stops" along the way selling drinks, food and – rather more confusingly – imitation sniper rifles made from bamboo.
Three and a quarter hours later (I told them it wouldn't take four hours!), and about half a stone lighter thanks to the sweat pouring out of me, I reached the summit, paid my 3000kyat entrance fee and ventured towards the pagoda itself.
The eight metre tall boulder is truly a thing to behold. You approach it from behind, so initially it appears silhouetted in the late afternoon sun, but then glistens with layer upon layer of gold leaf as you get closer. Male visitors are allowed to cross a small footbridge and apply gold leaf directly to the boulder, while Burmese Buddhist tradition prohibits female visitors from doing so.
Of course, there are crowds, but the sheer majesty of the rock is so encompassing that you find yourself not even noticing, such is the effect of this incredible spectacle.
Now it's time to relax. Take a slow walk back to the bus terminus and enjoy the thrilling roller-coaster ride back to the town in a pickup truck. You've earned it!