One of the holiest Buddhist sites in the country, Kyaiktiyo Paya draws large numbers of non-believers among its throngs of pilgrims, primarily thanks to its spectacular location. The small pagoda was built atop the Golden Rock, a boulder 15m in circumference, coated in gold leaf, which is itself perched on a larger rock; it’s a pretty precarious-looking setup. The name Kyaiktiyo means “pagoda on a hermit’s head”, as it’s supposedly kept in place by one of the Buddha’s hairs, brought here by a hermit in the eleventh century who insisted it be enshrined in a stupa on a rock resembling his own head.
While the rock itself is impressive, getting up to it is a large part of the experience. The starting point is the town of Kinpun and the full 11km hike takes at least four hours. Most people shorten the walk by cramming into the back of an open truck; these leave Kinpun when full and take 45min to reach the Yathetaung terminal. The trucks cannot progress any further, and it takes around an hour to walk up to the top, a winding route that takes you past innumerable teahouses and souvenir stalls. It’s even possible to be carried up by sedan chair (from K4000 each way).
Men can join the pilgrims beside the Golden Rock itself, and even add to its lustre (five sheets of gold leaf K1700), while women must stay a short distance away. Note that women are not supposed to wear trousers, shorts or miniskirts; men should also dress appropriately.
It’s worth pressing on past the rock for fifteen minutes to reach Kyi Kann Pa Sat, where you can join locals throwing coins up onto a ledge for good luck. They don’t see many foreigners on this side of the mountain.