99km inc 6km detour
Flat / undulating to 67m
Grade – Easy
Here in Kinpun, base camp for the Buddhist pilgrimage to Golden Rock, an army of trucks await, each one packed full of pilgrims and sightseers, heading to the top of Kyaiktiyo mountain. Once every seat is associated with an accompanying bottom, the truck departs.
As an elderly monk attempts to clamber into the more comfortable front cabin, I survey my chances. Just as I’m about to head to the next truck, a family of 5 shimmy to the right, revealing a squished space. For the next 30 minutes I was to form part of a human sandwich, rammed into a space more suited to a peanut. Cornered by mother and child, truck edge and front cabin; I clasped for dear life as we sped up rough roads and around tight bends, simultaneously pulling silly faces at the child.
On the way up the mountain, we pause to let other fully laden trucks back down the mountain. The number of people here is overwhelming at just 7.30am.
Reaching the summit, visitors to Golden Rock are bombarded by a wave of activity. Tens of Porters carry luggage in woven baskets atop heads. Others carry people atop stretchers. A long line of food and souvenir stalls bide for attention. And then the inevitable entrance fee for foreigners; 10,000 kyat.
Each foreigner is required to sign into a visitors book. Today, four names are listed before my own, amongst locals in their thousands.
Pondering time that day and the fee, it seemed a bit potty to have ventured here to see but a rock, albeit a golden one.
However, the people and madness of it all are the main attraction. A fascinating study into the deep faith of the Burmese. And their belief in this holy place.
The rock itself is impressively perched in gravity defying position. To its rear, an enclosure where pilgrims attach their own leaf, burn incense and give prayer. Hundreds more surround the outer perimeter. What’s at odds here is the super expensive mountain top resorts, the lack of any real attraction other than the rock itself and the complete disorder of the surrounding area (more like a giant construction site). After an hour of bizarre fascination, I board a truck down; only this time it’s already full. Instead of claiming my seat, I stand aback, clasping to a rail whilst the road flew by beneath me.
Once back at base camp, I quickly gather bike and possessions and take the opportunity to give the bike a much needed clean, following yesterday’s dusty mountain bike tracks. At 11am, it’s a late start, unknowing of whether surfaced roads lay ahead.
At the exit to the hotel sat two touring bikes; the first I’d seen since Inle Lake. I dash inside to say a quick hello. As it turned out, there were 12 bikes in total, a group of Dutch cycle tourists travelling with a local guide. They had a huge amount of experience cycling all over the world. Stories, jokes and laughter lit up the room. Despite the nice vibes, it really was time to go.
The ride between Kinpun was a dream. 3km from town, I turned left onto a gravel road. Work was still in progress for the first few kms, but to my delight, it soon turned into the most enjoyable paved road to date. 30km of gentle undulation, matched with interesting villages and heart grabbing backcountry.
Just before a brief encounter with the main highway to cross the only bridge, I have a quick snoop around a wholesale market in Bilin before taking lunch. With no menu, I take a peak at what’s cooking. As is common here, the contents is somewhat of a mystery. Pot luck can be best friend or fiendish foe. This time, a real mix. An incredible number of dishes presented before me; each time I’d pick from one, it was instantly replaced with more. The curry glistened with MSG, seen by the Burmese as somewhat of a super food. I tried as best I could to make the customary ummmmm sounds with lots of thumbs up. Tasty, though a little grim.
Once over the highway bridge, it’s a left turn back onto blissful well paved roads; a 30km section rolls by without once feeling tired, or uninspired.
Take care, however, should you follow the same route, as the distraction of the surrounding countryside was enough to take me some 5km in the wrong direction (toward Hpa An). Turning back, I took a left onto a flat forested road. At its end, some 25km further, sat a perfectly positioned stall selling freshly squeezed sugar cane. Sweltering under considerable heat, I joined some locals, pulling up a red coated steel stool made for someone half my height.
Despite the straightforward and enjoyable riding, the hour struck 4 and the road onward grew busier. Rather than cycle the final 60km on highway to Mawlamyine (there is also a longer non-highway route), I decided to call it a day in the small town of Thaton, hopping on an open-backed bus to cover the remaining distance and store a day in the bank for sightseeing.
At the bus station, opposite yet another whopping pagoda, I bought crap samosa and was shovelled into the front of the van, with the bike going on top. The van tends to leave on an approximate timetable as and when there are enough folk on board.
Arriving in Mawlamyine after dark, I flew down boulevards lines with interesting buildings, close to the water’s edge. These two days will be the first and only time I see the sea during this 3 month adventure.
Creepily, a suped up racer boy car starts trailing behind me and pulls up outside the Pann Su Wai Guesthouse where I’m staying. Thankfully, the bike can come inside, but the stairs are too small to bring it all the way up to my room.
I down tools and walk a short distance to the night market on the water’s edge. The BBQ food there is both super cheap and fantastic – I choose a plate of squid, prawns, okra and other veggies, sipping a Myanmar beer and watching the world pass by.