Friday, January 22, 2010

A Rock of Gold and the Wrong Buddha

Legend states that the boulder maintains its precarious balance due to a precisely placed Buddha hair in the stupa. Apparently King Tissa received the Buddha hair in the 11th century from a hermit who had secreted the hair in his own topknot. The hermit instructed the king to search for a boulder whose shape resembled the hermit's head, and then enshrine the hair in a stupa on top. The king, who inherited supernatural powers as a result of his birth to a zawgyi (an accomplished alchemist) father and naga (dragon serpent) princess, found the rock at the bottom of the sea. Upon its miraculous arrival at the mountain top, the boat used to transport the rock then turned to stone.

So, naturally, I figured I should go see this Golden Rock of legend for myself:

The Rock at sunrise

To see said rock, you get on a bus in Yangon in the morning, spend a fairly uncomfortable six hours onboard, them disembark at the town on Kinpun to spend a more uncomfortable 45 minutes in the back of a truck going up the mountain, just as soon each and every one of the 48 seats in the back is filled (or, technically speaking, paid for). Then, of course, you have the final 45 minute climb to the top on foot (half way was my hotel - I chose to leave most of my things down in Kinpun). On the way up you see idyllic drawings of what things must've looked like a hundred year ago - a tiny dirt path winding its way up the mountain, with the Golden Rock serving as a lighthouse at the end. Capitalism has put a quick end to all the idyllic settings - the mountain is still here, and is still surrounded by lush greenness. The path, however, is now paved and surrounded by shops, restaurants, and guesthouses (for locals only - foreigners can stay for cheap in Kinpun, or if you want to see sunset/sunrise, you have exactly 3 choices on the mountain, all priced accordingly to the lack of competition). So after all this adventure, I arrived at the top at about 5:30 in the afternoon for the 5:45 sunset, and again early the next morning for sunrise.

Sun starting to head down as I was heading up

The rock in the fading dusk light - I figured framing it with empty space was better than the shops and gaudy temples on the other side

Admittedly, the rock is nicely lit up at night

Dinner at the peak with Roman (Swiss) and his girlfriend, Nun (Thai), the only other foreigners on the full bus from Yangon. Burma is definitely not Thailand when it comes to tourism

So, the next morning, after getting up, oh 5 in the morning, to witness sunrise, we all headed back down the mountain and climbed back aboard the bus (this one said it was the Radisson Hotel Narita Airport - I like that Burma doesn't even bother repainting the buses it gets from Japan, as donations, I presume). I was headed for Inle Lake, Roman and Nun were trying to get to Mandalay - we both had to change buses in the town of Bago, where we had a couple of hours to explore while waiting for the next bus. A quick scan of the guidebook and the tourist advertising at the bus station told us there was a giant reclining Buddha within easy walking distance. It also came with a legend of its very own:

Once upon a time a nasty king, who went by the name of Mgadeikpa, ruled the lands around what is today Bago. His reign was marked by corruption and violence [kinda like the current government...], but one day his son was out hunting in the forest when he came upon a village of Suvannabhumi, where his eye fell upon a Mon girl who caused his heart to flutter. Even though she was a Buddhist and he, like everyone in his father's kingdom, worshipped pagan idols, the two became lovers and married after he promised her that she could continue to practice Buddhism.

Back at the court the king was furious when he discovered this and ordered both the girl and his son executed. Yet, when the new bride prayed in front of the pagan idol it cracked and broke. The king was seized with fear, and realizing the error of his ways, he ordered a statue of the Buddha to be built and the population to convert to Buddhism

So, we headed for the Buddha, and half an hour later, came upon an appropriately huge and gaudy reclining deity:

Well, it's the biggest reclining Budha, I've ever seen!

After spending 20 minutes marveling at the giant deity (and trying to ignore Ton Ton, who was really intent on selling us on a tour of Bago), we headed back to grab some lunch and catch our respective buses.

With the luxury of 16 unoccupied hours that followed before I arrived at Inle, I reviewed the guidebook some more, and, sadly, discovered that we had photographed the wrong Buddha - the one we found is Naung Daw Gyi Mya Tha Lyaung, built in 2003. The ancient one we were looking for is the Shwethalyaung Buddha, half a block further. Ahh Burma, where every street corner has a gold-domed pagoda or a gigantic reclining Buddha!

* Don't you love that all the sights in Burma come with their very own legends? All legends here are courtesy of Lonely Planet by the way, so I cannot vouch for the accuracy...

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