Kyaiktiyo Pagoda, Golden Rock, Myanmar

Kyaiktiyo Pagoda

Get a huge boulder. Perch it on top of a mountain. Build a stupa on top of it. Then encase the whole thing in tons of gold leaf.

That's crazy. That's Kyaiktiyo.

The boulder doesn't look at all safe, balanced right on the edge of a cliff. But it's kept in place by a single hair of the Buddha, or so they say. This miracle made Kyaiktiyo the pre-eminent Buddhist holy site for all of Myanmar. Pilgrims throng here, crushed into the back of trucks that growl their way up the mountain or carried up on a litter by brawny porters.

Souvenir stands and food stalls crowd the way up; pilgrims buy rosaries and offerings for the temple or cheap trinkets to take home. Some camp out just below the peak and cook up their evening meal. Barefoot monks come through the crowds holding their lacquer begging bowls. Guesthouse owners seek out likely customers. Coffee and coconut milk vendors do a roaring trade. 

Kyaiktiyo can feel commercialised and touristy, but it's local tourists and pilgrims who make up most of that trade. This is a different side of Buddhism from the meditative calm of some of Bagan's secluded pagodas, but it's just as important - the faith of ordinary pilgrims who come from all over Myanmar and even from Cambodia to visit. Watching the crowds and window shopping the souvenir market is irresistible. Since everyone is on holiday here, it's easy to chat with local families on their day out.

There are hidden sides to the site, too. Waterfalls nearby give visitors a chance to cool off, mountain paths lead around the mountain, through woods, down to the village of Kinpun. It's a good choice for those who were terrified by the truck ride up, bumping through hairpin bends and up steep slopes with only a thin metal bar between safety and the precipice.

While Kyaiktiyo can be visited as a day trip, sunrise and sunset are the best times to photograph the gilded boulder in glorious golden light. Therefore, it is worth staying on the mountain if your itinerary allows. 

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