The gold nugget

24 May 2019

19 May 19 – Daik-U to Kyaikto – 80km

This is the longest continuous stretch that we have done on our bikes for a while (8 days so far) and today it showed. To say that we were sluggish at the start of the day is a bit of an understatement. About 20km into our ride we had to force ourselves to pick the pace up or else we would end up toiling through the afternoon heat. We had a pep talk and that did the trick – we were back on it and within a couple of hours had caught up to where we should have been. We got to Kyaikto (pronounced Chai tow) just after midday and checked in to our hotel.

The only reason anyone comes to Kyaikto is to go to the Kyaikto Pagoda aka the ‘Golden Rock’.  It’s situated at the top of a mountain about 30km away from the town and requires 2 buses to get there. When we looked into how to get there and back, it sounded quite complicated and as we only had the afternoon we debated whether we should bother going, but we decided that as we were in the area we should at least try. The owner of the restaurant where we had lunch pointed us in the direction of the bus stand, so off we tootled. The ‘bus’ turned out to be a small truck with seats along the sides of the open back…

We checked and double checked that it was going in the right direction and jumped on – it was certainly no tourist bus as it seemed to stop to pick up and drop people off all along the route. However, we made it to Kinpun where we had to change onto another ‘bus’. Turns out that the second ‘bus’ was just a larger version of the first one and there were about 40 people already squeezed onto metal benches in the back, so we joined as the last passengers…

We’d heard that the journey to the top wasn’t for the faint-hearted and it was definitely a ride we won’t forget a hurry! Hairpin after hairpin after hairpin up a very very steep hill, with the truck driving in first gear at speed all the way, while we hung on with white knuckles to our seats!  Half an hour later and we were at the top…well almost, as it’s another 15-minute walk from the drop-off point to the pagoda. As foreigners we had to pay to get in which is a bit galling as locals don’t have to.  It’s something that happens in Asia, which we still haven’t gotten used to as it doesn’t happen in Europe.

The Kyaikto Pagoda is also known as the Golden Rock for a reason – basically it’s a big rock that is improbably perched on the top of a mountain, has a bell-shaped stupa built on its top and has been painted gold. Legend has it that Buddha gave one of his hairs to a local hermit, who then stored it in his own topknot. When the hermit was dying he asked the king at the time to find a rock in the shape of his head (the hermit’s head that is) so that he could build a stupa to keep the Buddha’s hair under. The king had special powers (his father was an alchemist and his mother a dragon serpent princess) so he used these powers to find the rock at the bottom of the ocean, and transport it to its current location. So apparently Buddha’s hair is under the stupa on top and anchors the rock in place to stop it falling off…

As you would expect it looks like a giant gold nugget perched precariously on the top of a very high mountain. If it is indeed in the shape of the hermit’s head then he had a very strange shaped, nobbly noggin! The rock itself does appear to defy gravity as it teeters on the edge with only a very small piece in contact with the rest of the mountain. It’s quite beautiful in its own way and the surrounding hills, covered in lush forest, are also very spectacular.

It’s predominately a pilgrimage site for Buddhists as well as a top tourist attraction and as always whenever there is an attraction, there will be people trying to make money, which we felt rather spoiled the experience a bit.  There’s a huge area (a sort of plaza) covered in white tiles beside the rock itself and on the surrounding hill slopes there are numerous hotels, restaurants and shops, which is a bit of a shame for such a lovely place. Still, we both enjoyed our experience and were very glad that we made the effort to go up even if we were rather knackered from the earlier cycle. The journey back to the bottom was equally as exciting as the one up and was more than worth the £2 return fare – think rollercoaster ride with no seatbelts or safety whatsoever and you’ll be getting close to the experience! And include a kid hanging out the side, being sick all the way down to add to the authenticity of it all…!

The picture below shows me with the Golden Rock in the background – I’m wearing a longyi, the apparel of choice for the majority of Burmese people.

It’s normally Martina that gets caught out with dress codes at religious sites and up until now I’ve been fine wearing shorts at the many pagodas we have visited…but not here! I had to hire one for the duration of our visit and if I didn’t think that I’d get ridiculed walking down the high street in the U.K. I’d definitely wear one during the summer as it was comfortable and cool (in a temperature sense!) to wear.

One last thing from our time in Kyaikto – we had an ice cream and didn’t really know what we had bought! Turns out it was milk flavoured with chocolate and sesame seeds – much nicer than it sounds…

20 May 19 – Kyaikto to Thaton – 67km

So, we got our cycling legs back – no pep talks needed today! As it was a shorter day we indulged in the hotel breakfast and were on the road by 6:50am, positively zipping along in comparison to yesterday. On our way out of Kyaikto we spotted yet another enormous statue of Buddha on a hill. It was difficult to get a good picture of him as the trees got in the way, but if you look closely he had very large ear lobes.

We’ve noticed that the further east we have gone the bigger Buddha’s ears and lobes have become! The photo is a bit hazy because of the moisture in the early morning air condensing on my phone lens.

Over the past week or so the scenery has basically been flat agricultural land, but today that changed to something a bit more interesting. Beautiful rolling hills covered mainly in lush forest, and although the roads were reasonably busy it was really nice cycling that we both thoroughly enjoyed.  We made great time, even though there were quite a few short sharp hills to negotiate, and got to destination before midday – just in time for a snooze (which of course we missed out on yesterday!). We had a very enjoyable lunch and retired to our hotel to keep out of the heat of the afternoon.

The temperatures have dropped slightly as we have headed south so it’s 38 degrees in the afternoon rather than 43 – but the humidity has gone up. So, thst means we are sweating just as much so will keep to our early morning routine. We have been told that the rainy season starts on 21 May (not too sure how they can be quite so precise), which would explain the higher humidity levels.  And the forecast for the next while all over south east Asia is for thunderstorms, which also ties in with the pending monsoon season.  Our bikes need a good wash anyway!

21 May 19 – Thaton to Hpa-an (pronounced Pa An) – 51km

Another beautiful ride and again the scenery changed during the day. We continued along rolling hills which were covered in green forest, but the further east we went this changed to craggy volcanic outcrops. These nobbly bits of rock appear to just stick straight out of the ground and make this area quite spectacular. We arrived in Hpa-an really early – about 10am – met some other guests (more about them in a while), checked into our room and then decided that rather than slobbing out we should make the most of the day and go to see one of the local attractions.

There’s plenty to see around here, but one of the main attractions is the Mahar Sadan Cave. We booked a tuk-tuk to take us out to it as it’s an hour drive away.  Tuk-tuks here are not the small yellow and black vehicles we are used to, but bigger and powered by what looks like a motorbike on steroids!

An hour later we were at the cave, which is really big with a bunch of Buddhist shrines inside.

Even though some of the shrines are a bit gaudy (in our view) the caves are quite spectacular and home to quite a few thousand bats. We could hear them squeaking above us and every now and then one would fly past. We walked the length of the cave which basically takes you through the mountain and out the other side.

We then boarded a canoe with a local family and were paddled back underneath the mountain through another cave system. Really great and we thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience…

The owner of the guesthouse had said we should visit a monastery on the way back as it was on the way, so we asked the driver to stop. The first one we stopped at was a bit of a false alarm and we decided not to go in as it didn’t look that impressive from outside. The second one on the other hand is pretty amazing as there is a stupa perched on top of a craggy piece of rock which juts out of a lake…

There is a pagoda next to it and we both agreed  that this was one of the nicest we’ve been to as it was very tranquil and how we imagined a Buddhist religious site to be.  The Buddha was very nice too (note again his rather large ears and lobes)…

…as were the surrounding mountains…

It was at about this time that we bumped into the other guests from our accommodation for the third time that day. They suggested that we meet up for dinner, which sounded great, and off we went our separate ways. As it had been a long day we spent the rest of the afternoon chilling out.

As planned we met Tom and Shelly on the roof terrace of our hotel and there started a great evening chatting, eating and drinking. Believe it or not but this is the first time that we’ve had dinner with other westerners since we started our journey. Tom is a primary school teacher from England and Shelly is from Australia and works as a consultant for non-government organisations (NGO). Shelly’s work takes her all over the world and they often tie in her work trips with some personal travel which means that they get to explore loads of different places. It was a great evening and we had lots to talk about as we are quite kindred spirits – the talk (and the beer!) was so free flowing that we didn’t go to bed until 2am which is 5 hours past our normal bedtime!

A blow out once in a while is a good thing!

22 May 19.  Hap-An.

Woke up not feeling on best form due to the late night and a beer or two too many.  However, we still decided to get out and about and climb the nearby Hpa-an mountain (more of a hill really!),  which gives good views over the surrounding area. We met another Aussie, Susan, who is travelling alone so she decided to join us. To get to the bottom of the hill we first had to cross the Thanlyin River, which we did on a motorised canoe…

We then sweated all the alcohol out of our systems climbing the hill, but it was all definitely worth it. Luckily for us it was a really clear morning so we got some great views at the top…

The rest of the day was spent chilling, doing a little bit of bike maintenance and eating – all nice and relaxing. We met up with Susan once again in the evening for dinner which was lovely…

Shame we didn’t clear the plates before taking the photo!

23 May 19 – Hpa-an to Kawkareik – 91km

Something I ate unfortunately disagreed with me and I had a bad night – yet again it’s me that’s thelifecyclers’ resident sick note! Anyway, packing up wasn’t much fun so I decided to bite the bullet early and take some antibiotics.  Let’s hope they work as they have in the past.

The ride today was reasonably uneventful. We started on some nice roads with craggy rocks all around…

…but as the morning wore on there were more and more roadworks and the traffic got pretty busy, some of which wasn’t particularly kind to us.

We made it to destination just after midday and found our hotel. This one had mixed online reviews so we didn’t know quite what to expect…and feared the worse. Turns out it was all unfounded and the place was great – we had the whole top floor to ourselves, including a terrace.  And you should have seen the joy on our faces when we found out that there was a washing machine we could use..Oh the simple things in life!!

2 comments

  1. Comment by Shelley

    Shelley Reply 3 June 2019 at 8:07 am

    I’ve only just had a chance to read your blog and will make sure I subscribe now to keep updated. It was so great to meet you guys and am definitely sure it won’t be the last time! Keep enjoying the adventure! x

    • Comment by Martina

      Martina Reply 4 June 2019 at 12:25 pm

      Likewise Shelley – and hope to catch up with you and Tom again!

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