Getting into Myanmar on a motorcycle is no easy feat. Current laws in Burma make it a bit of an obstacle for overlanders who intend to cross on their vehicles regardless of whether these be fully equipped 4 x 4 trucks or simple pushbikes, it makes no difference. Myanmar requires careful planning and thought but that’s not to say that it can’t be done. To cross the country legally as of 2016, requires engaging the services of a certified Burmese tour operator. For a fee an operator will provide the paperwork for an “approved route”, an English speaking guide and a government official to lead a travelling party from entry border to exit. Guest houses, hotel bookings and guided tours to attractions are usually included in the package.
For any long distance biker this situation sounds like bliss as the normal inconveniences of looking for budget accommodation, camping spots, figuring out an itinerary and deciding what to visit or not are taken away and landed squarely on the tour operator’s lap. Suddenly, once you’re in the hands of a guide, you’re looked after, pampered and fed which for a short while feels great. All that needs to be done is ride, enjoy the road and the scenery of what until not so many years ago was one of the most reclusive countries in the world.
However, guides and government reps come at a cost and Myanmar’s bill is a hefty one. A seven to ten day road trip through Burma adds up to thousands of US dollars. It therefore makes sense to team up with other travellers and spread the expense of the tour amongst a larger party. Clearly, the bigger the group the cheaper it becomes for everyone involved.
I met a number of bikers on my road trip across Asia, many of whom intended to ride through Myanmar at some point in their itinerary. So, when my turn to leave India arrived I was part of a team of seven keen overland bikers like myself, geared up and ready to meet our Burmese guide just beyond the India Myanmar border in Moreh (Manipur).
One week to cross all of Myanmar on dusty roads and broken tracks, covering an average of around 300km per day was perhaps too fast and left little time to experience Burma’s culture and allure. The few things that I did get a chance to see and appreciate were certainly noteworthy though, like the Golden Rock for example, in Mon State not far from the Andaman Sea, west of Yangon. Bellow is an extract from my travel diary…
In Need of a Rest
We parked our motorbikes in front of the guest house on the outskirts of Kinpun with a sigh of relief. Three days on the uneven roads of Myanmar under the Asian sun had exhausted us and the signs of fatigue were clear. We brushed the dirt off our faces, turned off our engines and shuffled together around Fabian still shaken after his collision with a drunken scooter rider a little earlier in the day. Fabian was limping noticeably, he had a badly bruised foot and was clearly in pain. Luckily, his prized Royal Enfield diesel machine (yes, a diesel motorbike) showed no signs of any damage from the clash.
Perhaps it was just as well we’d made it to the foot of the Kelasa hills that evening, to one of the holiest places of buddhism in Burma. I think we all tacitly acknowledged that it was time for a rest, some peace and quiet away from the roads, fuel stops, road side cafes and riding, even if it was for just few hours.
Mount Kyaiktiyo is home to the Golden Rock of Myanmar, an iconic landmark that attracts hundreds of devout Buddhist pilgrims and tourists every day. Perched at a height of 1,100m (3,600 ft), it consist of a roundish granite bolder perhaps 15m in diameter (50ft), that seems precariously balanced on the ridge of a steep escarpment. The main feature of the rock is the fact that it’s entirely coated in a layer of gold leaf that glistens brightly in the sun. The a gold coating is meticulously maintained (and guarded) by the local monks whilst extra precious metal is added to the rock every day by hundreds of worshippers, who queue and paste gold foil stickers on the mass as a sign of homage.
But of course, it’s not the actual rock that’s worshipped by the faithful. Balanced on top of the the golden bolder lies a 7m (20 ft) tall Stupa (small shrine) that contains relics, locks of hair, that supposedly belonged to none other than the great Buddha himself. It’s these relics that call the faithful to the top of Mount Kyaiktiyo.
We discovered that the climb from the base of Mount Kyaiktiyo to its holy summit was a long and unappealing hike on an uneven trail. Tired as we were from our long ride that day we opted for whatever public transport we could find for our Golden Rock tour. In the end, we followed the locals and did as they did: pile into the back of a truck and then hold on for the rollercoaster ride on a narrow mountain track to the top of the Kyaiktiyo.
The views from Kyaiktiyo were stunning. Once more Myanmar revealed how exceptionally green it was with lush undisturbed valleys stretching far towards the horizon. I admired the sight with touch of wonder hoping that what I saw would survive so called “development” unavoidably on it’s way Myanmar.
The feeling of calm, the pleasant views and the cool mountain air were soothing and relaxing, it was what I had hoped for and needed after the long rides of the previous days. No doubt it had the same effect on my travel buddies whom I noticed were lost in gazes their own.
From the truck stop we strolled on a paved path towards the Rock and its shrine. Around us, there were no other western tourists that day. Most prominent of all were “holy men” of some kind, priests perhaps or worshipers deep in prayer. One elderly monk with a crimson robe and tall hat muttered words of a mantra and took painstakingly short, slow steps towards the shrine ahead.
The Golden Rock
Another turn on the path and the Golden Rock suddenly appeared majestically in the distance, glowing in the sun, bulging from the backdrop of a dark blue cloudless sky.
There was a small procession of people, queuing to get within arm’s length of the Rock’s surface and I decided to hurry on to see if I could join the queue myself. First though, being so close to holy relics, I was required to remove all footwear as is the customary in places of buddhist worship. Then, for a couple of dollars, I bought a strip of sticky gold leaf foil from a stall and silently joined the line.
Only men are permitted to within touching distance of the Golden Rock for reasons not even the locals know. Women are relegated to a small prayer area 10m (30ft) away from its surface.
As I got closer to the granite mass I noticed to my astonishment that it really was precariously balanced on its perch without any obvious added anchoring to protect it from the drop below. Bizarrely there was a sizeable gap underneath the rock that you could see straight through. I couldn’t help but wonder what might happen to Buddha’s sacred relics in the event of even just a minor earthquake.
My turn finally came and I respectfully stuck my gold leaf sticker alongside tens of worshipers doing exactly the same thing. I wished the rock and the contents of its shrine a long and safe life for the benefit of the many pilgrims that visited the place every day.
Was it worth it?
I found the Golden Rock of Mount Kyaiktiyo an interesting tour and certainly worth a visit. Like most of Myanmar it’s still a relatively unknown attraction to mass tourism and the place holds a lot of authenticity.
There are holy men and women, monks and pilgrims on the path to the shrine, some of whom appear lost in thought and prayer. This creates a dose of real mysticism which is harder and harder to find these days anywhere in the world. Of course on the path to the shrine there are also stalls selling food, refreshments and souvenirs for those so inclined but these don’t seem to interfere with the general character of the place. I’m glad I went and would recommend a trip to the Rock to those who intend to visit Burma.
Back on the Road
As we all climbed back onto our motorbikes the following day for the push to the Thai border, there were smiles on everyone’s faces. Even Fabian was feeling refreshed. It almost seemed as though there was some healing power in that golden lump of granite we visited the day before, or maybe it was the holy relics that did the trick, who knows?
For overlanders heading towards Myanmar either from Thailand or India I can say that I was very pleased with the “Motor Customised Tour” arranged for my posse of motorcycle adventurers by :
Burma Senses Travel and Tours
Tel: +84 4 6273 2655
In particular Miss Win Aung worked tirelessly to put the members of our group together, help us out with visas and permits. It all fell into place in the end and although we all opted for a quick crossing of country we didn’t miss out on the main attractions including Bagan, Mandalay and Naypyidaw. Burma is beautiful and exciting.
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