One of my Five Travel Writing Tips is to embrace failure. A trip gone wrong is often a better story than a bland happy ending. To illustrate this point, here is a tale from my 2013 trip to Myanmar. My companion R, and I, got caught up in an expedition that baffled and confounded us at every turn. And became one of my favourite memories of the whole junket…
Golden Rock (Kyaiktiyo Pagoda):
Suspended above a chasm by a hair of Buddha, Kyaiktiyo Pagoda aka Golden Rock, represents a sacred mystery to the people of Myanmar. Our bafflement, however, was secular. Our travel agent arranged a driver for the journey and a room in the Mountain Top hotel, which promised exquisite views and ‘international standard’ comfort. This was our first trip away from Yangon and we were thrilled to be out of the city. Our driver didn’t speak any English so our queries about the hotel went unanswered but c’est la Myanmar. We amused ourselves by eating crisps and counting ox carts. After about four hours we pulled up next to a vast open shed in the middle of an anonymous town.
There wasn’t a golden rock or pagoda in sight.
He pointed up.
I’ll spare you the rest of the dialogue. Suffice to say we didn’t reach any real understanding. It was in a spirit of optimism rather than comprehension that we clambered into the back of one of the industrial pick-up trucks in the shed and awaited developments.
A middle-aged German couple sat behind us, which was somehow comforting. At least we weren’t the only poor fools trapped in a language bubble in the backend of beyond. After much toing and froing someone pushed the rollaway stairs back from the truck and the engine coughed itself awake. Minutes later we were roaring along a cement path which was larger than a trail but well shy of being a road. Still no sign of a pagoda but we were climbing, engine yowling, gears gnashing with effort. Heights in general terrify me; mountain roads are particular anathema. As the truck laboured, each battle with gravity harder-fought, I found myself willing us upwards as the lesser of two evils. Our ascent was interspersed with precipitous slopes we thundered down to the mechanical puff and fart of the airbrakes. There was a family on the bench in front of us, their angelic toddler bouncing serenely on dad’s lap. People wouldn’t bring their babies on here if they thought they were going to die. It was a comforting thought, but wasn’t enough to offset the adrenaline spikes as we lurched around hairpin curves.
At this point I didn’t know if the ‘Mountain Top Hotel’ of our destination was an actual business, a generic title, or a bit of wishful thinking. My only concern was that R and I get to wherever or whatever it was alive and unmaimed. We stopped at a roadside stall that sold bamboo guns, Coca Cola, and mystery snacks with Justin Beiber’s face on the label. Nobody alighted. The driver collected money from some passengers, wandered about for a bit, then leapt back into position and off we went. We stopped again at a collection of shacks scattered around a dusty section of road and this time everyone got out. Children swarmed us “carry bags?” R and I were grateful to be alive but there was still no sign of a golden rock.
I was sweating, limp limbed, furious, and felt responsible for R’s misery. We shooed the kids, flopped into plastic chairs at one of the wretched shacks, and dug out Myanmar: Burma in Style (link). Unlike the Lonely Planet guide which laughably suggests that the shrine is a four-hour direct bus journey from Yangon) it says that the journey involves a multi-stage bus trip and hike, which at least suggested we were on the right path. After staring down a plate of unrecognisable, inedible food and paying 200 kyat to pee in a hole in the ground we set off. The swarm returned and we figured it was easier to hand over my suitcase than fend them off all the way to the top.
For the next hour or so we climbed at what felt like a 45% angle, sweat soaking every fibre of clothing. Along the way we passed through strings of huts that were really just roofs with an occasional communal wall. Everyone we passed had something to sell: Coca-Cola, of course; bamboo rifles with ‘Rambo’ or ‘Love’ painted on the stocks; flowers; fruit; noisemakers; incense; sunglasses; also pickled sheep’s heads, snake skins, animal pelts, jars of unidentifiable goo, and other voodoo accessories. We could hear chanting and see the glint of pagoda spires through occasional gaps in the jungle-dense foliage but these were not Buddhist charms.
Near sunset we climbed through a sort of tunnel and emerged in Kyaikto. When we found that Mountain Top Hotel was a real place, and reasonably well-appointed, we were almost delirious with relief. Horror journey at an end, we paid the camera fee at the foreigner checkpoint and entered the pagoda grounds, figuring that nice photos would be some consolation. We walked carefully trying to keep our bare feet free of betel nut juice, rubbish and bird shit. There was a powerful smell of live chickens and garbage rising from the shacks that clung to the fast-falling sides of the hill below. The Ayeyarwady River was a silver thread glinting through the orange pollution haze that smudged the horizon. Near the entrance was a two-metre boulder with a doll’s pagoda on top. Even by Myanmar standards it wasn’t worth a big fuss. By then we were so used to being confused and disappointed this hardly even registered. Then we topped another incline and looked across at the real thing. Well, almost. The golden boulder and its sacred burden were obscured from top to bottom by bamboo screens laced to scaffolding.
I may have rubbed my eyes in astonishment. “You’ve got to be kidding. It’s… shut?”
Share your tales of travel woe in the comments!