We are being tossed around in a tempest. Rag dolls in a storm. Fifty pilgrims and myself clinging on for dear life. I look at the young boy next to me, his head is bowed low. My heart goes out to him, ‘Hang on, be strong, this will soon be over. Just don’t throw up.’
As if he hears my thoughts he flicks his head up and there on his face is a smile. He’s fine.
I, on the other hand, am most definitely not. My stomach is churning and the colour in my cheeks is draining. My discomfort levels are off the charts and my self-pity is registering even higher.
Just at that point we are thrown violently to our left, momentarily up in the air and then seconds later whipped back to the right. For the umpteenth time in 20 minutes I wonder what the hell am I doing here. The answer gives me no comfort. I’m on my way to look at a rock!
Of course it’s a little grander than that. This rock is special.
The Golden Rock, or Kyaiktiyo Pagoda as it’s properly known, is one of Myanmar’s most sacred sites, an absolute must for Buddhist pilgrims. It is a small pagoda built on a colossal rock perched at a crazily precarious angle on a solid granite cliff. A lock of Buddha’s hair is said to be all that holds it in place.
Right now the only thing holding my breakfast in place is the worry of projectile vomiting over half a dozen pilgrims sat tightly around me.
The Golden Rock sits atop a high, steep hill. There are two ways up. Walking is estimated to take five hours, the other option 45 minutes. I choose the path of least resistance, which is a fancy way of saying I took the easy way out. Or so I thought.
The ‘bus station’ is overflowing with pilgrims. ‘Bus’ is of course a misnomer. What they’re all clamouring to board are small trucks. I join them and climb half a dozen steps and take my place on one of half a dozen benches. I am in the centre and packed in tighter than a winter Olympian’s lunchbox.
I expect a gentle ascent. It doesn’t happen. The truck races up the rough mountain track. It twists and turns at breakneck speed. Mostly we head uphill but now and then we plunge perilously fast downhill. Sat in the middle of the truck I can’t see what’s coming.
After 45 minutes and at the point of reacquainting myself with my breakfast we arrive.
The rock is mesmerizing. It is about 7.6 metres tall (25ft). The pagoda on top of it is a similar height. Over the years they’ve been decorated in gold leaf and pilgrims are constantly adding more and more layers. Monks and men pray at the rock face, women aren’t allowed across the gantry and they view it from several nearby platforms.
How the rock defies gravity and stays where it does is beyond me. The tiniest sliver sits at a precarious angle on the cliff face. It has an overhang of half of its length.
The rock is said to have come from the bottom of the ocean through the combination of a hermit, a king and a serpent dragon princess.
The boat used to transport it turned to stone and is situated 300 metres away – it too is revered.
There are hundreds, possibly thousands of people at the summit. Pilgrims outnumber tourists by a huge majority. Many make the trip every year. The elderly are carried in litters, there are no roads on the mountain top.
There are, however, a couple of hotels and dozens of restaurants and shops. More to my liking are some fabulous walks and views.
It is all blissfully distracting from what lies ahead, the return journey down the mountain. Catastrophe awaits as I have now discovered my appetite and am weighed down by a heavy Myanmar lunch. Incidentally, the country is undisputedly bottom of the league for food in South East Asia. Everything is saturated in oil and flavour is even less in evidence than democracy.
Fortunately, I have heard that foreigners can pay $3US to ride in the truck’s cab. An equal measure of bargaining and begging doesn’t do the trick. The cab is full I am told ad nauseum…..which of course is where this journey could soon be heading.
Luckily I have been in the region long enough to understand that No Means Absolutely No…..until a bribe is paid. I hand the driver an extra dollar and am welcomed into the truck’s VIP area, along with seven Singaporeans. Potentially a world record for a small truck cab.
In the tiny space arms and legs are flailing around but I concentrate on the road ahead and suck on some delicious sweets. My lunch stays comfortably where it belongs.
If you’re planning to do the Golden Rock and roll pay a bribe, travel first class and don’t forget Sugar.