Upon arriving in Myanmar, the first thing I noticed was the traditional dress of the people. I saw women wearing beautiful gold paint on their faces and men wearing elegant long fabric skirts. I appreciated that the standard of style and beauty in Myanmar reflects regional traditions instead of western traditions, a reality that may also be a reflection of the relatively recent opening of the country to the world.
Thanaka is the name for the face makeup used mainly by women and children, including the young girl in this photo. The thanaka cream is made from tree bark. People make the cream by grinding the tree bark on a small stone and adding water. A few hostels had thanaka wood and stones available in the common spaces so visitors could try making cream.
Longyi is the word for the sarong used mainly by men, including the man pictured above. Longyi is a long cylinder of fabric tied tightly at the waist with a special knot. To ride a bike or motorcycle, men first loosen the knot on their longyi so the fabric allows additional movement. Visiting with Maddie, a friend of a friend living for a few years in Yangon, I learned the secret of the longyi: men wear this bottom without underpants.
Everywhere I traveled in Myanmar, longyi and thanaka were present. Other common sights in Myanmar that are different from sights at home included seeing traditionally dressed monks and nuns and seeing people carrying parcels on their heads. While I admired these sights often each day, I was careful to avoid behavior I considered objectification so I rarely photographed what I observed.
My visit to the Golden Rock, a place heaving with masses of pilgrims, felt like an environment where I could document the appearance of people in Myanmar while continuing to follow my guidelines for demonstrating respect. The people, sights, landscapes, customs, and culture in Myanmar contributed to my wonderful experience in this country, a place that felt more different than any other I have visited. I aim to share my appreciation of and enjoyment for that difference through the photos below, especially the images of people.
From Ngapali Beach I boarded a bus at 2:00pm and reached Yangon at 3:00am. Arriving in the middle of the night, I decided it was safer to taxi to a hostel than to stay in the bus terminal parking lot. I slept 5 hours in a hostel common area and then taxied back to the bus station. It was a 4 hour bus ride from Yangon to Kinpun, the gateway town to the Buddhist pilgrimage sight called the Golden Rock or Kyaiktiyo Pagoda. On the second bus ride I met travelers Piroshka from Austria and Yasmine and Sanjin from the Netherlands.
With my three new friends we exited our bus in Kinpun and followed directions from local people to reach a second bus station. Unless a person wants to walk, these tough mountain-going trucks are the only way to travel the 10 miles and more than 3,000 ft above sea level from Kinpun village at the base of the mountain to the pagoda at the mountain’s peak. The trucks leave once each bench is packed. Most benches held 6 passengers. It was a tight ride that felt like being on a roller coaster.
Arriving at the top of the mountain, we walked about 300 meters from the truck drop-off point to our hotel. Along the narrow rode between the bus station and hotel we passed signs, souvenir shops, convenience stores, and stores selling fruit and other items for religious offerings. This visit to the Golden Rock was my first experience at a pilgrimage site. I did not know what to expect but I was surprised to see consumer items for sale and advertisements.
A view from the top of the Kyaiktiyo mountain. Waste disposal appears to be a challenge. Over the side of this fence is a large pile of trash.
Pilgrims can walk uphill about 1000 meters from the bus station to the entrance of the Golden Rock temple complex. The alternative to walking this distance is a people-powered chair lift, an option more commonly used by older pilgrims.
Myanmar nationals enter the temple complex for free. All foreign guests pay about $5 for a 2-day pass to the Golden Rock. In addition to paying an entrance fee, foreign guests are not permitted to sleep within the temple complex. This privilege is reserved only for Buddhists from Myanmar. This archway with its two lions standing guard is the entrance to the complex. Shoulders must be covered and shoes must be removed after passing through the archway.
The Golden rock is in fact a large gold rock. Excerpted from Wikipedia: The legend associated with the pagoda is that the Buddha gave a strand of his hair to Taik Tha, a hermit. The hermit in turn gave the strand to the king, with the wish that the hair be enshrined in a boulder shaped like the hermit’s head. It is this strand of hair that, according to the legend, prevents the rock from tumbling down the hill.
While the sight of the precariously balanced rock is impressive, the real excitement to visiting this area was being a part of a pilgrimage experience which included observing the people and the rituals. After sunset, the plaza inside the temple complex was full of energy as pilgrims gathered with their families, ate, and eventually prepared for bed.
Pilgrims offer prayers at this holy sight. I observed candles, chanting, offerings of sweet treats and offerings of money inside the temple complex.
People carrying loads on their heads.
Monks and young monks, called novice monks, line up early in the morning to collect food donations from their community. Each monk carries a cauldron in which to collect the donations. In the absence of food, some people contribute coins. To view incredible photos of monks in Myanmar, take a look at this phogtapher’s website: https://maptia.com/davidlazar/stories/the-monks-of-burma
Photos of me and the many other people visiting the Golden Rock. The women in the bottom photo are Buddhist nuns from Myanmar. They are dressed in the traditional color of the nuns – pink. This New York Times video from 2013 describes why enrollment in nunnery schools in the country is rising: https://www.nytimes.com/video/world/asia/100000002309661/buddhists-in-pink.html