Kyaiktiyo: Myanmar’s Golden Rock and a zoo too!
March 1-8, 2016 Kin Mon Camp, Kyaiktiyo, Myanmar
This workshop was held at the office of the Karen Literacy & Cultural Organization (KLCO) in the small village of Kin Mon, at the base of the Golden Rock temple, probably Myanmar’s second holiest place, after Shwe Dagon in Yangon.
Getting there was half the fun! We were to meet our driver for the 4 hour drive in Myawaddy, on the Myanmar side of the Friendship Bridge, which spans the Moei River from Mae Sot, Thailand to Myawaddy, at 8 am. We had also arranged to meet our translator, recent graduate of the post-10 Khaw Tha Blay Learning Center, on the Thai side at 8 am, and, after going through Thai immigration, walking across the bridge to the Myanmar side, going through immigration there, picking up our driver, and heading out.
Ahhhh, but the best-laid plans etc., etc., etc.. 8 am came and went on the Thai side. No translator. We called Cathy, our friend and founder of KTBLC and supplier of translators, who said ‘He should be there?’. She then called Hshakalu, her assistant, with whom the translator was staying. ‘I’m on my way’, he said, ‘ Tell Nat and Susan to go through immigration and wait for us in front of the Ayerwaddy Bank in Myawaddy.’ Progress!
Immigration stamped us out of Thailand, we walked across the bridge, and were duly photographed and stamped into Myanmar. Our driver was anxiously waiting for us at immigration’s door; we had forgotten about the 1/2 hour time difference between Thailand and Myanmar (Myanmar is 1/2 hour behind Thailand), so we were only an hour late, not the 1 1/2 we thought we were. However, still no Hshakalu and no translator. More phone calls and soon we saw Hshakalu with not one, but two young men in tow. It seems we would have two translators, Myo Set and Aung Ko, making for a tight fit in the car, but for which we were very grateful during the training.
The road to Kyaiktiyo is much improved, going around a mountain instead of over it. Still took 7 hours. But we got to stop in Hp’aan for a great lunch, and Thaton for ice cream with the driver’s sister and a quick visit with Ma Yee, an old friend from Mae Sot.
Kin Mon Camp, at the foot of Kyaiktiyo, is a small village whose main business is catering to the thousands of pilgrims going to the Golden Rock.
On Tuesday, March 1, we are picked up at our guest house by students on motorbikes and taken to what would be the MY STORY photo project’s home for the next 8 days. There we met Naw Sue Sue, KLCO’s treasurer, our lovely host, and workshop participant. She arranged the field trips, got the photo prints, provided lots of cold drinking water, and generally made sure that everything ran smoothly. Our students were ready: 5 women, 5 men, ages 15 – 37.
We met every day, starting at 8 am and finishing between 3 and 4 pm. On day 3, Sue Sue found us a couple of rickety bicycles so we were independently mobile. It was probably a 10 minute ride to KCLO any time other than 7:30 am. That was when dozens of big, open trucks, packed with pilgrims and their offerings, family members, and camping stuff, were either descending from Golden Rock or ascending same, all from the truck station on the main (only) road to our destination. Even that was OK, until I discovered on hurtling down an incline between 2 trucks that I had NO BRAKES! On the way home, ascending a last hill, loaded down with computers, hard drive, and extension cords, Nat found he had NO GEARS. Ah well, as his mother used to say, ‘What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger!’
KLCO owns two of these trucks; they zoom up and down the mountain from dawn to dusk, raising funds for the Karen community here. We were to experience this ride on one of three photo field trips….
The first field trip was to the local market, a short walk from the KLCO office. The assignment was to shoot a photo essay describing the market, with each student contributing one image. After a short discussion, the group had the shot list and we were ready to go…
Our second adventure was a trip to the Golden Rock. 8 am found us at the truck station, waiting to be packed like sardines into KLCO’s truck.
And what a ride it was up to Kyaiktiyo! Think roller-coaster on speed! Here is a short clip of the ride DOWN, when we got to ride in the cab. I was holding on much too tightly on the way up to take pictures.
We arrived at a big open parking lot, with a mammoth ‘TOILET’ sign prominently displayed, but no sign of the Golden Rock. Many sedan chair bearers ready to carry you there for a small fee.
Or hire a basket porter to carry your food, clothes, mats, water, and offerings.
Anything and everything can be bought at the markets around the Golden Rock; unfortunately, the Rock itself was swaddled in gold-painted bamboo matting, as it was being re-furbished for April’s Water Festival. Women are not allowed into the Rock’s inner sanctum; there was, however, a long line of men waiting to enter.
One of the shooting assignments that students love is the photo scavenger hunt: take a picture of something round, an older (or younger) person, something you wear….etc. Here it is in Burmese:
Our final expedition was to what Naw Sue Sue called a zoo. Once again we set off in the truck at 8 am. The driver was Naw Sue Sue’s cousin, so she and his 6 year old son sat in the back of the cab while Nat and I had the dubious honor of riding in the front. Sao Ao Hmoo had an enormous bag filled with snacks for the trip. We drove for what seemed like hours on red dirt tracks, down gullies, deeper and deeper into the countryside. Who could ever find this zoo, we wondered? After stopping to pick up a middle-aged couple going our way, we bounced along for another 20 minutes, arrived at a cluster of bamboo houses, dropped off our passengers, asked for directions (I think?) and drove for another 10 minutes to where the ‘road’ seemed to end. There was a Buddhist stupa, a shack selling what looked like crackers, and nothing else. Where were the animals? Where was the zoo? ‘Come,’ said Naw Sue Sue, and we all marched down a rocky trail to a small waterfall and pond. Sao Ao Hmoo passed out snacks, but instead of eating them, everyone started throwing them into the water where they were devoured by an army of small black fist. This, then, was the ‘zoo’. Something was lost in translation! But the water was cool, the fish didn’t bite, some of the boys rolled up their longis and jumped in the water, and no one’s camera got dropped in the drink!
Scenes from the classroom:
A brief moment of quiet as the students prepare their exhibition:
A translator’s job is never easy….
Scenes we couldn’t resist:
After the closing ceremony, with certificate presentations, exchange of emails, and promises to stay in touch via Facebook, something that would not have been possible just a few years ago, we boarded the express bus to Yangon… with a stop 20 minutes out of Kyaiktiyo at a wonderful brand new temple with lots of food stalls and scalding walkways ( shoes removed at entrance) so we were hopping around like rabbits!