KYAIKTIYO, Mon State—Four hours drive south from Burma’s commercial center of Rangoon brings one to Kyaikto Township in Mon State where the famous Golden Rock is found.
Celebrated for its mysterious history and beautiful scenery, Kyaiktiyo is not only a destination for Buddhist pilgrims but also for tourists of many faiths from Europe and all over the world. As Burma opens up, local residents say visitor numbers have rocketed since the start of the year.
At least 1,500 people including around 200 foreigners are now arriving here daily, said Zaw Myo Oo, a shopkeeper in Kin Mone camp at the bottom of the hill where Kyaiktiyo is located. Before 2012, there were only around 300-400 visitors including foreigners per day, he added.
Kyaiktiyo Pagoda is a well-known Buddhist pilgrimage site while its iconic golden rock is a popular attraction for tourists. The small chedi was built on top of a granite boulder covered with gold leaf by male devotees. Women are not allowed to perform this act of reverence but can still view the temple.
Mya Maung, an aging caretaker who looks after the pagoda, said that every time a woman enters the restricted area intending to touch the rock, the sky becomes cloudy and heavy rain follows. Therefore, female visitors are not allowed to approach within four meters of the shrine.
Mya Maung said that according to legend, the golden rock did not touch the ground when the pagoda was built.
Some visitors brave the three-hour climb up to Kyaiktiyo Pagoda on foot, while others take the one-hour bus journey instead. The elderly or infirm can be carried on stretchers by porters who charge around 20,000 kyats (US $25) per trip. Donations are collected along the road up.
Around the site are shops selling traditional handmade clothes and other handicrafts. There are also local restaurants, teashops, guest houses, hotels and sightseeing binoculars nearby. Worshippers light candles or meditate with offerings of food presented to the Buddha throughout the night.
“I think [Kyaiktiyo Pagoda] is very beautiful, interesting and impressive,” said Sabine, a German tourist making her second trip to the area after first visiting ten years ago, adding that she had not seen such an amazing pagoda in any other Buddhist nation.
“It is very impressive to seeing the golden rock even though I’m a Christian,” agreed her husband Karsten. “It is very special.”
Tourist accommodation is springing up all around the area to cater for the glut of new arrivals. Several residents told The Irrawaddy that they are happy Burma is opening up and more visitors are coming as they can earn extra money than in the past. They hope that Kyaiktiyo will be flooded by larger numbers people in the future and will become one of the country’s best known tourist attractions.
Despite the region’s undisputed potential, the livelihoods of most ordinary people remain unchanged. Many survive as street vendors, shopkeepers and other workers. Children serve as waiters at restaurants or work as porters. Women still bath in streams and many live without electricity.
A street vendor called Tin Myint said that she rarely meets her daily needs as she has three children to feed. She earns around 5,000 kyat ($6) per day by selling hats.
“After my husband died, I had to borrow money from other people every month in order to feed my three children. Now I need to pay interest on the loan,” said the 50-year-old.
Pue Pwint Thu, an 11-year-old schoolgirl in Kin Mone Sakar, confessed to having no idea about the Internet or other modern technology such as iPods or iPads when asked by The Irrawaddy. “My teacher has never talked about [the internet],” she said, adding that there was one computer in her school but she does not have the chance to use it.
Similarly, a motorbike taxi driver said that he welcomed the reforms made by the government, but as business is controlled by different authorities there remains a long way to go. “Ordinary people like me do not expect much from the reform,” he said. “But perhaps the next generation might see the benefits.”