Myanmar was an eye-opening experience for me and if there could be anything more fun than traveling through this timeless country, then it has to be the treasure trove of local myths and legends. Burmese mythology is abundant with dragons, princesses, monks, wizards and curious demi godly entities called Nats. In my eyes, they are the most entertaining and fiercely believed supernatural creatures and no believer in his/her right senses would like to mess with them. The Burmese believe that nats are spirits of those who have met with tragic deaths, thus being unsettled creatures who roam the earth and there are 37 recognized nats in their culture. This ancient belief dates back to the 9th century, before the advent of Buddhism and over the period of time, nat worship had gotten welded into mainstream Buddhism in Burma. The nats are protectors, guardians against evil eyes and also help in achieving certain mortal goals like passing an exam, getting a car etc. Thus it is no wonder, that they are pretty popular and the Taungkalat monastery of Mount Popa is the mother of all nat pilgrimage sites.
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Mount Popa was an epic adventure of an extinct volcano, monkeys, and supernatural creatures
Named after the Sanskrit word for flower, Mount Popa is an extinct volcano in the Bagan region of Myanmar. The impressive Taungkalat monastery sits atop the volcanic plug on the southwestern slope and is accessed by nearly 800 steps. These are frequented by fierce rhesus monkeys, who also roam around the little temple town and make complete pests of themselves. The monkeys of Mount Popa are much written and cautioned about on Myanmar travel blogs and they go about town nicking things, stealing food, and enjoying their goodies messily on top of parked cars. Thus, it is no wonder that most travelers stay away from Mount Popa and it’s few foreign visitors hardly bother to make it to the summit. Travelers opinions on the worth of the day trip are strongly divided and most either like or hate the trip. Although the views of the Myingyan Plain and beyond from the top of the monastery are generally accepted to be pretty good, only a handful find them worthy of the steep climb of almost 800 steps. I, too was not very impressed with Mount Popa and its monkeys made things worse for me.
Monkeys of Mount Popa are more fierce than the Nats perhaps
Being a non-monkey fan, I found the Mount Popa monkeys to be a bit menacing and the stairs were littered with their droppings. Puddles of monkey pee made them slippery too and broom armed locals cleaning the path asked for donations at every step. The views from the top and the dazzling gold umbrellas of the monastery were impressive and that was the only saving grace of the trip. The Nat temple at the bottom, however, was very intriguing and I watched in awe at the faithful trying to placate the spirits with offerings of incense and flowers.
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The saving grace of the Mount Popa drive
Despite the disappointing visit, the drive to Mount Popa was refreshingly rustic and it was a far cry from Bagan’s archaeological elegance. The rich red earth countryside was dotted with skinny betel but and palmyra palms and old gnarled trees shaded the road. Fertile fields of rich greens bordered both sides of the road and farmers with massive oxen ploughed through them. I stopped at a small toddy shop (palm wine) en route to try out the delicious Burmese green tea salad (Lahpet) and paint my face with beautiful patterns of thanaka make up.
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Swirls and curls of Burmese thanaka make-up
One of the most curious sights to greet a foreign visitor to Myanmar is the generous use of thanaka make up and nowhere in Asia, is it more popular than in Burma. The Burmese ladies and children throughout the length and breadth of the country paint their faces (and sometimes arms, and legs) with this white tree based paste and it is supposed to be one of the best cooling natural sunblocks ever. The ancient cosmetic is made by grinding the bark of the thanaka tree on a flat, smooth stone with water and I became a fan of it during the rest of my Myanmar stay. Such were the small rustic pleasures of Mount Popa visit and though not a huge hit, it was a great way to spend my last day at Bagan. Nyaungshwe and the lovely Lake Inle awaited me the next day and I looked forward to the much-photographed beauty of the stunning Shan state.
Recommended Read: Bagan Travel Guide
Mount Popa Travel Tips
– What is Mount Popa?
Mount Popa volcano is the most popular side trip from Bagan and it is believed to be the abode of the 37 nats.
– How to arrange a Mount Popa day trip and its cost?
Travel agents and accommodations in Bagan usually arrange Mount Popa tour (guided and non guided) for around $30 and these itineraries include a visit to a toddy (palm wine) producer on the road between Bagan and the mountain.
– What do you get to see at Mount Popa and other tips?
The tiger-guarded shrine at the foot of the mountain has a hallway of mannequin-like figures representing some of the 37 official nats plus some Hindu deities etc and it is recommended to pay a visit there before climbing the mountain. Burmese superstition dictates that you should refrain from wearing red or black on the mountain or curse, say bad things about other people or bring along any meat (especially pork). The resident nats find these actions offensive and could retaliate with a spate of ill fortune and similar unpleasantness.
-Where to stay at Mount Popa?
The lush forests protected within the Popa Mountain Park is the home to the exclusive Popa Mountain Resort and its cool weather makes a fruit rich area. Indulge in some fresh fruit shopping and bargain hard.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE