Sunday, February 8, 2009

Golden Rock (Burma)

It hard to overstate how friendly, warm, and charming the people of Burma are. Yesterday Taylor (an American that I’m traveling with) and I went to speak at an English class and just talk with students for a couple hours. Afterwards, we made our way over to the Golden Rock, which is near a town called Kyaiktiyo. After arriving in Kyaiktiyo, you take a pickup truck to the base camp, Kinpun, for trips the Golden Rock. The Golden Rock a precarious boulder, just balancing off the edge of a cliff. Supposedly it rests there on a Buddha hair (holding the boulder in place) and on top of the boulder is a large golden stupa. Anyway, the base camp Kinpun is quite an interesting town. All along the main street are souvenir vendors, and the main souvenirs seemed to, I kid you not, large bamboo machine guns with a little wind to make the sound of a gun shooting. Along the side of most of these guns is written, in big letters, “U.S.A.”

For a military state, which has quite a bit of animosity towards USA, these USA labeled guns at one of the most sacred sites in all of Burma was quite interesting in itself. That the kids would run around pretending to be Rambo (and specifically Rambo 4 according to them), whose latest movie is banned for featuring, among other things, Rambo massacring the army of Burma’s junta, only added to the bizarre act of playfulness and political defiance. The arrival of two American’s, Taylor and myself, I think added to the fun as we played with kids, pretending to be shot and shoot eachother.

At the store, I bought a bamboo bracelet for 300 kyats, or approximately 25-30 cents.
The store owner and presumably their father gave Taylor and me each a nice necklace as a present. Each necklace probably worth more than the bracelet. Which is both remarkably generous and a remarkably bad business model.

We walked around some more. I’ve never been such a tourist attraction before. Girls will point and giggle, come over and pinch you and then walk or run away. People come out to the streets, almost lining the walkways like adoring fans, just to wave and say hi as you pass by. Child stare and then wave and smile when you mumble a few Burmese words or simply wave.

Today we hiked up to the Golden Rock. Most tourists take a pick-up truck most of the way, only hiking the last 45 minutes, so for most of the way up, foreign tourists weren’t a rare sight, they were non-existent. But along the way, we passed many pilgrims from Burma making the return trip, toting their large bamboo USA guns on their shoulders. Our greeting on “min-gala-beh” received a wide range of responses to “oooooh! Mingalabeh!” to boys waving their hands and pumping fists, “Mingalabeh!”, to Burmese women telling us we were beautiful, to girls giggling and pointing. The greetings of “bye-bye” instead of “hello” were also endearing. Near the top of the ridge, we can caught beautiful views on either side and found a small place where I bought a squirrel (roasted to a crisp) and ate it (while Taylor took a few weary bites). The squirrel looked thoroughly disgusting, though it just tasted like well-cooked turkey jerky. The owners of the shop amused themselves by bringing out various things to shock us like a large stuffed muskrat and other heads of dead animals. After that short stop, we continued up and reached the temple complex for the Golden Rock (paying the exorbitant foreigners entrance fee, oddly always charged in US dollars. Sometimes they’d let you pay in kyat, but you pay not in the government rate, which is 400 kyats to the dollar, but the black market rate, which is 1200 kyats to the dollar… so the government doesn’t even follow its own rules on the exchange rate, after all they want to pump us for as much cash as possible).

After watching the sunset at the Golden Rock, we headed back down the mountain, catching the last pickup truck to Kinpun camp. Taylor and I decided to celebrate the day with an ice cream shop we managed to find after much searching. But ice cream is well worth the quest.

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