I know what you are thinking.
You are in Bagan, you have heard about that funky sleeping volcano with that huge monastery on top of it (1,518 m) and now the question is: should you visit mount Popa?
Is it worth to spend one whole day trip of your precious holidays in Bagan just to see "another temple"?
Before you get impatient scrolling down this whole article, let me tell you something: it is... totally worth!
1. Why mount Popa is worth of a day visit
The Taung kalat monastery (meaning pedestal hill) is a Buddhist temple like no other.
Without getting too much into the details of the Buddhist derivations around Asia, the particular type of Buddhism we experienced there was strikingly different compared to anything we have seen before (we have lived in Asia for almost 3 years now)...
The first thing you will need to learn is that many Burmese Buddhists believe in spirits called Nats. In their traditions, Nats are able to influence terrestrial lives and are worth of worship, so they can bring luck and prosperity if treated "right", which means that people who don't believe in them can suffer from misfortune.
Nats are actually malevolent ghosts, taking forms such as demons and goblins which evolved from male and females who died from unusually painful deaths, sometimes caused by alcoholism (!)
In this sense it is correct to say that the center of the Nat worshiping in Myanmar is Mount Popa and if you dare to risk a trip to the place, you may see some pilgrims bringing offerings (such as flowers, money or alcohol) that supposedly appease the evil creatures.
2. How difficult is to climb to the monastery?
If you are reasonably fit, you can do it with no major obstacles (other than the heat and of course, the monkeys) but remember to bring socks. Ok, let me explain: you will need to climb the 700 stairs barefoot (socks are allowed) and wearing them will possibly avoid you stepping on monkey's poop. Sexy, hun?
According to National Geographic, there is a population of 2.000 rhesus macaques living around the monastery and as cute as it may sounds, they are not really taken care of. Being a vet myself, I could see from far away that some of them were most likely contaminated by scabies. Other than that they may turn very aggressive when they see food, so please refrain from eating or carrying any food with you while you climb the stairs.
For those who are not aware, people can be contaminated by monkeys scabies, so I would be extra-careful, specially if bringing kids.
3. What you will see there?
For the lay audience (like us) everything is very confusing and amusing (of course).
There will be vendors selling clothes and souvenirs in the stairs (a big bazar), cleaners taking care of the monkeys mess, people asking for donations (less funny), and even people watching soccer in the altar (not sure I have seen this in other places of cult)...
You will also see plenty of money, everywhere around the Nats and a somewhat kitschy decor, (very funky for a Buddhist monastery).
They even stick some bills on the nats! Prosperity guaranteed...
4. How to get there?
This is the easiest part.
You can hire a driver in Bagan (just ask around) and any uncle with a functioning car will be more than happy to do the deal. I can't remember the prices now but for sure it was inexpensive.
Mount Popa is roughly 50 kilometers from Bagan, and because of the roads not being well conserved, you may want to calculate more time than usual. One day trip (whole day) with a stop somewhere to eat seems ideal. I would not advise trying to do the round trip in only half a day. If you do, you may be too tired to see anything else in Bagan later, so what's the purpose?
5. How to prepare yourself
Other than bringing water and socks (read topic 2 if you missed that detail), you probably WON'T need an umbrella (most of the stairs are protected from the sun/rain).
Wearing comfortable clothing covering the neckline and shoulders, cotton skirts (or pants) are ideal. Same as in Bagan.
Entrance fees: Around 5 US$/person
So, I hope this article convinced you that Mount Popa is definitly worth of a day trip!
Curiosity of the day: Thanaka is the Burmese sunscreen, made from ground bark. It consists of a yellowish cream applied to the face (sometimes arms) of women and babies. It has a nice scent, somewhat "woody".
Enjoy your trip and leave us some comments!
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