A Monkey-Filled Hill of Myanmar – Mount Popa, Bagan
Mount Popa near Bagan was my last stop in Myanmar. Just before my friend and I were to take a bus from Bagan to Yangon to fly back to India, we decided that we should see this 1518-meter high extinct volcano on the outskirts of Bagan.
How could we not go when every travel blog about Bagan spoke of the Popa mountain. And the pictures of the panoramic view from Mt Popa looked ethereal.
While we couldn’t see something even close to those gorgeous sunset hues that Google promised, for the sky was cloudy that day, we did have a unique, eye-opening experience all the way from Bagan to the Mount Popa volcano.
As the Popa mountain in Myanmar is about 60 km from Bagan, we had taken a tour from a benevolent couple’s tour agency in old Bagan. The first hour of the one and a half-hour drowsy drive from Bagan to Mt Popa was relaxing, but the last thirty minutes were unexpectedly chaotic. As Mont Popa is a religious center for the Burmese people, we found the highway on the outskirts of Bagan fringed by beggars on both sides. Such was the beggar’s desperation that some of the oldest and youngest almost jumped in front of our car.
Clearly, the driver had to be skilled. The beggars had lined the road expecting alms from the devotees visiting the Taung Kalat monastery (meaning pedestal hill) at the top of the Popa mountain. While some visitors sped fast by the beggars, others slowed down, gave them fruits or coins, and the beggars blessed them and the car moved on.
Our driver told us that the beggars were lepers and their only way to support themselves was to beg. When I arrived at Popa hill I realized that the monastery was sacrosanct for Myanmar Buddhists as the mountain is considered to be the home of the Nat gods. Nats are spirits of people who suffered a tragic and painful death and became gods who are now intertwined within the traditional Myanmar Buddhism.
It is said that about four out of the thirty-seven Nat spirits live in the Popa mountain, and Burmese Buddhists from around the country bring flowers, alcohol, and money to calm these Nat gods otherwise who knows what havoc these illtreated spirits might bring upon.
And thus the crowd of beggars outside Popa as they trust in the faith of the Burmese devotees and know that if they would stand on the way to a pilgrimage to the Popa mount), they would get some money or at least some food.
The Nat gods have been an essential part of the Burmese religion since the 9th century. I only know of one Nat’s story that I will narrate using the pictures I clicked in the Popa monastery(images are below).
Princess Wunna Thein Gi, who lived on Mount Popa, met the prince Ko Byatta there one day. He had come from Bagan to fetch flowers for the king. The princess and the prince fell in love and had two sons. But the king got angry when he heard their love story and took the prince and his sons away from the princess. The Princess Wunna Thein Gi then died from the longing for her love and children and became a Nat spirit.
She is now known as the mother goddess of Monte Popa.
What a heartbreaking story! I wonder if all the kings who broke their children’s hearts in the name of dignity ever had their love taken away. Else they would never separate two lovers.
And now I am digressing.
Mount Popa also drift from being a religious hill to a monkey home. While we climbed the 777 shaded steps to the top of the mountain, barefooted, I saw hundreds of rhesus monkeys jumping around, sneaking food, or scaring an unaware child now and then.
A tip: You don’t have to give money to keep your shoes while beginning the climb but someone would try to trick you into believing that you do.
Climbing through that steep and wet staircase fringed on both sides by kitschy souvenir shops was eventful. Monkeys and tourists and shopkeepers seemed to fuse there into an unknown entropy. Though I am from India and have seen this weird concoction of animals and humans more than enough number of times, I was really out of place. Balancing myself barefoot on mucky stairs to arrive at a temple when I am not even religious while thanaka-pasted women and men rushed around, I could have easily assumed that I was lost if not for my friend present by my side. But then this discomfort of stepping into the unknown despite the fear and embarrassment is what I travel for. And you?
Soon I was at the top taking in the open views from the monastery studded with golden stupas and bells.
The monkey drama continued. A few monks scared the monkeys away with an empty slingshot. One tourist screamed when a monkey pulled her skirt. Before we knew, the sun started setting down the horizon in a distance bathing everything in a golden glow.
Now a group of monkeys jumped from the monastery to the tin-shaded roof on the staircase and the noise echoed. They were being driven away for the night by the monks. Visitors stayed a bit longer, watching the monkeys but also soaking in the sweet melancholy of the open evening. I tried to find a clear glimpse of the sunset but had to be happy with the river in the distance and the cows beneath the mountain.
Another climb in Myanmar: Hiking Up Mount Zwegabin, Hpa An, Burma
By the time we started making our way back to Bagan, it was already dark. Mount Popa stood purple under the sprinkling of man-made lights. Grabbing a cup of tea and some fried tofu at a stall outside the hill, we rushed to our car to be driven back to Bagan to catch that Bagan-Yangon bus.
The beggars were gone now. The road was empty and I sank into the cushiony seat to enjoy the last winds of Burma, a country that showed me many wonders.
Some more pictures that I clicked around the mountain.
How to get a tour of the Popa Mountain, Myanmar?
Your hotel could arrange the tour for you or you can ask the taxi drivers on the street and negotiate a deal for yourself.
̨How much time do you need for Mt Popa Bagan tour?
Bagan to Mount Popa is about 60 km oneway. We did the tour in about half a day. Calculate 3 hours of to and fro driving and an hour of climbing up and down and the time you want to spend on the top of Popa. So 5–6 hours at least and that makes for a half-day trip.
Where to stay in Bagan?
I stayed at the Bagan Vertex and would recommend it for the clean and comfy rooms, an amazing breakfast buffet, the option of renting cycles or scooters at the hotel, and the views from the rooftop.
If you don’t like Bagan Vertex, then have a look at all Bagan hotel options here.
Is there a place to stay near Mount Popa, Myanmar?
The Popa Mountain National Park that encompasses the mountain forest around Popa has the luxurious Popa Mountain Resort. I would go for the views.
Follow Up Read: Riding the Yangon Circular train — Memoirs from Myanmar
I have also written about getting an online Burma Visa for Indians, what to do in Inle Lake in Myanmar, and all about the sunrise at Mandalay’s U Bein Bridge, Myanmar. Grab a cup of coffee and do indulge.