If you happen to be in this part of the world, there is a fantastic rollercoaster that not too many people know about. It involves sitting in an open backed truck crammed to bursting with people, no safety equipment, and the threat of imminent death constantly at your doorstep. Oh, and you feel as if you're blind.
But we digress.
Kyaikto is a very small outpost town that's really only there because of Kyaiktiyo (The Golden Rock) in Kinpun, which is about 15km away.
Perched rather precariously on the edge of the Eastern Yoma Mountains, the rock seems to defy gravity as it remains stationary with no anchors to speak of. It is one of the holiest places in the country and a major draw for Buddhists, thousands of which visit every day during the November to March pilgrimage to pay their respects at a site which they believe is held up by a single strand of Buddha's hair.
As is the way with such things, there's a great deal of commercialisation happening nearby, with decent nightlife and an array of hotels to accommodate the growing hoards of people. But you don't really want to stay in Kinpun - it might seem all right, but soon enough you'll find out it's an incredibly loud tourist trap. As a cyclist, it's also a slog to get to, as you'll have to make your way off the main road and up a fairly gentle but long climb, which at the end of a hot day, you could do without. Getting there and back will add thirty unnecessary kilometres to your trip.
So do what we did and stay in Kyaikto at the Golden Bliss Hotel, which is on Mawlamyaing Road one kilometer before you hit the town itself. We passed it at first thinking that it was too far out. But a combination of no other options plus a bruised bum from Jess's saddle issue led us to turn back and see what this place could offer us.
Quite a lot, as it turned out. For 30,000 kyat, you get a huge, clean bungalow with two single beds, air conditioning, mini fridge with beer and water, a sizeable shower with hot water and amenities, mini terrace with room for your bike, and free breakfast in the landscaped gardens the next morning. It's brilliant, frankly.
After dropping our stuff off, we called for a couple of motorbike taxis to take us to Kinpun's "base camp", where we'd then take the aforementioned rollercoaster to the Golden Rock. That's where the fun really started, because unless you want to endure a four hour sweaty steep hike, the truck ride is your only option. The fare is 2,500 kyats per person and explicitly includes life insurance. You'll see why in a second.
You start off with six people to a row (there are about 7 rows) on a skinny wooden bench with a steel bar in front to grasp tightly. It doesn't leave until it is absolutely full, which means that you could be waiting for a while before it actually takes off but that's Burma for you – never be in a hurry. The truck itself is a monster machine - they've got some sort of custom mega-brakes to handle the twisty descents, which made our ride to Kawkareik look like child's play. The roads are seriously hairy, but you get the feeling that these drivers could do this run with their eyes closed, and for all we know, they did.
Once all places are taken, the truck starts traveling up the mountain pass. Hold onto your hats, kids. It's about to get twisty.
The main complex is teeming with people, both tourists and locals alike, and it's a great glimpse into life for ordinary people here. Large extended families arrive together and camp out on the terraces for a night or two, picnicking, chatting, and just generally enjoying each other's company. It's a big deal for many people, this trip, and not having a roof over their heads isn't going to put them off. It's both uniquely Burmese and somehow universal, reminding you that people are people the world over.
Like when you come across a group of young guys playing football on a terrace during the magic dusk hour. You could be anywhere, were it not for the bells in the background.
As the sun went down, we caught the truck back down the mountain which was even more exhilarating in the dimming light.
By the time we returned to our guesthouse, the sky was as black as ink and it was very late. The kitchen had closed for the evening but our proprietors sorted us out with a restaurant recommendation just a 5 minute walk down the road. To get there, make a left leaving the hotel and keep going until you get to a building with outdoor seating and a blinking neon sign that reads "Pan Yoe Ma". Three dishes, rice, water, beer, and 10,000 kyats later, we were stuffed.
There, we had the good fortune to meet two German gentlemen in their sixties who were staying at the same hotel as us, and making their way down the road the way we had just come. These old pals had clearly done a tour or two together over the years, and this time their final destination was Kunming, via Thailand, Laos and some pretty serious climbing. Hopefully we'll be as able when we're their age.
We sat over a beer and exchanged what we knew about what lay ahead for all of us. The next day's ride was "easy but boring", they said.
Let's see if they were right.