While the Golden Rock of Kyaiktiyo remains a tourist attraction to rival Rangoon’s illustrious Shwedagon Pagoda, this Buddhist pilgrimage site in Mon State has become a source of immense frustration for foreign tourists who complain of being ripped off and forced into an ethnically dubious practice.
Just four hours drive south of the former capital, the eight-meter pagoda is perched upon a gold leaf-adorned granite boulder that has been visited by devout Burmese for centuries.
According to local legend, the precariously placed rock is held in position by a single strand of the Buddha’s hair, and devotees view this miraculous balancing act as inspirational enough to bolster their Buddhist beliefs.
Yet there is one aspect associated with visiting the prestigious pagoda that has been riling international tourists and threatens to jeopardise Burma’s burgeoning tourist industry that has been revitalized by this year’s program of political and social reform.
The process of reaching the pagoda begins at the small village of Kinpun, a short distance past the township of Kyaikto, where both pilgrims and tourists are loaded, more than 40 at a time, onto small trucks fitted with impossibly narrow benches.
However, the foreigners—predominately a mix of Western and Southeast Asian tourists—are subtly segregated into different trucks before setting off on the winding mountain road. This system involves some 140 vehicles and is ostensibly used due to the narrow nature of the track and the lack of parking at the Yathaytaung “base camp” by the village of Kamon Chaung.
At this point trucks with Burmese nationals continue up the steep hill to the pagoda, while foreign tourists are ordered off and forced to engage the help of “Waw” carriers. This involves four porters transporting visitors in a chair strapped between bamboo poles at a cost of around 20,000 kyat (US $25) per person.
“On arrival at the base camp I was ordered off the truck which was about to continue the journey to the pagoda,” said one irate Australian visitor. “I refused and was then told that this was necessary as the road trip was ‘too dangerous’ for foreigners.
“I replied that if it was safe enough for the Burmese then it was certainly safe enough for me. It was soon made clear that the truck would be going nowhere until I was no longer on it.”
Interviews with more than a dozen Western tourists conducted by The Irrawaddy at Kyaiktiyo revealed a deep level of unease regarding being carried in a fashion which conjured mental images of subservient Asians being forced to dote on their colonial “masters.”
“The carrier providers are confident that good business can be had from the tourists who are for the most part older people in retirement or in less than perfect physical health, and also presumably affluent enough to pay,” added the Australian tourist.
Observers fear that Burma’s nascent but growing tourism industry could suffer unless steps are taken to ensure the ethical and responsible treatment of all visitors regardless of nationality.