In Myanmar if you travel to Bagan a popular side trip is to Mount Popa; a spiritual mecca for Buddhists to check out shrines of some very important ‘nats’. A nat (not a gnat) is a Buddhist spirit worshipped in Myanmar, originally part of Burmese folk religion. After doing some homework I can say there are 37 main nats and every village has someone who is the master of the nats, paying close attention that none are offended. You do not want to piss a nat off!
I was intrigued by Mt Popa as soon as I read about it. Extinct Volcano? Monkeys? Spirits that sound like bugs? In Bagan my husband and I were having dinner with some lovely travelers we met and some claimed they had heard that is wasn’t worth the trip. “It’s completely covered in monkey shit… and you have to be barefoot” remarked the Canadian teacher. She then added, “They call it Mount Poop-a. You also have to walk up 777 steps you know…” Although walking barefoot in monkey poop is not my favorite activity, I wasn’t deterred. And the hike up sounded like a challenge I would enjoy. My husband and I headed out the next morning with a driver ready to conquer monkey poop mountain.
When Mt Popa appeared it was a beautiful sight, although I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t really tell it was sitting on a volcano. It just looked like a huge rock mountain. I think even though it was an ‘extinct’ volcano I had a fantasy that there would be a remaining cloud of smoke, maybe some leftover sparks or flames, and a pterodactyl or two flying around. But is was still beautiful. Once our driver brought us to the entrance, we got ready to make our way up.
Before I continue, there are a few things you need to understand about attire in Myanmar, and at Buddhist sites specifically. The men and women of Myanmar often wear ‘longyis’ which are essentially long skirts. The men tie them in a knot in the center, and often the women have ties or are pinned on the side. My husband and I were all about longyis. If you have to cover up, you might as well be comfortable. In addition shoes are removed at all buddhist sites. This is common all over the world, so no surprises there.
Ready for the climb in my longyi… This photo was right before the shoes came off.
When you begin the trek up Mt. Popa you will notice there are tons of people and tons of stairs. The stairs take you all the way to the top, winding through mini markets and shrines along the way. As we made our way to the top I had to say the hardest part was all the climbing in a long skirt.
The monkeys were definitely around, but you would be surprised by how clean the steps are (at least that’s what I told myself), and none of them chose to throw their feces at me which is always a plus. The stairs are cleaned by a collection of volunteers in hopes that you will give them a tip. That’s a well earned tip in my book!
The shrines are set up in brightly decorated rooms and were very populated with people praying and leaving offerings to keep the nats happy. You had to admire the devotion of the people who made their way up these stairs to pray, many were old and probably took half the day to climb up.
After a while the shines start to look the same and one starts to consider “how much further”?
The top, not surprisingly, has a beautiful view. There are also signs showing contributions that have been made (likely to support the upkeep of the mountain and pay the poop cleaners).
After some time enjoying the view we made our way down.
If you look past the kid in the Santa hat you’ll see some men carrying an old woman in a makeshift hammock. Also to the left is one of my hero poop cleaners mopping the steps.
When we got back to the bottom I would have liked to have explored the tiny village but we had to rush back with our driver because we were running out of time. Overall we were really happy to have visited Mt. Popa and were glad we didn’t miss it. Today’s lesson: don’t let a little poop scare you away from part of your journey.