Monday, October 13, 2008

Myanmar: Twenty-eight Days in the Golden Land of Burma (Part IX)

"It's impossible to stand by the Kyaiktiyo Pagoda and not to be
moved by emotion." - Khin Myo Chit, in 'A Wonderland of Burmese Legends'

Chapter Nine - A balancing golden boulder

Phone Kyaw was visually tired. Driving many miles on deteriorated roads, in unpredictable traffic, can really take the stuff out of you. Joyous donation collectors en route to Waw The leg from Taungoo to Payagyi offered pretty much the same scenery (and road quality !) as the route from Pyinmana to Taungoo. At Payagyi a side-road goes east towards the town of Waw, traversing a rice cultivation region intersected by irrigation canals. The road is constructed on top of a dike; there is no shelter, no shade whatsoever, so it's very hot. It was here, dazed by the sun, that Phone Kyaw lost it. I had noticed he made abrupt steering corrections without reason; from experience I know it's a clear sign of fatigue. Suddenly he steered into the verge, just a millisecond away from driving off the three metres high dike ! With a lightning intervention I grabbed the steering-wheel and brought the car back on the road. Yes, our driver had indeed fallen asleep. He was very ashamed because he had let us down. I didn't see it that way. I didn't shout at him, I wasn't upset - after all, it had been extremely hard times for him. I just told him to pull over as soon as he found some shelter from the scorching sun. A lonesome old tree provided just that. A troupe of donation collectors had set up 'camp' near it. Two of them were dressed like a buffalo while a third was trying to 'control' it. All of them were dancing like mad, clearly high on alcohol. They freaked out even more as soon as we got out of the car; they were not used to having foreign spectators and really outdid themselves. While we were entertained, Phone Kyaw freshened up a bit and bought some betel, something he had done every day anyway. He was one of the many betel addicts in the country, or should I say the continent ?

After he had reassured me he was all right, we said farewell to the friendly group of people, not forgetting to make a nice contribution to their cause, and continued to Waw, which wasn't far away anymore.
Waw is a pleasant and beautifully located agricultural town. About 40 kilometres (25 miles) further on is the border of the Mon state, made out by a big iron bridge over the Sittoung river. All foreigners are required to stop at the checkpoint there. Passports are checked and persons registered, including the Burmese accompanying the foreigners. One of the soldiers at the checkpoint kept hassling me for cigarettes (which I don't have as I don't smoke). His colleague almost destroyed my Burmese visa by putting my passport in a water puddle on his table.

Not far beyond the first bridge we needed to cross a second, but smaller, one. We were stopped by the soldiers guarding it. Not for an another identity check, no, they just wanted to sell us a calendar for K250. Adorning it was a nice-looking elderly lady covered from head to toe. In the West a pin-up would have been depicted instead, completely nude except for a string. People working for the state, for example soldiers, earn not more than K1,500 per month, so they have to do something along the side to be able to support their families. Although over 80% of the population (and thus several military as well) is in favour of the democratic NLD, many are forced to take up a government job to try and make a living. Some youngsters join the army to be able to get out of the parental house; leaving home to go and live alone is just not on in Burma.

Phone Kyaw, a very charitable person, bought a calendar although he had no need for it. When I told him what a noble individual he was, he revealed to me that he intended to become a monk in the future. Once he knows his family (a wife and five children) are sufficiently supported to make their own living, he'll go into a monastery.

The road to Kyaikto is rather boring, a fact which was enhanced by grey clouds and a slight drizzle. Kyaikto mustn't be confused with Kyaiktiyo. The now famous balancing boulder shrine of Kyaiktiyo is part of the township called Kyaikto but the two places are actually 20 kilometres (13 miles) apart. The area around Kinpun, the base camp for Kyaiktiyo, is pleasant with oil palm-, cashew- and rubber tree plantations. Upon entering the town, a to Burmese standards hefty road tax is collected.

Kinpun basically consists of a road which merges into a footpath leading up Mt Kyaikto, to Kyaiktiyo. Restaurants and numerous souvenir shops line both. There are also two basic places to stay. We decided to bunk for the night at the Sea Sar Guest House, attached to the well-visible restaurant of the same name right in the centre of town. That would prove to be a big mistake. The asking price for a single room was $7 (hot or cold water in the private bathroom made no price difference !), $15 for a double. After hard bargaining I managed to get a reduction of one dollar on the singles; the owner wouldn't budge for the double.

This 'hotel' was one of the worst deals I've ever encountered, anywhere. The singles were awfully small and felt worse than a European (not Burmese !) prison cell. There was at least an inch of space under the door, allowing crawling insects to just walk in (the buildings are in a wooded area), so the room was truly full of different kinds of bugs. There were huge grasshoppers inside, producing a cacophony of sounds. The walls were paper thin, so when someone farted in the claustrophobic cubicle next door, it was as if he shit in your lap (excuse my language but it's the same terminology I used when complaining about it to the manager). The fan automatically rotated, pointing in all directions, and let the one curtain there was flutter like mad, allowing passers-by outside to see you lying in your bed (which is not a big deal really, but it all adds to the 'experience'). The lights could not be switched off. Breakfast was included but very poor indeed.
The next day we changed to a double room. Same problem with the door. We stuffed a blanket in the open space. The walls were no problem now but the rooms were open near the ceiling, also in the bathroom, so everything next door can be heard, even the slightest sound. Contrary to the single room, the lights in the double didn't work at all; we were in total darkness at least two or three hours before someone came to change the lamp. There was a hot shower but the boiler didn't work. The owner nicely said he'd "fix it tomorrow morning". Nice if that happens to be the time you'll be leaving... After making complaints, the owner gave us a $2 reduction and promised he'd fix things "by next year". He was an arrogant kind of person, very smug. Sometimes he asked me some questions about myself or our plans but when I cared to answer these, he wasn't even listening.

I think a better option to stay is the Pann My Thu Inn, about two hundred metres further down the road to the mountain, on the same side as the Sea Sar. Admittedly dirtier double rooms (but still acceptable) with A/C, toilet and hot water shower were $10. The owners, however, were a lot friendlier.
The Sea Sar Restaurant was OK but a bit too expensive and service was unfriendly - no surprise with the same people in charge. Diagonally across the road, right next to the Kyaiktiyo ticket office, is another restaurant. Food quality is comparable but although the waitresses were extremely friendly when we passed the joint (I heard "I love you" a few times) this turned as soon as we'd ordered.

I just mentioned the ticket office. It is indeed necessary to pay an entrance fee to be allowed on the mountain. This costs $6 per person, $10 if you're also carrying a video camera (photo cameras no problem). Buying tickets is easily avoided but the checkpoint on the top of the mountain isn't. If you turn up without a ticket, you'll be forced to buy one after all as well as pay a hefty surcharge. You can always just walk up the mountain, without visiting Golden Rock - there are no checkpoints along the way - but I doubt there would be much point in doing that.

After we had collected our tickets, we went to the departure point of the small trucks that go up the mountain. This is located down a side-street, almost next door to the Sea Sar Restaurant. Tickets for the trucks must be bought at the small counter and cost only K150. Private vehicles are not allowed on Mt Kyaikto, so it's either the trucks or your own two feet. On foot it would have taken us at least five hours to make the ascent. Normally one has to wait until a truck is completely filled up (that means about 70 people !) but we were lucky : an American lady who had chartered a truck for herself invited us to come along.
The road up is extremely steep in places with very sharp hairpin bends. The drivers know the route inside and out but one can only imagine what would happen if the brakes broke down. Still, it's not nearly as dangerous as described in the guidebooks I had read. The road is gradually being improved and safety measures (such as crash barriers) are being installed.

The trucks don't go to the very top; a relatively short walk separates it from the end station. As soon as someone disembarks, bearers present themselves, offering to carry you and/or your luggage up. The cost for this depends on the weight they need to carry. Perfectly capable of doing this ourselves, we kindly refused.
We had a drink at one of the little cafes. I observed the people outside coming and going. There was a whole bunch of weirdoes hanging around, most of them fortune tellers or 'prophets'. One of them came inside and sat down at our table. He didn't speak but made gestures that were, strangely enough, well-understood by the Burmans present. Suddenly several of them quickly grabbed a pencil and scribbled down something on scraps of paper. Apparently the 'prophet' had predicted the winning numbers of the Thai lottery, an illegal gambling game. Next, our 'guest' performed what looked all the world to me like an exorcism on both me and Phone Kyaw. "A powerful man", our driver remarked. For his unsolicited services the 'powerful man' - still not saying a word - demanded a drink, cigarettes and money. What a fake. I just ignored him but Phone Kyaw forked out again. The guy was too good for this world, even the Burmese version of it...

The Golden Rock of Kyaiktiyo
It took us about one hour to reach the top, passing countless stalls where drinks, snacks, religious souvenirs, spices and indigenous medicines were sold. The Golden Rock is simply stunning. I could devote a whole paragraph to describing it alone, but I won't. It's a gilded boulder topped with a stupa, balancing on the edge of a cliff, 1100 metres high. It looks as if it can drop any moment but as it hasn't done so for many, many years there's no need to worry that it will now. Someone used to be around to give it a push so that one could see it rock gently back and forth, but that practice is now prohibited.
The Burmese believe that the rock retains its unique balance because of a carefully placed hair of the Buddha. Something I like to digress... A colourful butterfly landed on the stone but it didn't budge. Proof enough that the hair cannot be responsible for the equilibrium - but then the Burmese say "it's a magical hair"... The feeling of the rock being on the verge of a ravine is largely ruined by the platform which was built all around the shrine for the convenience of tourists.

We walked to the backside of the mountain top. A mind-blowing sight was revealed to us : a green valley swept away at our feet, only to rise again to even greater heights. To our right, on a lower level than where we were standing, was a highly scenic village of yellowish bamboo huts, shrouded in white clouds. A grey mist set in from our left. The 'village' was actually an encampment built to accommodate pilgrims. Some of them stay for months, studying and meditating. Sounds like the ideal place to stay, but unfortunately foreigners are not allowed to do that. Those who want to spend the night on the mountain have only two expensive options : the Golden Rock Hotel at approximately one mile from the top and the Kyaikto Hotel, right by the boulder shrine.

Golden Rock was completely concealed by the fog when we headed back down. We decided to return on foot instead of by truck. We had the time and it's a very agreeable walk. The views down are often fantastic. Like I said before, there are many little shops alongside the trail, most of them selling all kinds of bamboo stuff (they even have bamboo machine guns !) but most fascinating were the Chinese medicines. The nastiest stuff is on sale here : huge and disgusting looking millipedes, monkey blood and skulls, tiger moustache hairs, snake skins and roots which will supposedly give a man a rock hard erection. Seeing these rather unusual ingredients initiated a discussion between me and Phone Kyaw about the (dis)advantages of traditional medicine. He reckoned these things were indeed beneficial to a patient. I expressed my doubts about the effectiveness of grinding a monkey skull into a powder to be used as a base for a potion to cure burns. I explained that traditional medicine, especially in China, was responsible for the (near) extinction of several species of animals. He took my points but didn't seem to understand the extent of them. I continued by asking him if traditional medicine could cure a disease like trachoma. He said that was indeed possible using a mixture of herbs. I answered I could easily cure it using antibiotics (provided it wasn't in a later stage); "if herbs can do the same then why do so many people who don't have money to buy the Western drugs suffer from the disease ?" "Ah, but it needs the healing power of a powerful monk and the time needs to be right. Powerful monks can cure any disease if the stars and planets are in the right position." I said I didn't want to dispute his explanations but found it a very cumbersome and unreliable method. "And if these monks can cure any disease then why haven't they found a way to cure AIDS ? And why, before the invention of penicillin, people died of infections which are nowadays considered as 'banal' ?" Phone Kyaw ignored my last question - it was rhetorical anyway - and continued about AIDS. He laughed away my comment about the monks but sighed : "A.I.D.S. is a big problem here..." I knew. Reliable sources report over 400,000 HIV positive persons in the country. The problem is worse than in Thailand because the government denies the problem rather than admit to it, despite the hopeful ad just outside Yangon airport, warning newly arrived visitors. What's more, a woman buying condoms to protect herself is subject to arrest for prostitution, and likewise is anyone carrying syringes considered a drug abuser. Even if the government started taking measures right away, it would probably be too late because the disease is already too widespread. Every day new cases are added to the already astonishing grand total. There are several reasons for this : Burmese women returning home after having worked in Thailand as prostitutes, Chinese businessmen paying big money (well, in Myanmar it is) to 'do it' with a Burmese virgin, poor blood screening, drug abuse and the connected sharing of dirty syringe needles and the rape of women in minority villages by the military (this is seen by the army staff as a way of defeating the enemy, so is not punishable). All these things happen on a large scale, definitely larger than what is generally assumed.
Phone Kyaw said if there's one thing foreigners should refrain from when coming to Myanmar, it's having sexual intercourse with Burmese women. "The risk of getting A.I.D.S. is very high but not only that... The girls here are very ashamed and having sex outside a marital relationship will ruin their morality for the rest of their lives." Personally I think that someone who traverses half the globe just to get laid, is a rather sad individual...

After about four hours - we had taken a couple of breaks - we arrived at Ye Maung Gyi Camp. We had a drink in one of the cafes there, all run by women. Suddenly a heavy rain shower broke loose. Fortunately it didn't last long but long enough to make the trail very slippery.
An hour later, we arrived back at the Sea Sar, tired but content.

At night we discussed where we would head to next. The South provided us with another chance to get off the beaten track. I wanted to go to Mawlamyine. Phone Kyaw said we could go there by way of Kayin state. Although the Kayin state is largely inaccessible because of 'insurgences', the southern part can be visited. Sounded like a great idea...

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