Myanmar’s Golden Rock……..and roll

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.

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The world’s weirdest capital?

Three thirty pm. Sixty minutes to rush hour. In major cities around the world gridlock time would be fast approaching. In Myanmar’s capital things are……. a little different.
I stand at the edge of a monster highway, glance to my left, saunter out to the third lane and casually sit down.
Death would be certain in most cities. Here, the biggest risk is scorch marks on my arse from the baking hot road surface.
After sixty traffic-free seconds I get up and wander across seven more lanes to the central reservation. I poke my head through the bushes and see the same exact thing on the other side……nothing.
I exaggerate, but only a little. For a mile or so I can see five or six motorbikes. And that’s all. Twenty lanes of emptiness. And this in the very heart of the capital city.
But to be honest this place doesn’t have a heart. And it has absolutely no soul either. In fact, there’s not much that it does have. There are very few people, a tiny sprinkling of shops, no tourists nor taxis. The only way to get around is to pay for a ride on the back of a motorbike.

Hotel zone - full of new buildings, empty of tourists

Hotel zone – full of new buildings, empty of tourists

Oddly, it’s not short of hotels. There are lots of them, all shiny and new. Each and every one situated in the dedicated hotel zone. That’s how it works here. Everything in its own area. There’s a commercial zone (although it’s woefully short of businesses and offices), a ministries zone, a military zone and a zone where the generals live. Civilians, effectively government workers, live in the residential zone. The rooves of their apartment blocks are colour coordinated depending on which ministry employs them.
The zones are spread over a huge area, nothing is within walking distance. They’re linked by excellent roads, the only decent ones in the country. They intersect every few miles and at each stands an imposing security box and armed policemen. Nobody moves around here without being noticed. But that’s no big deal, there’s nobody here to notice.
One place I personally stood out was in the supermarket. It was incredibly well stocked by Myanmar standards but customers were scarce. I had my own personal shopper – a security man followed me through every inch of the store. He wasn’t even embarrassed as I twice deliberately double-backed after just turning into a new aisle. As we side-stepped around each other he would wait two seconds, turn around and resume his shadowing.

At this rate the roads will never wear out

At this rate the roads will never wear out

The city didn’t even exist until 2005. Yangon, or Rangoon as the British called it, was the country’s capital. But after years of secrecy the people woke one day to an announcement that a new capital city had been built. It’s called Nay Pi Taw, which translates grandiosely as Royal Capital. Situated half way between Yangon and Mandalay it cost an estimated four BILLION dollars to construct. In such a dirt poor country this money would have transformed the country’s desperate health, education and transport infrastructure.
The exact reasons the generals built the new city are unknown. But rumours are rife, just take your pick. It’s easier to defend against foreign invasion; it’s designed to prevent a popular uprising; an astrologer told the generals it would be the smart thing to do.
Whichever, it’s clear Nay Pi Taw is an act of self-love and self-preservation on an epic scale. A monument to the madness of military men who became rich and paranoid on the broken backs of their countrymen.
After decades of abusive control reform is slowly being introduced, elections are due next year. If the people ever truly wrest power from the military this will be a safe haven for the men in uniform. It is in essence their folly of fear.

Uppatasanti Pagoda - utterly deserted by tourists

Uppatasanti Pagoda – utterly deserted by tourists

Nay Pi Taw does have two or three tourist sites – that’s an average of about one attraction for every tourist in town. There’s a zoo and safari park, I went to neither.
The Uppatasanti Pagoda is the pick of the tourism spots. It dominates the skylines for miles. It is just 30 centimetres shorter than Shwedagon, Yangon’s sacred and world-renowned Buddhist monument, on which it’s modelled. Lifts and staircases are needed to reach the hollowed out entrance. It is immense. Amazingly it was said to have been personally paid for by Than Shwe, the country’s former military dictator. Quite how he could have afforded it on the pay of a mere, humble general,I really don’t know…….
In December the city did have a moment in the international spotlight when it hosted the South East Asian games. New stadia and sports halls were built, foreign media and tourists came to town.
However, the word is the hotels are now back to empty, the streets deserted and the Uppatasanti pagoda is once again quiet.

The perfect symbol for the capital - white elephant

The perfect symbol for the capital – white elephant

Across the road from the complex is another ‘tourist attraction’. Several white elephants are brought out each day to amuse a handful of spectators. In Myanmar they are considered lucky and a sign of justice and power. When the British were here they came up with an alternative definition of a white elephant – something that is excessively expensive in proportion to its usefulness. That’s as close to an accurate definition of Nay Pi Taw as you can get.

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When I was a little boy my sister and I would write letters to Santa Claus. They were really just lists of the sackful of toys and presents we feverishly hoped for. A week or so before Christmas Day we’d send them up the chimney to ride a hot air trail all the way to the North Pole.
Father Christmas never failed us.
Some years I had special requests for Santa. These were secrets between the two of us and were never written down
They were about much more than mere toys. These were dreams.
For a couple of years or so I silently pleaded with Santa to fix it so I could drive a train
It didn’t happen.
The closest I got was when the real life Santa, my dad, a railway man, got me on to the footplate of a steam engine as it stood at the station. It was good enough.
As I grew up I also grew out of my secret conversations with the man in the bright red tunic. But now and again, in an idle moment, the wishes still return and fill a quiet daydream.
And then a few weeks ago Father Christmas showed up. Was he a little early this year or was he about 45 years late? I’m not quite sure. Either way it’s not important. All that matters is that the magical man from the North Pole finally made a little boy’s silent wish come true.

The following blog is dedicated to the memory of my dad, the real life Santa, who passed away fifteen years ago today. He gave me a passion for life……and trains.


With a sharp tug on the wheel and an easing of the brakes the driver sends the train inching away from the station. Slowly, with concentrated deliberation, he takes the engine up through the gears. First, second, third and fourth all quickly gone with short clicks of the wheel.
He has one eye on the gauges, pressure and revs are both fine. The other eye intently surveys the track ahead.
The engine strains a little. Its days of top speed are long gone. It’s old but it’s still a sturdy and reliable workhorse.
Behind, it pulls seven carriages with 400 or so passengers. They hear excited and repeated bursts from the horn, otherwise they are blissfully ignorant of what’s going on up front. They’re unaware that a boyhood dream is being realized. They don’t know that I am DRIVING THE TRAIN.

Lifelong dreams, if they’re met at all, rarely come cost-free. Mine certainly didn’t. But I have to say, it was probably the best one dollar I ever spent.
That’s the fee foreigners pay for riding the Circular Train around Yangon, formerly Rangoon. It doesn’t feature in the world’s great railway journeys but it’s a wonderful ringside seat into the city, its rhythms and the people who call it home.

The British built the railway in the 1950s. It does a full circle around the sprawling city and its surrounds. The journey is almost 46 kilometres and the train stops at 39 stations.

Foreigners are usually directed to the rear carriage – quite often a cut above the others. Hard plastic or wooden benches run down either side. Outside the city is there for all to see. Some of it is grim, slums hustle in close to the line.
People live right on the trackside. They even put their washing out to dry between the rails.
But the negatives are completely overshadowed by the positives.
After 20 minutes I left my carriage and headed for the other compartments where the locals sit and stand.
I’m welcomed with huge smiles. People make room for me or come over to try some English. Young boys follow me as I get off and on at different stations to move further up the train. Girls giggle, old ladies smile. This is fun. This is Myanmar.
The circular train is the cheapest away around the city for the people. They use it for travel, transport, trading, business and a whole lot more.
On board people carry furniture, huge sacks of vegetables, electrical equipment, bundles of brushes, live chickens. When it comes to cargo nothing is off-limits.
People get off and on with huge trays of food to sell. Amazingly, there is even a passenger cooking in the middle of one compartment.

In another, without a word exchanged, the man next to me puts his hand on my leg. After a moment he starts stroking it. Is this a local custom on the circular train? I’m a little concerned.
When he moves to my thigh I’m startled and on the point of violent self-defence. But the looks of people in the carriage suggest no ill intent. I finally work out he is a masseur and this is where he works. This is his salon.
I pay him a dollar and move on.
In every carriage it’s the same, a big welcome and more surprises. Finally I run out of compartments and on the spur of the moment make a bold decision.
At the next stop I jump off and run alongside the engine. I shout at the somewhat stunned engineer and as the train begins to move he grasps I want to come on board. He makes frantic ‘hurry, hurry’ gestures as I try to haul myself up the huge gaps between the steps. As the train gathers speed I manage to jump on. The rest of the crew is equally amazed at the foreigner in their midst but they make me instantly at home.
After 20 minutes of close study I go for broke on my boyhood dream. I ask in exaggerated sign language if I can drive. I sense we’re in unchartered waters. There is a look of doubt on the driver’s face. But then he stands up and waves me into his seat. A few quick lessons later I find myself in control of a railway engine.
Like a naughty schoolboy I fulfill another dream and flog the horn to death. The driver and his men smile widely.
Top speed is pretty relaxed, the track isn’t up to breakneck. Ahead of me it buckles and bends alarmingly.
As a station approaches the driver gives me more voice and sign commands. I manage to slow us to a crawl. The people lining the track and the platform suddenly notice the new driver. All my Christmases and all of theirs seem to have come at once and there’s delirium inside and outside the cab. Wisely they scatter off the rails ahead.
With the driver gripping my hand on the air brakes we come to a stop. I’m quickly prepped on the starting procedure and seconds later I inch the train slowly out and up through the gears.
I drive the engine to the next station and exhausted by exhilaration make my grateful leave of the driver’s seat.
My dream has moved from fiction to fact and I spend the rest of the ride in a Burmese daze.
The little boy inside of me contentedly relinquishes a dream. And on the gentle breeze I’m sure I catch the sound of laughter from a dearly missed old railwayman.

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The sound of silence in mystic Bagan

Silence, solitude and sunset. A rare and elusive alchemy. In the wonderous and mystical setting of ancient Bagan, they form a soothing balm for the soul.
The world’s largest collection of stupas and pagodas sprinkle the skyline below and beyond me. Tiny honeycombs and vast temples stand side by side and take their silent and timeless place.
All around the light is being gently smothered by the slow, smooth sinking of the sun. Colours change from moment to moment and for as far as the eye can see and the ear can hear stillness and silence reign.
It is a time and a place to feel a deep calm and peace. A moment to glimpse deep within yourself.
And then I hear them.
Moments later I see them. From nowhere a coach has arrived, disgorged its tourists and they’re now rampaging towards me.
My perfect peace is shattered as they huff and puff into the temple. Their guide leads them through the darkness and up the narrow stone staircase. Within seconds a tidal wave of tourism smashes through my wall of solitude. They are a mass of loud, excited chatter, whirling cameras, coughs and splutters. “It’s amazing,” they scream to themselves and each other. “Stunning.” “Wonderful”.
Actually, for me, it’s close to heartbreaking. I cannot stop here knowing what a rare and elusive moment has been lost. I have just 25 minutes or so until the sun finally settles. But this is a place that offers choices.
Bagan in central Burma (now Myanmar) is one of the world’s great architectural sites. A treasure trove of around 2,200 monuments spread over 26 square miles. They stand, lean and in many cases decay, on a vast, dry plain framed by a bend in the fabled Irrawaddy River.
Serious building work began in the eleventh century. It continued for 250 years by when 11,000 stupas and temples had been constructed. All part of the Buddhist belief that such devotion on earth builds credit for what follows.
But the marauding hordes of Kubla Khan’s army wrought havoc in the area and thousands were obliterated. Earthquakes great and small have continued the destruction ever since.
Today Bagan is awe-inspiring, eight centuries ago it would have been beyond words.
A few days are needed to tour the sites. Many people go by horse and trap, plenty more cycle. Others, like me go on electro bikes. Stately but a little faster, so more ground can be covered.
I spent three days armed with a vague map of the “highlights”. There are some vast and hugely impressive structures that tower up to the sky.

But often it is the small, intimate temples that surprise. There is always a buddha inside but sometimes there are fabulous frescos and carvings. Tourists always visit the big pagodas but with so many monuments to choose from the smaller sites are mostly your very own to explore.
Now, I am in a race against time. I set off, desperate to rediscover peace and quiet, to watch the sun set in silence. I pass many small stupas but they are single storey. Height is crucial to really appreciate Bagan’s vast scope.
I’m getting a little desperate as the light deserts me……and then I spy it. A large pagoda several storeys high, surrounded by fields and with access marred by overgrown scrub. It’s enough to deter most people. The electro bike is buffeted by the hard, dried clay surface. It makes discouraging noises but gets me through.
The temple’s interior is a still, murky darkness. I search for steps and after one and a half full ciruits my torch illuminates the entrance of a stone staircase. It’s raised a few feet above the ground. I make the narrow climb under a low ceiling and two storeys later I emerge into the fading light.
A vast panorama of stupas and temples stretches for as far as I can see. And minutes later, when the sun’s rays leave the day behind, I sit alone. Just me, the beauty of planet earth and a warm, comforting blanket of silence.

The sight and sound of silence - sunset in Bagan

The sight and sound of silence – sunset in Bagan

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Myanmar’s wild balloon festival

One hundred thousand people are cocooned in chaos. Their wide eyes raised in wonder. High above, a giant balloon decorated with a smiling Buddha is rising gently towards the heavens. It is a majestic sight. But Buddha has a wild side. He unleashes a battery of fireworks and the night sky is lost in a violent storm of light and sound.
Back on the ground dozens of young men from the launch team begin a frenzied celebration. They chant and jump and bang drums as if their very lives depended on it.
Taunggyi Balloon Festival is in full swing. It is unique. There is nothing else quite like it in Myanmar.
The festival is a week-long visual spectacular almost entirely liberated from rules and regulations. Foreign tourists are essentially absent. I counted two dozen at most. Just getting there can be an epic test of patience and stamina. For those who made it there is a massive outpouring of goodwill. Two friends and I were feted like rock stars. Dozens of handshakes and countless requests to pose for photographs.

Put it on your bucket list – but perhaps not too high. It can get a little dangerous. Things can go wrong. On the final night (I wasn’t there) a balloon climbed fifty metres into the air, caught fire, stalled and plunged to the ground. Its cargo of fireworks spitting out lethal spears of rockets into the fleeing crowd. There were injuries. I don’t know how many or how serious. These dramatic pictures were captured by tourist Rudy Caers (copyright as he was leaving the festival.

A few years ago 200 people were reportedly hurt when a balloon showered them with falling fire debris.

Despite the hazards the festival is extremely popular. People travel from all across Myanmar to Taunggyi, capital of the Shan state. The event takes place around full moon in October or November. It marks the Buddhist celebration of Tazaungdaing.
I travelled from Mandalay. I’d opted against the 40 minutes flight in favour of the scenic overland route. Three of us shared a taxi. Eight hours were the estimate, 13 the reality. In the final few kilometres our driver mutinied, we walked, flagged down a minibus and sat marooned in total traffic meltdown.
It was worth every ounce of hassle.
The daytime festival is a fun and comparatively sedate affair. Towns and villages compete for the best designed balloon. These mostly take the shape of cartoon animals.
However, at night the flavour changes. Bars get louder, young men rowdier, huge conga lines cut through the throng. Gambling gets serious. Guys with mobile tattooing do good, if unhygienic business.
Then there is the main event.
Villages and towns compete to build and launch the best balloon. They’re judged on design, fireworks and height achieved. Balloons are designed to soar extremely high.
Small candles in colourful lanterns are often painstakingly attached to the exterior skin or attached by ropes to swing under the balloons. As they rise some jettison scores of colourful little candles with tiny parachutes. It is mesmerizing to watch them fall gently to earth.


I’m the big fella – for once. The hat was to prevent hair burning!

Even more dramatic are the firework balloons. A team is divided into three groups. One brings in the folded canopy, another a huge basket laced with fireworks, the third, the firestarters, enter with flaming wooden torches. It is chaotic and in the confusion it’s easy to get past the ropes and right into the thick of it. I even helped launch one. It is wild and thrilling.

The canopy is made of cloth and paper and is supported by a bamboo frame. Flameproof it is not. The firestarters crawl under the canopy, their flames inches away from setting the balloon on fire. They reach the centre hole of the canopy and hot air from their torches inflates the balloon. Another team brings in the firework basket and attach it to the frame. A fuse is lit and the balloon is launched.

There are false starts but mostly they make slow and steady ascents. A few hundred feet off the ground the spectacle really begins. As the fuse burns through rockets start flaring upwards, sideways and downwards. The night skies explode with showers of bright and colourful light. There’s not a computer in sight yet it is fabulously choreographed. As the balloon climbs and climbs the pyrotechnics can continue for 15 or 20 minutes.
However, things do go wrong. Launch teams are mostly young men loaded with enthusiasm and testosterone. What they lack is fire safety.
Fortunately on my night it is chaotic but it goes well enough.
At 1.30 in the morning we leave. The show will continue for another hour or two. We have a weary walk of 25 minutes to get to our minibus. Traffic is yet again at a standstill but our driver takes us a different route and we are moving well.
All the more disappointing when we have a puncture 500 metres later. The spare, of course, is flat. It adds another tortuous 30 minutes to an impossibly long day. We arrive back at our Inle Lake guesthouses at 3.15 am.
Sometimes the world makes you work to see its wonders. But the balloon festival really did put a rocket up my enthusiasm.

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