About the fiasco visit of the most important pilgrimage site in Myanmar. About rain, about meeting old friends again. About the philosophy of travel.

It was a dark and stormy night… It really was! When the rain had finally died down around 6:30 PM it left only the wind howling across the mountain top. It was completely dark even at this early hour and the wind created a misty haze gathering drops from all the roof tops and floors that had soaked up the rain for the last few hours. The sounds of a generator mingled with the clapping of tin roofs and the roaring of the storm in various cavities.

The Mountain was deserted leave a few shadowy figures which emerged here and there carrying loads from one end of the sacred path to the other. Most all of the souvenir stalls and restaurants had closed. There seemed but one bright spot left, a terraced open court restaurant with two neon lights illuminating a gaudily painted concrete cubicle. Groups of three were sitting at every table. Three old men on the left, three young students over there, three raincoat hooded smokers in the corner and a family to the right. How all those colors mingled: the purple, pink, blue and yellow of the room with the pink, yellow, green and blue of the transparent rain coats with the red plastic dishes on the wooden tables. It was an eerie scene.

I was sitting by myself between the old men and the students waiting for my rice dish, reflecting on the day. The mountain I had traveled to counts among the most special pilgrimage sites in all of Myanmar. Every Myanmar, at least every Buddhist one, dreams of one day being here, in the vicinity of the precariously balanced Golden Rock topped by a paya (pagoda). This bolder seems to defy gravity, but for hundreds if not thousands of years it has proven stable. It is an amazing site to see.

Early in the morning I had taken a taxi out to the far-flung bus terminal in Yangon, north even of the airport. A four-hour bus ride through the countryside and a few towns had brought me to Kinpun, the town at the foothill of this pilgrimage site.

The right thing to do for serious pilgrims is to hike up the mountain, a 7-8 hour ordeal which during the right season will put you in the company of many other adventure seekers who will take the long hike to enjoy the mountainous scenery and the gorgeous views into the valleys. The path through the wood is lined with souvenir booths, refreshment stands, and small shrines. But now is the rainy season. I had been warned more than once not to hike up there alone. Not during this season when the stalls would stay empty and when a lone traveler could easily become prey; good advice which I happily heeded. I am in no mood of trekking up a slippery, muddy slope.

The more typical thing to do though for the majority of visitors even during the high season, is to board an open truck outfitted with about 6 rows of benches which can hold up to 40 people. Dozens of trucks run up and down the mountain constantly during high-season. Now you might have to wait for an hour or so until one of the trucks fills to the brim and is ready to go. They literally won’t leave until the last seat is filled. I got lucky. When I arrived only 3-4 spots were still open and within about 10 minutes we took off.

Lucky I was in regards of the timing. But then, it all depends on the definition of lucky… Just then, the steady drizzle of the day muscled its strength and developed into a downpour. I was squeezed against the railing and started to pray that it might hold as six people were leaning into it at every curve. I had a seat at the front row. I think that was lucky too under the circumstances, as the back of the truck’s cockpit sheltered us a bit more than the rest of the people in the rows behind. Notwithstanding, the downpour came from the front and blew water right into my face and down the inside of my specially purchased rain gear. A little kid on the lap of the man next to me did not have any rain gear at all! I urged him to crouch down on the floor so I could over him with my long coat. He eventually did. Every time the truck went down a slope though, loads of water rushed down towards us in the front row, through my sandals and into my backpack (which I realized only later).

We made two stops up the road, parking under an awning to allow the opposing traffic to pass — the road to the top is a single path, serpentine lane. When I tried to take a picture of my fellow travelers in their colorful rain gear purchased wisely on the spot just before the trip, my camera fogged up and not much can be made out. I don’t even have good pictures of all this misery, but I intend to make up for this on the way down should the weather be a bit kinder. Cold and soaked to the core, we arrived at the mountain top greeted by people eager to carry any of our luggage in huge hand-woven backpack-baskets or on their bare heads to one of the nearby pilgrims’ stations.

As a foreigner I am barred from using the many shelters for the pilgrims run by the monastery. I am forced to board at one of three completely overpriced hotels certified for foreign visitors or I have to go down before 6 PM if I want cheap shelter. I guess that situation is better than it was just a few years ago, when foreigners were barred altogether from visiting this site. When I tried to consult my guidebook for descriptions of the hotels it turned out to be soaking wet as well. My guidebook! My lifeline to information ruined so early into the trip. That was bad news! I had it! Wet and cold and frustrated, I entered the first hotel full-well knowing that it would be the most expensive one. I bargained the price down a bit but deep down I really did not care anymore. My guidebook needed to be rescued. I needed a hot shower. Anything else no longer mattered.

The next two hours I spent hair-drying my guidebook, my business cards, my computer, my pants, my backpack, my chewing gum, some money, and my quilted pouches (thank goodness for those — at least they protected whatever was in them; medication, external drives, batteries). I found out that you can comb a book if you want to avoid spreading each page individually! I used lamps to dry anything I could drape over them and after two hours of work, I was almost in good shape again and had learned many more lessons on how to pack monsoon-proof! If this weather keeps going, I don’t know what’s going to happen on this trip…

But I could not be here, on top of the sacred mountain, and not at least have a look, even in the middle of this dark night, wind roaring. And so I went into the misty, mystic night hiking up for just 5 minutes from my hotel to the little golden boulder which precedes the big one; there just was no point in climbing up the slippery slope to the big one just now. There were no lights, no sunset, no view; all was dark, all was dead.

This is not quite how I had pictured the encounter with this special place. The image I had in mind was colored much by what my friend Kim Matthi experienced just a couple of weeks ago (and wrote eloquently about in his blog Following Budo— check it out!). A hot, sunny day with thousands of pilgrims, a frantic and energetic atmosphere, dressed-up people and the sounds of chants or bells, perhaps. Instead I got this!

At the restaurant, I was the only one sitting alone waiting for my rice and trying to decide whether this was all hilarious or depressing. And then I spotted my two old friends from the first night, Kelly and Ryan. What a pleasant surprise! After a big Myanmar beer and lots of pleasant conversation I decided it was hilarious. I can look at all the sunny pictures in the world online. But I am actually here. I have seen and touched the little rock and tomorrow, rain or storm, I will see the big one and know I will not soon forget this gloomy, dark and stormy night on Mount Kyaiktiyo.

Good night.

7 comments so far

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  1. Keep in mind that hands and feet wrinkled from too much time in water actually provide a better grip on slippery surfaces, or so I’m told. I’m curious if you saw any barefoot tourists walking the wet marble at the shrines you visited?

    • The tourists (the few there are) are tiptoeing. The natives seem to walk as if it’s nothing. I don’t get it! Same goes for the hot surfaces. In that case, the tourists are running and the natives don’t seem to notice.

    • Janet yes, of course. Tourists and locals alike have to walk the slippery marble surface (or in other cases the stony and prickly rough surfaces, or the poop infested dirty off the beaten path surfaces…). But the locals seem so much more at ease with it than the visitors.

  2. Wet is sure wet! May the clouds run out of rain so some sun can greet you in the morning.

  3. Hi Elizabeth, amazing you got any pictures, given you post. You are one intrepid traveler, and this year’s trio is vey much your kind of travel. And miraculously you are keeping all the equipment going as well. Well done so far. Diane K

  4. Hi Elisabeth, I am with you! I am so sorry to hear about the storms. Last time when I read your blog you were in Mali and soaked on the Niger river in the “fast” pinasse!
    I love your stories and your style, I can almost feel that I am there with you, on the truck, facing the water. From what you write it seems to me that when you go somewhere in the rainy season you should prepare yourself in the same way as for canoeing. The conditions you describe are really extreme. Your trip is very difficult. Let friendly people be around you and help you if necessary. I am watching your trip, all the best from Warsaw, Magdalena.

  5. Oh, ET. Ich muss zugeben, dass es mir sehr leid tut, dass die Wetterbedingungen tatsächlich so extrem sind. Aber mein zweiter Gedanke war: Wenn eine Person dem etwas Gutes abgewinnen kann, dann bist Du es. Myanmar im Monsun ist ein Abenteuer, dass die wenigsten erleben werden. Und ich hoffe und glaube, dass die Energie der Orte alle anderen Umstände überstrahlen wird. Weiterhin eine gute Reise. Sogar meine Mutter verfolgt Dich eifrig. Allerdings hat sie keinen Computer. Sobald ein neuer Bericht da ist rufe ich sie an und übersetze ihn durchs Telefon. Sie lässt Dich grüßen und bewundert Dich 🙂 Alles Liebe aus Hamburg. Kim.