We were only a week into our trip, and yet to realise that the famous Golden Rock at Kyaiktiyo had spawned a series of imitators. In fact, a glimmering collection of balancing boulders make an appearance at pagodas across the country. So when we heard about Nwa-le-bo (just 15 miles north of our Mawlamyine guesthouse) we decided to see what the fuss was about.
Having taken a taxi to Kyonka village we are directed to an open lorry lined with thick wooden slats. A scaffold staircase stands alongside so passengers can access the makeshift seats. Cars pull up, creaking and hissing as engines cool in the shade, and from behind tinted windows a procession of women emerge wearing freshly pressed longyi, traditional double-breasted blouses and heeled sandals.
They seem unfazed by the adventurous ascent to the pagoda – our copy of Lonely Planet describes the journey as a slow crawl, but it turns out to be a full-throttle race to the top – our driver doesn’t seem to register the tight switchbacks and sheer drops.
We pause halfway up as the truck's overheating undercarriage is placated with buckets of water, before lurching forward again and finally arriving bruised and battered at the temple's entrance.
While the men purchase flimsy sheets of gold leaf to add to the boulders, the women enlist the services of the pagoda’s photographer. That’s when it dawns on us – we are not the only tourists visiting today.
Teetering at the edge of a cliff, the three golden rocks shimmer in the sunlight and look strangely surreal against the surrounding green hills. It’s eerily quiet, the only movement is a few swooping swallows. That is until Khin catches up with us.
With a broad smile, she spends the next half an hour directing, positioning and posing us, and we are paraded from one gathering to another. Some are shy and stand stiffly beside us. Others are bolder – placing ours arms around their waists and kissing our cheeks. Instructions are shouted, people swap in and out of pictures and there is a lot of laughter.
The lorry honks its horn and Khin dashes off to purchase her prints. She held this photo aloft on the journey back down, but it was only later when I looked a bit closer that I felt so acutely aware of her gold earrings, glittering wedding band and baby-pink nail polish – painted on the left hand only, the right hand is for day-to-day tasks and not worth adorning.
Khin made us feel like a celebrity for a few minutes but, more importantly, she opened up our eyes to the country’s rapidly emerging middle class. When so many locals are still struggling to survive from one day to the next, it was great to see a group of friends use their leisure time to explore a country that has been overlooked by the outside world for so long.
That evening we sit at a riverside bar and stare at the water, snacking on a plate of deep-fried onions. A young girl wanders between the tables collecting ring pulls from soft drink cans, slipping them on her fingers.