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This is the final version of my painting before I gave it away.

You may recognize the image above. It’s similar to a photograph I took when I was in Myanmar in February:

Our first view of the Golden Rock from a distance.

I’ve been wanting to paint more, but hadn’t been making time for it. So I tricked myself into it. For me, overcoming challenges in life is often a matter of using the correct psychology on myself. Self-care and personal health don’t seem to motivate me enough. However! I am very good at keeping obligations to others. I signed up for a night class at the local community college, and now at a bare minimum, I paint once a week on Wednesday nights. My responsible brain goes to class because I respect the teacher’s time. A bonus is that I paint, which I love, and it fills my heart and makes me happy.

The instructor recommended we paint from a photo, and as a helpful suggestion, said that his students in the past painted scenes from their travels. I had been thinking of this one for a long time, but was avoiding it because it seemed too ambitious. When no other ideas came to mind, I started it.

This much I did at home, prior to classwork. One of the instructor’s first suggestions was to fill in all the white area. Paint the background a dark colour, and complete the sky. I should paint the tree and rock over the top of the sky, rather than inside the white areas.

So I did.

Each Wednesday night I painted at class. Usually I painted during the week also, because the painting was still on my mind.

I particularly love how the sky turned out. There was a lot of burning happening in the region, as local people cleared land and burned the brush piles. The sky was hazy from smoke and I think you can see that in the painting. It was sunrise as we arrived at the rock, and in the photo, the sun had only reached halfway down the rock. Everything else in the photo remains in the shadow of morning.

It was suggested that I paint the things farthest away first, then move to the foreground.

It’s hard for me to paint in class because the flourescent lights are terrible and 5-8 pm is my lowest productivity period of the day.

My artistic friend Lloyd saw my very first draft (with all the white parts) and was excited about the painting, and asked me to keep him updated. I sent him new pictures of my progress every time I painted, which was usually twice a week. He was ecstatic with enthusiasm each time, and that helped me stay motivated. It felt like we were doing the project together.

Almost done!! I added people, landscaping, and finally began plodding through the masses of foliage in the foreground.

I sent Lloyd this close up. Look! People!

Lloyd and Genevieve got married over the weekend, and I had a gift in mind that they would both love. There was really no question who was getting the painting when I finished it.

I grabbed a couple of quick photos before I headed to the wedding.

Comparing the painting to the photo here in this post, I see that I needed to add glints of sunlight to the rock. It is not bright enough where the morning sun touches it. I’ll have to bring some paint next time I visit my friends.

 

Trucks with narrow seats are nearly the only traffic on the mountain road.

The lobby of the Golden Sunrise Hotel was dark and silent at 5:30 am, but as promised, our boxed breakfast was there waiting for us on the counter. So kind of them. Fried egg sandwiches and bananas. I whooped to Margaret, “They remembered us!” and accidentally woke the attendant who was sleeping in the lobby in a little tent. Ooops. Poor kid. We left everything in our rooms because we expected to return well before check out time. It was dark out and in the lovely coolness we made the easy walk into town and quickly found the truck station because that’s where all the activity and light was!

In a large warehouse-type building, tall trucks were parked beside metal staircases. We picked one at random and walked up the stairs and were quickly ushered into seats. The entire bed of each truck is filled with about six narrow rows of metal benches. People cram themselves in. The orchestrators hollered at Margaret and I multiple times to squoosh down, but it was hard. The seat in front was too close to sit with knees forward. Literally impossible for us to sit normally. My solution was to tip my knees down toward the floor, so I could face front. Margaret had her knees to the side. We are not big people, but they wanted us to minimize our space. A woman in front of us said “six,” and we finally figured out that they wanted six people in each row. Ours only had five. I suspect our difficulty condensing had more to do with a rather large grandmother seated next to me than Margaret and I, but since we were the ones at the end, we were the ones getting hollered at.

We leaned and pulled our elbows in and became very close to one another, and finally had squashed ourselves enough to cram one more person in our row. Then we handed our money (2000 kyats/$1.50) over to the orchestrator. We were off!

I quickly became grateful for being wedged in there like sardines. There were no seatbelts, obviously, and the truck began hurtling up the narrow paved road to the top of the mountain where we would find the Golden Rock. We were told the ride was a half hour, but it felt more like an hour because it was a real adventure. I am convinced that the reason no one bounced out was because we were packed so tightly. Grandma and I became friends out of necessity. The whole population in the back of the truck would say “whoah!” in unison, and grab onto each other to stay upright as we careened around hairpin corners and blasted ever faster toward the top.

We were still in the dark, and wind blew through our hair. Margaret and I were in sarongs (the clothing in Burmese is called longyi) and T-shirts, but all the locals had on down coats and hats and mittens. It was possibly as chilly as 70 degrees. About halfway up the mountain the sky began to lighten, and the sun was clearly in mind to rise by the time we reached the top.

Entrance to the Golden Rock (Kyaiktiyo is too hard for me to say) is jammed with people.

Off the truck, we had a rather long walk through a pop-up market, designed to cater to tourists. Everyone there was a tourist, even the monks, to some degree. There were many many monks. Everyone removed their shoes early on and we carried them for the rest of our time there. We passed hundreds of shops selling either food or things to dedicate to Buddha.

The walkway to the top is bound by many shops selling things, particularly breakfast.

The sunrise views of the valley were lovely.

Sunrise beat us to the rock, but not by much and we did capture a stunning dawn glow on the Golden Rock. It seemed liked everyone up there was in a festival mood. Likely the crazy truck ride contributed to that. It was like an amusement park ride! Pilgrims can also walk to the top, and I hear it’s a lovely walk. Now that I have experienced the trucks, however, I’m glad we did that instead. I walk every day, but I’ve only had one truck ride like that in my life.

On the way up we were stopped by some officials who were not stopping anyone else. We obligingly walked into the building that had large posters in English stating that we had to pay a “Foreigners fee” of 10,000 kyats. We signed our names in a book and were handed badges to hang around our necks. M and I decided: why not? They are smart to capitalize on tourism in this way.

Our first view of the Golden Rock from a distance.

In front of the rock, I proudly show off my expensive”Foreigner” badge.

Women are not allowed to approach the rock itself. Men will purchase gold foil pieces and queue up. When it’s their turn to touch the rock, they say prayers and press the gold foil to the rock. Or, that is what appeared to be going on as I stood at a distance and watched. Legend has it that when locals were concerned that the rock would fall, the Buddha gifted three of his own hairs which were used to prop up the rock. That is why this is a sacred and holy place. I wondered if each man who pressed his fingers against the rock worried that he would be the unfortunate one to push the rock off its precarious balance.

Men applying gold leaf pieces to the rock.

We wandered across the top of the hill, stopping to take photos for ourselves, for others, and regularly being asked by locals if they could have their photo taken with us. I am still surprised by this behavior; how frequently a person’s gaze will lazily drift past the crowd, notice us, and then come alight with delight and a dazzling grin. They wave, giggle, shout “mingalaba” and “hello.” I am also, disturbingly, getting too used to this behavior, and gradually coming to expect it. In anticipation of adoring smiles and waves, sometimes I’ll wave first. On occasion, I get a blank stare in return, with a face that says “Who are you, lady?” And then I feel like an idiot.

In no time we had circled the complex and were ready to return to the madness of the trucks. We again joined a great group of all locals, and as with the morning crew, they all seemed to be enamored with us Westerners. While we waited for the truck to fill up (six to each row!!), many selfies occurred and everyone practiced saying “hello” in each other’s language. Children climbed the staircases to attempt to sell us cheap worthless crap while we waited. Two items were offered by every child on the whole mountain: fake spectacles made of bamboo, and fake unrealistic machine guns. I was rather puzzled that machine guns were so popular at a holy site – a Buddhist holy site no less. People bought way more guns than glasses.

Workmen carry cement to the top for construction.

Pathside food seller can offer an unparalleled view. Just don’t lean too far while you’re looking.

These shy ladies were offering breakfast, and agreed to have their photo taken.

Beautiful pair. We saw some fun fashion on the Burmese: dyed hair, tattoos, even ear plugs.

Carrying trays of food up the hill.

This boy is selling dried beans.

We saw this a couple of times: monks in a row, collecting alms.

The trip down was even crazier! This time gravity assisted and we moved as though we had been shot from a cannon. The truck may have gone up on two wheels at times, while screeching around the switchbacks headed back down. Every so often we would meet a truck coming up the mountain, and both drivers would be forced to slam on the brakes and move to the side.

Waiting for our truck to fill up before we headed back down.

Fake guns for sale, with “love” written onto the stock.

One of the turns on our way down the hill.

Our truck pulled over and we were asked to pay for our trip. Then we waited another 15 minutes while kids sold guns and glasses.

A little shop on the way back to Kin Pun.

All we had left on the agenda for the day was to check out of our hotel, and get a bus back to Yangon in time to catch our night bus that was leaving the Yangon bus station at 6:00 pm. After disentangling ourselves from the mass of humanity on the truck, and before heading back to the Golden Sunrise Hotel, we found someone who could sell us a bus ticket. This was accomplished by telling the woman who ran a restaurant that we wanted a bus. She walked out into the street and started hollering. A kid heard it and took off running. In five minutes, a young man in a white shirt with a name tag and a clipboard came running up and told us all we needed to know about buying a bus ticket. Awesome! 😊

We could take the 9am, 11am, or 1pm bus back to Yangon. We decided to spend our time waiting at our cool, clean, lovely hotel rather than at that crazy bus station we had already spent 3 hours at yesterday. So we bought a ticket for 1pm and then went to the hotel and lounged a bit. We came back to the restaurant by noon and bought lunch there, to pay a debt of gratitude for the woman who helped us get in contact with the bus man.

We waited at that restaurant because that’s where the bus kept stopping to drop people off. But at about 12:55, there was still no bus. A young man in a white shirt came up to us, “Ok, come with me.” He explained that the bus departure was actually on a different street, and he would show us the way. So we grabbed our gear and followed him.

This bus trip was fraught with complications. The entire trip should have taken 4 hours, dropping us at the crazy bus station at 5pm. After about one hour, the bus pulled over at the side of the highway near some tiny huts. No announcement. We sat there, looking around, asking the other people on the bus if they knew what was going on. Somehow they had obtained additional information. “I think we are supposed to change buses,” they said. We looked out the window, and sure enough, the bus driver and attendant were dragging luggage out of the bus and lining it up in the red dirt. We scooped up our stuff and climbed out and grabbed our luggage. There was a bus parked in front of us on the highway, and we all climbed onto it. This bus already had people on it, but luckily we all fit.

We went another hour, then – again with no announcement – the bus turned off the highway in a tiny little town, onto a narrow dirt road and parked beside a large building. There were a couple of men sitting beside the building on plastic chairs in the sun. Neither of them stirred. We remained parked there for quite awhile. Twenty minutes maybe. Margaret spotted some oil drums beside the building and guessed that it could be a gas or maintenance stop. Finally, with no warning, the driver and attendant got back on, and began to turn the bus around.

There was a problem. The bus couldn’t go in reverse. Multiple attempts by the driver to pull forward a little, then back up, failed. The men sitting in the sun got up and walked over to watch. A tool bag was produced. More attempts.

We were getting nervous because we were way behind schedule and still needed to catch the 6pm bus. Luckily we had given ourselves a buffer, and as long as we started moving again, soon, we would make it.

The bus attendant came onto the bus and headed down the aisle to where Margaret and I were sitting, carrying a wrench. He walked all the way to the very back, right next to Margaret, and opened up a panel in the floor that seemed to open to the dirt below us – I couldn’t really see. Margaret hid her face rather than watch the great hole next to her. The assistant guy held his wrench in there and hollered at the driver, who attempted reverse gear again and finally did it! Yay! We were off again.

With 40 minutes till 6 pm, we hit rush hour traffic in Yangon, and things came to a stop. We alternately stopped and crawled all the way to the bus station. The bus arrival section was about a mile from the bus departure section where we needed to go, but we did not know that. At 5:55 we leapt off the bus, grabbed our luggage and began trotting toward the congested, confusing bus station we had been at the day before. The place is really enormous. We had no idea how big it was yesterday: like it’s own little bus station city. We’d run a block, say the name of the bus company we wanted, a person would point, we’d run some more.

Through alleys, past stray dogs, vendors, children, shops, and all of this was part of the bus station. It was hot. We were sure we were going to miss our bus.

Finally, finally, we found JJ Tours, and there was no bus parked in front. The young man at the counter spotted us and knew who we were immediately. “The bus is gone! You can’t take it, I’m sorry! Why didn’t you call? I would have held the bus for you. Why didn’t you call? I didn’t know you were coming. I called you but you didn’t answer. I’m so sorry.” We tried to explain about our phones not working in another country….but there really wasn’t a point. He told us there was another bus that left at 7pm. He walked us to the other bus station and helped us buy a ticket.

The other thing we worried about was meeting our guide on time the next morning. The trek was supposed to start at 8:30 am, and our original bus was supposed to arrive at 8:00. Now what would we do? But the new bus had a different schedule somehow, and planned to arrive at 4:30 am. We dropped into our seats, heads spinning though relieved, and tried to get some rest.

The Golden Rock from a distance.

Our day was primarily travel. We are aimed for the Golden Rock, or Kyaikityo Pagoda, well outside of Yangon. We are planning a trip up the mountain to see the balanced rock at sunrise. In the meantime, our goal was simply to get here. From what I read prior to the trip, there is little else to do out here aside from visit the rock.

From the hostel this morning, we walked 10 minutes to a travel agency and bought bus tickets for the day. To get there we passed through a marvelous market just steps from the hostel that we had no idea was there. I just LOVE these markets. They are so crammed with activity. People, food, rickshaws, trucks, and dogs, all jumbled together in this kind and warm environment where everyone is looking out for each other and ready to laugh together in a shared experience. I believe this loving community must be how no one dies amidst the ruckus.

Unlike my previous experience of east Asia, in Japan, here people stare directly at you and fully engage in acknowledging your presence on the street. A truck honks from behind, one of us yelps in surprise, and three or four people nearby laugh with us. A woman carrying a large tray of fried shrimp and spinach cakes tells me she likes my sarong. Her face is covered in the yellowish-white Thanaka lotion that most women and many men wear. Children, beautiful beautiful children – I can’t even express how beautiful they are to me with their dark hair and enormous eyes and trusting, open stares – wave and smile. These people are loving toward each other, often laughing, often with their arms around each other: men, women, adults, children, makes no difference. I have relaxed my own careful observance of others’ personal bubbles and reach out and touch people when I speak to them here, the same way I would with my friends at home. Only these are strangers, and they are completely comfortable with physical closeness.

Woman prepares betel leaf with Areca nut.

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Betel nut expectorant splashed on the road.

I haven’t mentioned the betel leaf that we see constantly. I have read about it often enough that when I saw it for the first time, I guessed right. Among the vendors of toys and food is always someone with a tray of leaves. They lay out the leaves, spread a thick white creamy liquid across them, sprinkle some kind of spice, then drop some chopped crumbles of the Areca nut. The leaves are wrapped up into a little packet. I haven’t seen anyone put one in their mouth, but I assume the whole thing goes into the mouth. Betel nut is a mild stimulant, like tobacco, and people keep it in their mouths and spit out the red juice. People who chew it have bright red mouths and teeth. Sidewalks are stained with great red splashes. The walls in toilet stalls are stained with red. Nearly all of our taxi drivers have opened the door and spit during a pause in traffic.

After we purchased tickets, we said goodbye to our lovely hosts at the hostel and walked out to the main road. We knew we were headed north, so we crossed the street to catch a taxi northbound vs. southbound. Crossing streets here is always an adventure, but we are getting used to it. Rarely are there crosswalks, and always there is congestion. In Yangon there are so many large vehicles that it catches our attention. Large, like USA large, and not something I’m used to seeing outside of the US. Very few motorbikes or bicycles, and way more vehicles than the infrastructure is prepared for. It’s always bumper to bumper and painted lanes are more of a suggestion than a rule. Someone tired of waiting might pull out into the oncoming traffic lane if no one is coming, in order to pass several vehicles and then cut back into the proper lane when oncoming traffic shows up.

Anyway, crossing a road is an adventure because one must walk right into the street and make a path. Just wait for a bit of a space between cars and go. People tend to wait and cross in clusters (safety in numbers!). It’s best when the cars have come to a halt because of a light, or simply because of congestion. Then people walk with no fear at all, bicycles, women holding hands of toddlers, weaving in between vehicles to get through. At first it’s unnerving, but after only three days, I’m so relaxed about it. Just step right into moving traffic, and everything kind of flows around. No one gets concerned. And voila! Soon enough you’re on the other side.

A taxi pulled over immediately and we asked him to take us to the bus station. It’s supposed to be a two hour drive. This man got us there in an hour and 15 minutes. Margaret was having a heart attack and I finally told her to stop watching! Me, I was having so much fun. The driving is simply astounding, the way vehicles swerve and merge and slow and speed up. I was constantly delighted. Our driver took multiple shortcuts, such as through the University of Yangon campus, to get around stalled traffic.

This wins the prize for craziest bus station.

Market behind busses.

You can see Margaret in there, waiting for the bus.

Thus, we arrived at our bus station with over two hours to kill. This is the craziest bus station I have ever seen, and I’m guessing it will hold that top spot for years. It looks as though many bus companies all have their offices side by side in a big square, all facing the center. As we had already seen in Yangon, vendors set up their stalls anywhere people might walk, which is an excellent business plan you have to admit. People walk through, busses occasionally drive through, honking to warn the people to get out of the way. So imagine a giant “U” of shop fronts that belong to a menagerie of bus companies. Then imagine a bus parked in front of them all, making a smaller U. And out at the front of the busses are some vendors, but between the busses and the buildings is a regular market. There are kiosks set up, and walking vendors carrying their wares will thread their way through.

Even though I ate all of my breakfast at the hostel, I was hungry. I wandered around and bought some cookies at a small shop, then bought some more green mango with chili powder. Out here the chili powder is coarser and you can identify the chili seeds, unlike downtown where it really is just powder. Yesterday we had purchased some avocados on the train, and I put the leftover chili powder on the avocado, which was delicious. I ate some roasted peanuts. Finally I felt full.

Our bus took off at noon. Another nice thing about a super friendly country: they look after you. At one point a kid came up to Margaret and me and told us it was time to get on the bus. He took my bag and stowed it, then asked for our ticket, which I showed him (written in Burmese so the information it held was lost to me). The boy led us to our seats on the bus. I was oblivious the whole time, but this kid was not an employee, just an entrepreneur. He wanted a tip and Margaret was at least savvy enough to figure that out. She gave him a few hundred Kyats (which is mere coins in US dollars).

The plane ticket to get to Myanmar was expensive. But balancing that out is that everything is unbelievably inexpensive once you arrive. Our rooms are cheap, food is cheap, transportation is cheap. Each day Margaret and I settle up the day’s expenses. We are splitting costs, but often in the moment it makes sense for one or the other of us to pay for both, like a taxi ride. It inevitably arrives at something like this, “Ok, I owe you 2500 kyats, let’s call it $2.”

Kin Pun is small and clean, with mountains in the background!

The bus ride was comfortable and clean and not that adventurous other than vendors selling stuff during stops. It’s still a bit weird for me: a guy hawking boiled eggs, for example. He was going down the cramped bus aisle selling chicken eggs and quail eggs to people for a snack. At one point the bus stopped and everyone got off. We had to ask other tourists what was going on. “Lunch stop!” we were told by the Germans. “How was Yangon?” asks Simon, from Denmark. BTW, every tourist seems to speak English. It makes me embarrassed.

We arrived, and Margaret carried her backpacks while I dragged my bag (I am clearly not as cool as the other tourists) less than a mile to our hotel. The town of Kin Pun is small and clean with red dirt. It feels more like home than the big stinky city of Yangon.

The Golden Sunrise Hotel is gorgeous. Landscaped and classy, with no trash in sight. The staff is all fluent in English. This is more English than I’ve heard since I arrived. I’m feeling distinctly spoiled.

Our rooms are here, on the second floor.

View from my room.

Restaurant on the grounds

Entrance lit up at night.

We are going to meet in the lobby at 5:30 am to pick up a boxed breakfast and then we will walk into town and find the “truck station,” where we will get a ride up the mountain to the balanced rock in time for 6:30 am sunrise. It’s a lot of time, effort, and expense to see a rock. Margaret likened it to Mount Rushmore, which I think is apt. The attraction itself is amazing. But the time, effort, and expense to get there is significant. And once you’ve seen the display, there is nothing left but to go home.

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