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The Golden Rock That Balances on a Hair

This is part of our Window on Southeast Asia series.

Sometimes getting to a destination is half the adventure. It's no wonder buses in Buddhist southeast Asia often have a religious shrine erected on the dashboard in the belief that it will keep the bus safe. (Something has to.) There are usually small statues of the Buddha, pictures of famous pilgrimage sites or famous monks, jasmine garlands, flowers, incense, and anything else auspicious. The bus I took from Yangon (Rangoon) was especially well decorated with religious items as it was not a bus to just any destination-it was headed to one of the most sacred places in Myanmar. It was headed to the shrine of Kyaiktiyo, which is part natural, part man-made, and entirely sacred.

The road to Kyaiktiyo was every bit the endurance test I had imagined a Burmese road to be. The rutted, pot-holed road was far too narrow for two-way traffic so every time the bus encountered a car or truck going the opposite direction, it and the other vehicle had to swerve off most of the road. The only thing I found remotely soothing on the bus ride was listening to the other passengers talking to one another. The Burmese language is justifiably famous for being one of the world's most beautiful languages. If you heard two people speaking Burmese but didn't know what language they were speaking, you could be forgiven for thinking it was French. Almost all the sounds are very soft and make the language seem quiet even when spoken loudly. Like many southeast Asian people, the Burmese throw that quietness out the window when they have a microphone in hand. I was reminded of that as we passed some temples raising money. They have small shelters set up by the road where a volunteer will encourage donation with amplifiers so loudly that I wondered if the monks might loose it and strangle the volunteer. Giving is entirely voluntary (contrary to a rumor once repeated on the Travel Channel) though most Burmese believe a small donation will ensure a safe journey.

As the bus passes through the town of Bago (Pegau), you first begin to encounter the ethnic Mon people. The Mon were the first historical inhabitants of Myanmar, as well as Thailand and Laos. The Mon established the first kingdom in Myanmar (Burma) in the 6th century. It was called Suvannabhumi or "Golden Land." The Bamaa people, or the ethnic Burmese, moved in from the Himalayas around the 8th century and established themselves in the center of present-day Myanmar. The first great Burmese empire came up around Bagan in the west-central region of the country. By this time the Mon capitol was located at Thanton in the south. The Mon had been a Buddhist people for centuries, and Thanton had become a center for Buddhist scholarship. The Burmese king, Anawrahta, asked the Mon to send him some Buddhist scholars and books about Buddhism. When the Mon king replied that the Burmese were too uncivilized for Buddhism, King Anawrahta invaded Thanton and added the Mon kingdom to his empire. This was in the year 1044, which the Burmese see as the year Myanmar was born.

The Mon and ethnic Burmese still argue to this day about whether Burmese culture came from the Mon or Mon culture came from the ethnic Burmese. Most historians and anthropologists agree that Burmese and Mon culture became fused after 1044 and that the culture of both these groups are intertwined. After several secession struggles in the 1200s that weakened the kingdom, it fell to the Shan people (who are ethnic kin to the Thais). Only a few years later Kublai Khan invaded and pretty much finished off what was left of the Burmese kingdom. A 200 year dark age resulted in which only a few petty Burmese kingdoms arose controlling tiny portions of Myanmar. During that time the Mon reestablished their kingdom in the south with the capitol at Hinthawaddy. In the early 1500s, the small Burmese kingdom of Taungoo expanded rapidly under King Tabinshweeti. He was able to take Burmese lands back from the Shan and even took the Mon kingdom, moving the Burmese capitol to Hinthawaddy, which he renamed Bago.

Little seemed to change as we moved deeper into Mon territory, where Kyaiktiyo is located. Only serious experts on Myanmar culture would be able to tell much difference between Mon and ethnic Burmese cultures. After five hours of being thrown around in a Burmese bus/tumble dryer, we finally arrived at the town at the base of the mountain.

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