Lost and found at Kyaikhtiyo
August 22 - 28, 2011
Darkness descends over Kyaikhtiyo Pagoda in Mon State.
Pic: Douglas Long
MISTY mountains. It’s the first day of January and I can smell winter in the air, but the cool breeze does nothing to cure my fatigue as I slog up the steep, winding, concrete path to the top of Mount Kyaikhtiyo.
I pause and look back. The two friends I am travelling with look even more miserable than I feel, so I shout words of encouragement to them.
“Come on you guys! Faster!” Inspired by my own words, I already feel a sense of impending accomplishment coursing through my veins. We’re almost to the top, and I can sense the closeness of our goal.
When my friends catch up, one of them suggests that we stop for a rest. We find a shop selling montlatsaung, a traditional cold drink, and sit watching as other pilgrims struggle up the hill, some with yellow bamboo stick in their hands, some bearing heavy backpacks.
“Ok, let’s move on!” says one of my friends, suddenly refreshed. So of course we have to move on.
As we walk, I think of the similarities between the trek to the top of Mount Kyaikhtiyo, and our journey through life. We struggle, we face many obstacles, we feel exhausted, but still we fight to move closer to our goals. The day we stop is the day our life ends.
Such thoughts float like gibberish through my mind. I’m tired but take consolation from the sight of porters carrying heavily loaded bamboo baskets on their backs, and others shouldering palanquins weighted down with weary pilgrims.
It’s already past 6pm when we reach Santawshin Kyaikhtiyo Saytidaw: the famous Golden Rock Pagoda.
Darkness is descending on the mountain but it is not yet complete. The clouds – some floating above the mountains, some hiding behind the peaks as if too shy to fully reveal themselves – are tinted various vibrant colours from the setting sun: purple, orange, yellow, red. We can never tell how nature will surprise us.
Our first task upon arriving at the top is to find another group of friends and relatives whom we had planned to meet at the pagoda.
But there are so many people. What a crowd. Lying, sitting, wrapping themselves with blankets, eating under makeshift tents made from blankets propped up with the bamboo poles they had used as walking sticks during the trek to the top of the mountain.
They’re all here for Kyaikhtiyo Pagoda’s festival of lights, held every year on December 31, during which 9999 candles are lit as an offering to the Buddha.
My travel companions and I find the agreed-upon meeting point but our relatives are nowhere to be seen. Just a huge crowd of people, and a stage from which monks give sermons to “bad people” (a group from which I am, of course, excluded).
Where is our other group, I wonder. This is the biggest crowd I have ever seen. I am worried we’ll never find them.
But then an announcement crackles over a loudspeaker. “Ko … from … . Your friends are waiting at …”
This gives me the idea to find the man with the loudspeaker and ask him to make an announcement for our missing relatives. I volunteer to go.
“Don’t go anywhere until I return,” I tell my two friends. I wade into the crowd. There are so many people that my progress is very slow. The proximity of glimmering Kyaikhtiyo Pagoda is no comfort.
I finally make my way to the security booth, from which the announcement had come. A man is standing there, maybe in his mid-50s, wearing a dark green cap and shirt.
He has a dour look on his face, which becomes even less friendly when I ask, “Uncle, I’m separated from my relatives. Can you please make an announcement for me?”
He tells me that he cannot help me. “Go to that man,” he says brusquely, pointing to another person sitting behind an amplifier. But this other person is just as surly as the first.
Meanwhile, as he tells me he cannot help me, a tourist is standing a few feet away, holding a microphone and making an English-language announcement over the very same amplifier I have just been told it is not possible for me to use.
“Why can’t I make an announcement like him?” I ask.
“We are allowing him to use the microphone because he is a foreigner,” the ill-tempered boor tells me as he idles in his chair. “You visitors are always walking around losing your companions, and then you bring your problems to us.”
Yes, I think, and a good-hearted person would be happy to help those who are lost.
Before I can respond, a man standing behind me says, “Stop the announcements. The monk is going to start his sermon.”
Despite my rising anger and desperation, without another word I walk away from the smug, unhelpful lout and his amplifier.
I take fewer than 10 steps before I recognise a face in the crowd. It’s one of my brothers, sitting on a bamboo mat.
“Hey!” I shout. “Where have you been? We’ve been looking all over for you.”
Soon we are all together. Our group consists of nearly 30 people: sisters, brothers, other relatives, friends and neighbours. I feel safe and secure. Dinner consists of warm rice, pounded ginger and fried fish, which we had bought in the town of Thaton on our way to Kyaikhtiyo.
After dinner I walk around the pagoda area. Now that I know where to meet everyone, I feel at ease.
The teashops are crowded but I find a place to sit, drink coffee and watch the other people. I feel content.
It’s around 10pm. There are fewer walkers and more sleepers, sprawled out on, and under, a sea of blankets. But others are helping clean the pagoda grounds, meditating, lighting candles and incense. A peaceful atmosphere pervades the air.
I eventually return to the place where my friends and relatives are sleeping. I wrap myself in a blanket against the freezing air. But it’s my first experience sleeping outdoors, and even the coldness in my bones cannot spoil the incredible feeling of falling asleep under a sky full of stars.