BURMA PART 2: GOLDEN ROCK

I'm proud to announce that my book on Photographing Burma is now available for download at the iBooks store. It's got over 140 pages and 120 images, and includes information on everything I know about photographing in one of the most amazing countries on earth. 

Golden Rock on the top of Mount Kyaiktiyo was a place in Burma I was determined to get to as soon as we decided to go to Burma. I'd seen Steve McCurry's photo of it years before and it just fascinated me, and even though it was pretty awkward to get there with the limited time we had in Yangon, I thought it would be worth it.

Of course, to see it at it's best you have to be there for sunset and sunrise, and that means staying overnight at the top, which proved to be easier said than done. There are a couple of small hotels next to the temple site, but before going we'd pretty much exhausted every means we had of booking a room.  We couldn't contact them at all via the telephone numbers and email addresses we had for them, but eventually a local travel agent (who we'd originally got in touch with to arrange internal flights) managed to arrange a room for us.

Once we had a place to stay sorted out, I started to look at getting there and back.  We only had 3 days in Yangon, and going there on the train or by bus would mean leaving Yangon at 8am, and then getting back the following evening, effectively taking away 2 full days in Yangon.  In the end, we looked into hiring a private driver for the trip. This is the kind of thing that in most countries we'd never dream of doing, but in Asia it's not unfeasibly expensive, and it meant we could leave later (giving us a morning in Yangon) and get back much sooner (giving us half an afternoon and evening in Yangon).  It also gave us the option to stop and take photos of the journey whenever we wanted to, and it was fun getting to know the driver and his assistant.  At first, we were a little curious as to why a driver would need an assistant, but 15 minutes on the road out of Yangon made it perfectly clear.  You see, in Burma, the vast majority of the cars are bought second hand from Japan, where vehicles are right hand drive.  In Burma however, traffic drives on the right side of the road, which means that the driver is sitting in the part of the car closest to the edge of the road.  This makes overtaking particularly hazardous, as it's almost impossible to see past the many trucks and pickups on the road if anything is coming the other way.  That's where the assistant comes in.  He sits on the passenger side and can see further down the road, letting the driver know when it's safe to try to over take.

The journey out to Golden Rock was fascinating.  Before we'd even got close to the outskirts of Yangon, it felt as if we were driving through the countryside.  There was a constant line of teak wooden houses next to the roadside for the first 20 kilometers or so, and then slowly the city gave way to fields and trees, and every few kilometers, the glimpse of a golden temple.  As the drive continued, we noticed that near every roadside temple we'd see people standing next to the road asking for donations to help with the upkeep of the temples.  In a country as poor as Burma, it's amazing how much people give.

By the middle of the afternoon, we could see hills on the horizon, and soon we were arriving in Kinpun,the town at the base of the Mount Kyaiktiyo, and as far as you can go in a car.  So we said goodbye to our driver and arranged to meet him the following day, then made our way to the terminal where the trucks set off up the hill.  Basically, you climb in the back of an open truck, and they squeeze as many people in as possible.  We were there on a weekend in the holidays, so there were hundreds of Burmese who'd made the pilgrimage out here and were heading up to Golden Rock.  The road was incredibly steep, with some VERY sharp switch-backs and hair-pin bends, and the driver took it all pretty fast. In about 45 minutes we were jumping out of the truck at the entrance to the massive temple site at the top of the mountain.

We dropped some stuff off at the hotel on the mountain top, then walked into the temple site proper.  As in all religious sites in Burma, you have to be barefoot to enter, and Golden Rock temple complex covers a vast area, most of which is stone paved.  At first, we really felt the cold, but after a while our feet just got numb and we stopped noticing it.
There were thousands of people there!  It's always hard to estimate numbers, but as we walked along the ridge, past the various shrines, small temples and various other buildings, I think that there were in the region of 10 000 people at the top of the peak that day.  Everywhere we looked we could see people putting down blankets on the floor to stay the night and hundreds of vendors selling food.  Moving through the crowds took time, and we had to pick our way across hundreds of blankets where people were cooking and eating their evening meals.  
The actual golden rock itself is a little overpowered by all the buildings and various stairs and viewing platforms that surround it, but it's still an impressive sight.  It's perched in an impossibly precarious way on the very edge of the cliff top, with just a small part of the rock balancing on the earth beneath.  Legend has it that it's held in place by a single hair from Buddha, and from certain angles where you can see beneath the rock to daylight on the other side, it really does seem as though it wouldn't take much for the rock to roll down the mountain into the valley below.
I've tried to show in the picture below how delicately balanced the rock is.

A constant stream of pilgrims crosses a small bridge to the rock, where they pray and apply gold leaf to the surface of the rock.  Women aren't actually allowed up to the rock, and instead give their gold leaf to monks who apply it to the rock for them.
It was so busy at the rock that it was impossible to get a clean photo, so we spent some time wandering round taking in the carnival atmosphere. 

As the sun began to set, more and more people approached the rock, and it became obvious that I wouldn't be able to get a clean shot of it, so we went back to one of the smaller shrines I'd noticed as we'd walked through the temple complex earlier.
Perched on the very edge of the cliff, a smaller rock had been painted gold and a small groups of pilgrims were sitting next to it as the sun set.  The last light of the day gave the rock a beautiful warm glow, and then we went back to the hotel for dinner.  Later, after eating we wandered back to the golden rock to see it illuminated at night.  By now the stone floor was pretty cold, and I was feeling sorry for the thousands of people who were bedding down for the night there.  At this time the rock was a little quieter, and I managed to get a couple of shots as some monks applied gold leaf to the huge boulder.  


When we arrived back at the hotel, it was getting properly cold.  When we'd left the valley down below, it had been a balmy 25 degrees, but at the top, the temperature was a good 15 degrees cooler, and feeling that through our cold feet had left them feeling like blocks of ice.
A warm shower back at the room was the perfect end to what had been a long day, and we went to bed under a pile of blankets, with the alarm set nice and early for photographing the dawn the following morning.

Waking up the next morning before dawn, I opened the curtains of the room and looked out across the landscape.  The sun was just coming up over the mountains, and the view down the mist filled valley and across the tree covered peaks was wonderful.  The plan was to be at the rock as the sun came over the mountain and illuminated it with first light, so I didn't really have much time to photograph the landscape.  However, the view was so good that I couldn't resist photographing it, and the shots below were taken handheld through the open window of the room. 

Even first thing in the morning, the temple complex was thriving with life.  Once again, we picked our way between blankets, barefoot on very cold stone towards golden rock.  There were thousands of people waking up, watching the sunrise, and preparing their breakfast.  At the rock itself, the air was thick with incense and smoke from small fires that people had lit.  People made offerings to Buddha of all kinds of things, from white flowers and golden bells, to food and bottles of water.  Everywhere people were praying and worshipping as the suns first light cut through the smoke of the incense and fires.  I got the image I wanted as the sun's first rays cast warm light across the gold of the rock, whilst a buddhist monk applied gold leaf and prayed.  

It was an amazing experience, despite the huge numbers of people there, there was a sense of peace and calm, and despite the cold, it was a warm experience.  We spent a couple of hours just taking it all in before heading back to the hotel for breakfast and then heading down to the truck station. 

Coming up on the trucks had been slightly hair-raising, but that could never have prepared us for the journey back down.  First of all just getting a place on the trucks was tricky, as thousands of people attempted to descend the mountain at the same time.  It was chaos, every time a truck arrived, hundreds of people swarmed over it, and within seconds it was full.  We eventually managed to get a spot on a truck, and then we were off, heading down the steep roads and twisting bends at incredible speed.  Just hanging on with knees wedged beneath the seat in front and hands turning white from the pressure of staying in the seat was hard work, and as the truck literally plummeted down the road and around the impossible curves, it was like being crushed in a roller coaster with a hundred other people.

Eventually we arrived back in Kinpun, and within a couple of minutes we found our driver waiting for us. And then, we were on the road again heading back to Yangon.
The road was busy all the way back with holiday traffic, and we stopped a couple of times at roadside markets to have a look around.

Midway between Kinpun and Yangon is the large town of Bago, capital of the region.  We stopped to look around some of the temples there, and found that like Golden Rock, they were packed with Burmese who had travelled from all over the country to see the temples.  I met one woman, photographed below, who was with a group of pilgrims from the north of the country traveling around 200 temples over the holidays.  
In one of the temple buildings near Bago's main stupa, we came across a group of young students in a Buddhism class, chanting and singing.  We passed a pleasant 15 minutes just sitting and listening to them singing, before their teachers asked us to take pictures of them.
By the time we arrived back in Yangon it was getting late in the afternoon, but after an amazing night away at Golden Rock, we really felt that the trip to Burma was really getting started and were already starting to fall in love with the place.