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We broke the long ride from Bagan back to Mandalay at Pyay. After a day in Yangon to rest, we traveled further to the south towards Kyaiktiyo, known as the “Golden Rock”. This boulder, perched on the side of a cliff and covered with gold, is perhaps the most revered pilgrimage spot in Myanmar. After checking into our guesthouse, we climbed into the open truck that would take us to the base of the trail to walk to the rock. Taking a roundabout stroll through the forest below the cliff, we emerged behind the main temple in an area set aside to house the crowds of pilgrims who visited the site. The setting sun glinted off of the gold-covered boulder, its small pagoda covered with bamboo scaffolding.

Kyaiktiyo Kyaiktiyo

Later that night, we rose at 1:30 am to walk the entire trail to the summit, in order to see the rock for sunrise. It was cooler at night than during the day, but still very humid. The wide trail passed closed tea-shops and small bamboo resting places along the way. At one point high on the mountainside, we passed a group of pilgrims sitting in the middle of the trail, huddled in blankets, watching TV. They hardly blinked as we stepped over them to continue our climb. We arrived around 4:30, just before sunset. The wide, open platform around the rock was alive with pilgrims praying and meditating. Trays with offerings of fruit, rice and soft drinks were placed in front of the rock and at the nearby spirit shrines. Chopsticks with banknotes stuck to them were wedged underneath the rock. The men, who were allowed to approach the boulder, applied gold leaf to the rock's surface and prayed intensely, their hands and foreheads touching the gold surface. The brass bells attached to the railings tinkled in the pre-dawn breeze. Nearby, inside several indoor shrines with picture-glass windows, the carpeted floor space was entirely occupied by meditating pilgrims. As the sun came up, the atmosphere mellowed. As the first bus arrived, tourists filtered in and the intense religious atmosphere of magic dissolved in the bright, early-morning sunlight. Munching on a giant pomelo, we rode the bus back down the mountain.

Local transport Reclining Buddha, Bago

After five weeks in Myanmar, it was time to leave. We spent our few remaining days in Yangon poking around the city's markets and shops looking for souvenirs. We ended up with nun's paper parasols, wooden boxes and woven plastic shopping bags. Anne picked out some fabric and had a Burmese outfit tailor-made in the central market. After paying a small fine for overstaying our visa at the airport, we boarded a plane back to Bangkok.