Thursday was “travel gone mad” day as we left Lake Inle by 8am driving to the fantastically named Heho International Airport. As has been the norm on this adventure everything ran to clockwork, luggage stayed with you piled up alongside as we moved through airport, train station or ferry terminal. Our twin prop bird was sitting on the Tarmac adjacent to three others as we discovered the journey included two flights not one! First we had a 35 minute hop to Bagan to release and deposit passengers then a further 50 minute shift to Yangon.
The crew were expertly marshalled by a perfectly manicured young lady who incidentally sported false eyelashes the size of shelves. The Lady Boys of Bangkok would have loved em (the lashes that is). The inflight food consisted of 3 cakes of varied colours but all in fact tasted like Madeira cake, maybe a throwback to the colonial past? There was one copy of an inflight magazine which an American quickly grabbed and secured inside his hand luggage. We had three Thai monks chanting and one of our group celebrated this by projectile vomiting across her knees. Needless to say when we arrived in Yangon and climbed aboard our bus I sat behind her.
We sped north-east towards Bago for lunch en-route to the Kyaiktiyo Pagoda or Golden Rock. I selected a local dish of vermicelli noodles in a chicken broth, this came with heaps of veggies, an egg plus chicken livers and kidneys laced with lemon grass, coriander and chilli. In the town we sailed past crumbling mosques and an array of pagodas but we’re were not for stopping at this stage in our pilgrimage. This third leg of the journey had a predicted ETA of 4:30 well in time for the sunset atop the mountain. Lest we not forget we’re in Burma! The coach engine grumbled and the clutch groaned as the drivers went up and down through the gears for fun. Overtaking has become the stuff of legend on this trip and this journey didn’t disappoint. In Burma the lorries carry loads that defy gravity, the produce of cement, hay or unlabelled crates double the width of the vehicle and often quadruple the height. Atop this the Burmese sit quietly cross-legged as the drivers waddle indiscriminately through the traffic and across lanes. It has to be said that on more than one occasion the sun was cut out by the swoosh of produce hitting the coach windows.
We arrived at the Kin Pun “base camp” well in time for sunset and were transferred to a holding area to mount our trucks for the 45 minute ride to the mountain top. This was the epitome of disorganised chaos, an orgy of shouting and prodding; the aim to maximise the bodies in each vehicle before attempting the climb. Our guide explained that our slight derrières were in fact bigger than the Burmese variety which meant 6/7 bums per bench was not possible. Needless to say they argued and gesticulated and for the first time since we arrived in Myanmar, without a smile. This process continued for around 45 minutes with the daylight fast fading around us, it was not looking good for the sunset. Our hair-raising escapade to the top was thrilling as we meandered at a volatile pace up and down the dragons back of a road. At least 5 times we stopped for the Burmese to pop dollar into silver urns held aloft by betel chewing red mouthed youths. I’d expected monks to carry out these duties and I suspect the crimson gobs were government employees! Eventually we reached the top in pitch black darkness, except in the distance was the glowing orb that is the Rock, illuminated at the end of the mountain ridge pathway on which lanterns and fairy lights bobbled in the breeze.
We quickly disembarked and checked-in at our residence for the night, the lovely Mountain View Hotel which clung to the mountain face like a limpet. Only 30 rooms existed linked by near vertical stairways.
We set out to view the rock, it’s about a ten minute hike from the hotel. The pathway was awash with pilgrims who camp out at the rock overnight after paying homage to their Buddha. Some infirm or otherwise are carried in sedan chairs to the plaza adjoining the rock. It is a geological phenomenon as only a very small portion of the colossus makes contact with the rock on which it sits. Why doesn’t it roll off? No one knows, and it has been sitting precariously in this fashion for at least 2,000 years; through rain, wind and earthquakes, it simply appears to defy gravity. There are several Buddhist myths about this rock, one of which involves a hermit who held a piece of Buddha’s hair. He gave it to the King asking him to house the hair in a rock shaped like the hermit’s head. The King went down to the river to choose a rock on which he could build a stupa to house the Buddha’s hair. Many other rocks were rejected and thrown aside before this particular rock was chosen carried up the mountain and placed on this ledge. Finally the stupa which housed the great ones hair was built on top of the rock. I spent an hour around the rock taking snaps and iPhone videos. There were a multitude of pilgrims making offerings, carrying out rituals, placing gold leaf on the rock, eating or simply bedding down for the night. It was becoming chilly as I returned to the hotel for dinner and the most incendiary Thai salad I’d ever eaten.