A strand of hair

At 530 this morning I was on a misty mountaintop where monks rang bells and begged for alms, as they do every morning.

monks alms morning

It’s part of daily life in Myanmar that monks walk slowly, a walking meditation it seems, through the streets collecting money, donations, and their food for the day. Some, like these, carry the pots for money and other offerings; others the large bowls for food.

child monks alms

There are many child monks in Myanmar, mostly orphaned or abandoned children. Some remain monks for life.

All food is collected early in the morning, and shared in the monastery. Monks following the Precepts don’t eat after noon. Everyone in the country feeds the monks, and it’s considered a blessing. There are donation points for the monasteries in every town, loud chanting and bell ringing calling people to the silver bowls. My guide put a few kyat in every donation site we passed.

I was at Golden Rock, the Kyaiktiyo Pagoda on top of a mountain, a very sacred site, a heavy boulder balanced against gravity on a strand of the Buddha’s hair. According to the legend, the rock was originally at the bottom of the sea. “There are many earthquake, but the rock remain,” said my guide.

golden rock balancing

Like the Schwedagon Paya, the Golden Rock and the stupa (pagoda) atop it are truly golden, thick with gold leaf applied by pilgrims.

gold leaf affixing

As with the other pagoda, only men can apply the gold leaf, or to approach the Golden Rock. Women may make offerings, of course. Yesterday, I bought a bell for 1000 kyat (about $1) and placed it at the Monday birth day shrine.


A monsoon descended as we waited for sunset yesterday, and instead of watching the rock glow golden, we took shelter under the plastic tarp over a guesthouse doorway and watched a group of boys play football with a ball made of woven cane in the pouring rain on the plaza. There is “no footwearing allowed” (shoes), and there are several strictures on female attire, but the boys reveled in sliding long and hard over the marble tiles.

football rain

This morning, after waking in the middle of the night, time zones askew, I walked up to the golden rock for sunrise. There was no dawn to speak of, with heavy rains all night, and the “sight of heaven” my Sinalese hotel manager (who also rhapsodized about how much he likes How I Met Your Mother and the Big Bang Theory) promised me was absent. But I met dozens of people hurrying down the mountain to the open air, jolting trucks that pass for busses well before 530 am, and found myself the only westerner among the sunrise pilgrims, making food offerings and praying.

offerings golden rock

Before sunrise, the shelves and spaces around the rock were full of trays of fruit, burners and candles aflame. People prayed fervently holding up their offerings, proud. A older Chinese man I noticed yesterday because he was cultivating quite a profound crop of hair on a chin mole had to have his wife steady him as he approached, his tray in disarray from his excitement.

rock wide angle pilgrim

The crowds abated by 630, and I saw the workers around the site dumping the fruit into bins. I joined a group praying in one of the building dedicated to different themes or nats, spirits with a particular sacred legend attached to them. I folded myself into a kind of meditation, trying to find absolute presence, conscious of the chanted prayers around me, the click of beads, the enormous cockroach on the window ledge. Trying to hold the gestalt of the vastness of the sacred site, the broken tiles, the monks with cellphones and cigarettes as they move toward the site and their worship, simultaneously mythic and mundane.

Tonight, I’m back in the land of wifi and espresso, a time traveler carried down a mountain in the back of a truck, two hours spent in a tea house infused by cheroot smoke and streams of betel juice spat out, waiting for the truck to completely fill. Listening for what is in front of me.


4 thoughts on “A strand of hair

  1. Still sounding peaceful and safe! (One word of advice: eliminating the espresso in the evenings might help combat the sleepless nights!)

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