“Hang on!” Andy screamed as the truck crested another hill, lifted fifty crazed passengers skyward for a flash-photo moment, then crashed back to earth, flung a rooster tail of gravel over a cliff as we sped around a hairpin turn, and roared down the next incline. Seinn was squealing in glee, Kaori thumbs-upped the GoPro one more time, and the dozen young monks in front of us clung for dear life the scant rails provided.
“Again, Babe. Take another one!” I was grappling with keeping my hat on my head and my body in the truck bed and somehow holding Andy in too. Were it not for the dozens of other tourists packed so tightly, crammed so full that breathing was a chore and bruises on hips and feet were ensured, we’d have been bounced out and tumbling down those cliffs.
Ahead, another mountain with all his nasty curves and inclines, behind, kilometers of schizophrenic trails through topography squiggled enough to make a bird’s nest look like the Parthenon. Below, a rough and jingly one-laner; above, the pure blue of a Burmese sky and enough gold plastered over a boulder to draw ten thousand souls into death-trap buses and a bare-knuckle rides to the top.
Welcome to our Quest for the Golden Rock.
In case you haven’t Googled Myanmar lately, the object of our journey towered somewhere over us: a strange, tottering boulder round as the moon and radiant as the sun, perched on a ledge over a thousand-foot abyss, and topped with a pagoda spiking into the glowing sky, and somewhere inside a lay a hair or two of the Buddha himself.
I remember gazing in disbelief at those images—“the temple,” I breathed, “must be amazing.” And I could suddenly transport myself to those spacious aisles bathed in gold and beauty honeyed from the glowing sky. The tower arcing overhead, and my feet somehow planted on the rock that stubbornly stayed planted to the ledge when all physics and common sense said it should spill over for sure, when all logic said that all this gold and all this pagoda would be rolling down the valley like the temple’s revenge on Indiana Jones.
I dreamed it all so clearly. And now, provided our bus didn’t careen over the canyon walls, I’d be there—on that rock and in that temple within the hour.
The Golden Rock is one of Myanmar’s largest draws, and it hides in the mountains so far south you might as well be in Thailand, and in hills so steep you wonder why any right-minded monk ever came wandering through here. And yes, it’s best reached by a bus—ok, an outsize pickup with ten narrow benches across its bed—running so rampant over these roads you’d think they were fleeing Megatron himself.
But that wasn’t the only challenge that morning—just getting to the village was a trial. You see, the air conditioner in our SUV was broken. And by broken, I mean that it either roared full blast or not at all, and switching between the two involved stopping the vehicle for ten minutes while the driver got out and disappeared under the hood with pliers and screwdrivers.
That morning, waking at three AM to hit the road, in the dead quiet and eerie chill of the Yangon night, for some unfathomable reason, we chose full blast. “Who cares,” I said, “we’ll be at the Golden Rock by breakfast. Bring on the chill!”
Over all the lonely roads spearing through the dark, through all the flatland swamps and forests of the plains, past the still-gray ricefields and villages where not even the tiniest grandmother is awake to start the day’s fire, our Toyota chugged its fanblade of headlights through the dark and bombarded its passengers with arctic temperatures more suited to an Everest expedition than a tropical joyride.
My teeth chattered, and I hugged myself tightly into a small ball of tourist ice. I rode shotgun, you see, and for the entire three hours of driving, all the AC that was to reach the huddle mass of girls in the back had to first plaster me to the seat.
We shivered and trembled with cold, but pressed on valiantly for the sake of “making good time.” That, by the way, is an excuse for even the most horrendous crimes against humanity. It can force you to hold your bladder to the point of bursting like a water balloon, and it politely looks the other way for even the most dangerous feats of juggling tacos and nachos while at the wheel, risking the lives of dozens for the sake of arriving a few minutes earlier. It will pardon rampant discomfort, and in our case, threaten hypothermia, all because we were “making good time.” If you ever find yourself accused of gross negligence or major fiscal oversights or war crimes of the first degree, just find a way to work “but we were making good time” into your defense. It’s excusable.
Our driver didn’t even seem to notice the piercing chill. He calmly watched through the the fog and the endless stretches of Burmese night rolling past in the dark. Then came the graylight, and then the dawn. Still he drove: robotic. Staring straight ahead, his sole variation of behavior was to roll the window to spit his blood-red Betel chew, and to honk his horn every five seconds, regardless if there were any other car or pedestrian or wild animal within earshot to hear it. Just a precautionary honk. Every five seconds. Robotic.
Or perhaps it was a muscle spasm from the cold.
I wanted to give in, to turn back, to beg a jacket from the girls in the back. I could have taken up smoking just to have a tiny fire nearby. But just as I was about to murder the nearest Yukon Husky to somehow warm my frozen digits within his animal flesh, I remembered the Golden Rock.
I could see it glittering like a second sun in that silly sky, and then me, somehow, someway climbing unseen stairs to its peak to gaze over the valley in wonder. The golden heat radiating from its celestial decorations would more than thaw my frostbite. Nay, it would infuse my limbs with the fourfold power of the Gold and the Impossible.
I survived the ride imagining this.
In the curious settlement at the foot of the Golden Rock’s mountain, the morning bustle was just beginning. Troops of monks and gaggles of ducks fought with stuttering motorbikes and honking trucks for space in the muddy lanes. Market hawkers were calling prices and items into the grunge of shifting gears and splattering muck. Smells from garlic to sewage to roasting nuts wafted through it all, and by the time our backpacks were loaded with water and jackets and snacks, the driver had already downed a steaming broth and was curling up in the seat for a nap.
“Ready?” Seinn was glowing. The trailhead lay on the far side of the village, and the intervening half-kilometer was a lesson in both local anthropology and tourist trinketry.
I was already halfway down the street: “C’mon, c’mon. This giant rock ain’t gonna photograph itself.”
“Giant?” Seinn looed puzzled. At least, I’m pretty sure she looked puzzled. I can’t say for sure, since I was halfway running to the trailhead and halfway stopping to check out the goodies.
Highlights of the avenue of curiosities? How about a toy assault rifle with “USA” emblazoned ostentatiously across the side?
Who buys these things?
I mean, it’s not like especially many Americans make their way over here, and if they do, I don’t think their souvenir of choice from Golden Myanmar is an emblem of violence with their nation’s name stamped proudly on the side—in either red or blue. Do the Europeans go for these? Or is it the locals?
By far and away, the tourists at the Golden Rock are Burmese. They bus down from the cities. They arrive in hordes with families and schools and make their pilgrimage up the side of the cliffs to see the boulder big enough the stuff the Grand canyon with a golden castle sprouting from its glowing top. They bring the whole family and a blanket and enough rice to choke a couple water buffaloes, and they picnic. They spread the blankets across the clean-swept bricks among the throngs, and they lounge and they snack and they chill out under the tropic sun.
Maybe, if the kids are good, they buy some assault rifles and run round the temple blasting each other in the style of the Good Ole US of A.
It’s a curious sight to consider, and I can’t help but wonder if the initials are a tribute to a bad-butt image of the Stallones and Norrises and Seagals that made our nation synonymous with busting up bad guys, or is it a proclamation of the target of that rifle? Should I be worried? Should I wear skinnier jeans and take up a French accent and travel incognito?
And why, in a temple that surely must be known for meditation and hermitage amid the mountains, are assault rifles needed?
Can’t we just stick to roasted nuts and spicy fried who-knows-whats and bowls full of steaming goodness in the chill mountain morn? Can’t we just—hey, where did the girls go?
Apparently to ask directions, crazily enough. And I’m actually glad they did, because we weren’t ready for that trail. We’d have been soaked with sweat and arriving sometime past lunch and sporting more than a few blisters from shoes too stiff and feet too soft for such an uphill bounce. Hike?—something like 4 hours. Bus?—well, we were about to find out.
The Bus Way
Back through the muddy streets and the village smells and the trinkets and assault rifles we trudged, around a corner and up a small hill, and laid eyes on the most glorious bus terminal known to Asia—a cross between a warehouse and an aircraft hangar and an oil-change garage. A dozen sets of stairs in the middle of nothing led to absolutely nowhere, and bay doors on both ends brought giant pickups—or mini dump trucks—overflowing with people down from the glory of the Golden Rock.
The drivers park next to a set of stairs, and the denizens of his truckbed-with-benches pour out onto the steps. After the downward wave, the next set climbs up.
I was giddy. I had goosebumps. This was going to be even better than the roadrage and rampage bus in Jogja, even more epic than Istanbul’s vanride from the gates of the Abyss.
“Get out the GoPro,” Andy started, as a few dozen fellow busers started flowing over us. “This is going to be—”
“Check it out!’ Seinn gasped between laughs, pointing to a giant green sign overhead. “Our ticket comes with life insurance!” We shared a nice laugh—but only because we didn’t know what was in store.
If you ever find yourself headed the way of the Golden Rock, go for the bus. And if, while boarding said bus, you’re tempted to complain about the extra thirty people the driver stuffs into his hold—if you’re thinking it’s his avarice that keeps him selling tickets and stuffing bodies into spaces fit for nothing larger than gerbils—just wait until you get out on that road.
He’s going to dump the clutch and rocket out the rear of the warehouse. He’s going to make sure that the mountain wind is flowing through your hair and drowning out your voice, and that the road beneath goes churning by at a pace set to humble a spaceship. He’s going to take turns on two wheels and leave you clawing for any handhold near enough to cling to. And when that fails, your last resort is no seatbelt, no white-knuckle clinging to the bench, no helpless flailing at the empty air beneath the golden home of Buddha’s hair. No. The only thing that stands between you and making good on your newly-purchased life insurance policy is the hordes crammed into the truck-bed with you. I mean, you can scarcely get out when you try. You could pick that truck up with a crane and flip it upside down and give it a shaking fit for a dusty rug, and you’d get nothing out. Nope. Masses stuck far too tight within. So don’t complain about the crowds.
And so you speed on, up those twisting, chunked-out hairpins, honking like mad at rival buses and pounding through the gears fast enough to marvel F1 pilots. The only thing that slows this puppy down are a half-dozen waylay points that the settlements have erected—each features a tarp for shade and a quartet of guys passing a bucket for donations. “It’s to help the villagers, it seems,” Seinn translated for us. “I don’t think they get much income here, so they ask for some donations or something to use on their roads.”
If you take the bus, get some small change ready. And don’t go dropping it all in the first set of sanctioned highwaymen, either—you’ve got at least five more to go.
And that’s the bus in a nutshell. The ride, despite the driver’s maddest rush and most frantic shuttling, takes something like a half hour.
Fulfillment of the Quest
By the time the bus slowed, I was in a sweat to get out and get to that rock. “It’s got gold all over it,” I was mumbling incoherently and shoving the back in front of me. “Centuries of gold foil pressed on the enormous stone,” I was reciting from the websites, and stomping the heels before me, “and the stupa built right atop the leaning rock, and—”
“I know!” Andy turned around and shouted. “And quit pushing me!”
But there’s not much I could do to calm myself. I had to get there, to cast my own gaze on the wondrous dome of gold glistening uncorrupted in the mountain kingdoms. I started chucking overboard the young monks standing in my way.
Even at the parking lot, though, the Rock wasn’t in view. Even at the stairs where we dropped our shoes. Even through the crowded gates and narrow lanes leading up the hills. Even among the thick-set throng of humanity crawling over each other like so many pious ants, we couldn’t see the temple.
We had to buy an entrance pass. And then, in that moment, stepping out of the window-chilled, mountain-overlooking, dusty-as-a-basement office, Andy spotted it.
“Whoa!” I nearly dropped the Canon onto her flip-flopped foot. Sure enough, through the tangle of electric wires and the scraggly tops of the dusty trees, and around the signs for money-changers deluxe, glimmered an unmistakable ball of gold leaning far over the edge of the rocky crags.
We were both sprinting now.
“Wait up,” Seinn and Kaori called from the rear, where’d we dumped all the backpacks with them. No waiting, though, not with that Golden Rock so near.
Is This It?
“Hah.” Andy stopped and stepped off the road into a scenic overlook spot.
“C’mon,” I urged, “let’s keep going. The real one must be up around the corner.”
“What? The real one?”
“Yeah, you know. The big one. The huge one. The one you can climb up and walk into the temple on the top, the one—”
“No, Babe. There’s nothing like that. This is it. I’ve seen it a million times in photos. I’d recognize it anywhere. This is it.”
“But… but it’s… it’s so small.” I trailed off there at the end, and she had already set the camera to clicking through memories. “There’s not even any stairs to the top…”
Seinn and Kaori came up from behind. Seinn confirmed Andy’s assertion. This was indeed it. I stared. There weren’t even any stairs to the top.
And the temple wasn’t even a temple. It’s a pagoda. Or a stupa. So you can’t go inside. It’s just a spike of gold. Not even an ornate hen could use it as a coop. It was just a stupa, a close-walled, no-entrance, just a fancy mound, stupa.
I was rocked—excuse the pun. I was expecting a tank and came away with Hot Wheels. I had my hopes up for a Titanic and received a canoe. I was ready for the grandest granddaddy catch of them all, and what I got a perch.
I was thinking something along the lines of Sigirya. I thought the stupa a castle and the boulder a mountain of its own. I came ready to photograph a grizzly and found a squirrel.
To be fair, it’s not exactly small. Wikipedia lists the stupa’s height at twenty-four feet, and the boulder is at least that tall itself, and probably almost as wide. If you calculate the tonnage wrapped up in that mass, you come away with a figure far smarter than I. If you show up with anything but a crazy expectation like mine, you’ll be impressed for sure. But if you’re me, well, you’ll end up shuffling your feet and grumbling under your breath.
You’ll complain about the endless chants the monks rattle off through loudspeakers. You’ll trip over the picnickers and wish them all a quick tumble from their next bus. You’ll find the “No Girls Allowed” sign and call all the monks misogynists and backward, and tell them they ought to be meditating instead of taking pictures with their I-phones. You’ll trudge down to the rock itself, the object of your quest, place your hand upon its thin golden skin, and say to yourself, “Yeah, it’s pretty big, I guess.”
You’ll still try to give it a little push over the edge—just to check and see, you know, if the superstition about it balancing on the width of a hair is actually true.
But you’re probably not like me. You’re probably smarter than to get your hopes inflated like a beach ball on the moon and watch them drift off, spinning among the stars.
The challenge of the Golden Rock is not to learn its history or its mythology. It’s not to find the magical boat that pulled the rock from the bottom of the sea flew up the mountain and itself turned to stone not far away. It’s not even to resist the call of the Buddha after witnessing the supernatural revelation of balancing that rock and that gold. No, the challenge is how to frame the photo and keep it fresh.
Later, looking through the hard drive, you’ll find a couple hundred thumbnails featuring a golden orb amid the various backdrops you tried to frame it against. You’ll open and scroll through the pictures and sigh to yourself, “Yeah, it’s pretty big, I guess.”
On the way back down the mountain, we noticed all the stuff we sprinted past on the way up—the masses of men and women lining the walkways with wares for sale. The porters ready to tote our stuff, or even us, for a modest fee, suddenly snapped into focus. All the hillside streaming banners and smiles somehow got under my skin, and before I knew it, I was smiling along with them, under the stark blue sweep of sky above. The picnics and the families and even the kids running rampant among the thousand stepping legs of the pilgrims and hungry tourists seemed for a moment a scene of carefree wonder.
The funny thing, the really funny thing about a quest is that, often as not, you end up finding something far different that what you started in search of. Just ask Dorothy about her adventure with the Wizard. My dreams wound around a Golden Rock rather than a yellow brick road, featured strolling barefoot through a gargantuan, airy temple high atop a half-mountain perched on a whole one, and it just didn’t pan out. It wasn’t as great as I had imagined.
But you know what was? That’s right—the bus.
On the way back, I called dibs on the tailgate seat and spent the next forty minutes clinging to the handrail like a rabid orangutan to the last banana in the forest.
Maybe next time I’ll take some time to learn the myths of the alchemist and the hermit who dragged that stone from the sea to the mountain; maybe I’ll stop and memorize the elevation and practice saying its name in the local tongue. Maybe I’ll hike the trail three times in three years and guarantee myself a life of wealth and fame. Maybe I’ll shell out the coin for a gum-wrapper size stamp of gold foil to smear across one of the few naked spots of stone remaining on the Golden Rock.
But for now—it was lunchtime and I had the best seat in the house on the speediest, swervingest pickup truck in Southeast Asia.