Bagan never fails to captivate and you could easily spend weeks of your Myanmar holiday exploring the town’s ancient monuments. But just beyond the edges of the Archaeological Zone lies Mount Popa, a 3-million-year-old extinct volcano soaring above the flat planes of Myanmar’s dry zone. The volcano’s plug is believed to be the home of the nats, Myanmar’s mythological spirits. A visit to Mount Popa is a chance to learn about this unique and fascinating aspect of the local culture. Myanmar Diaries shares with you our tips for how to make the most of your Mount Popa tour:
The adventure to Mount Popa begins
Before rushing off on you Mount Popa tour, we suggest starting the day with a Bagan sunrise. Wake before dawn and climb to the top of temple platform to watch the sun cast its early morning rays over the temples. After breakfast back at the hotel, it’s the perfect time to set off on your exploration of nat culture. The Myanmar people believe in 37 spirits, called nats, and Mount Popa is believed to be their mythological home. As a result, Popa is one of the country’s most popular pilgrimage spots. Be sure to charge your camera batteries as a true local adventure awaits.
On the road to Mount Popa!
One of the highlights of the half-day tour to Mount Popa is the journey itself- traveling through the dry zone of Myanmar and into the highlands. During the 1.5-hour drive you will pass through fields growing sesame, garlic, chilies and other crops suitable for the climate of Myanmar’s dry zone then rise into the tropical highlands where strawberries, dragon fruit and other fruits are cultivated. This shift in terrains is quite dramatic and showcases the diversity of Myanmar. Although most visitors do this excursion by car, there are some additional options for active travelers. A bike ride to Mt Popa is a fun, but challenging, 65 kilometer ride, starting in sandy flat trails before culminating in a steady 15 kilometer gentle climb. Another way to cross the dry zone is on horseback. The horseback riding excursion from Nga Lin Poke Village to Popa Mountain takes you through the heart of the countryside, on small lanes not accessible by car. With the horse doing most of the work, you can relax and enjoy the scenery passing by.
A glimpse of farming life
Regardless of how you get to Mt Popa- by car, horse or bike- a stop at a toddy farm is a must! The tall, skinny toddy palm trees are ubiquitous in this part of Myanmar, growing in the fields with other crops. A visit with the toddy farmers will show you just how versatile the trees can be! Their leaves can be woven into roofs for houses and the trunks used to make stools or other furniture. But most valuable, and most fascinating, is the liquid from the toddy fruit. The farming families will gladly show you how this valuable juice is collected, scaling up the tall palm tree with their bare hands to tap the fruit. Then watch as it is transformed into sweet molasses-like candy and potent alcohol. These traditional processes have been handed down from generation to generation of Bagan farmers.
The Home of the Spirits
After stopping at the toddy farm, the road to Popa starts to climb in elevation. From afar you will see Taung Kalat, the volcanic plug from Mount Popa. This jagged grey rock rises dramatically above the terrain: It is no wonder the local Myanmar people believe this unusual rock is home to the nats. As you get closer, gilded shrines and white-washed stupas come into view. Once arriving at the base, take a moment to look into the ‘museum’, a collection of statues depicting each of the 37 nats. Learn about the different spirits and see the colorful offerings that worshippers bring to the shrine.
Climbing Mount Popa
Finally it is time to climb to the top of Taung Kalat. In keeping with local custom, the walk must be done barefoot so take off your shoes and socks before stepping on to the staircase. You should also avoid wearing red, green and black- colors that offend the nats- and do not bring any meat products with you or the spirits will be disturbed! The first flights of stairs are lined with stalls selling traditional medicine, nat offerings and souvenirs. Popular items are bottles filled with golden champak flowers, pyit tang taung tumbling dolls and, of course, t-shirts. After a third of the way up, the stalls disappear and small shrines appear in their place. As you climb, you will share the staircase not only with local pilgrims but also monkeys. Popa’s resident monkeys are cute but they are cheeky, so don’t get too close or they will try to steal from you!
Stunning Scenery and Sacred Shrines
Having climbed more than 900 stairs, your hard work pays off! From the top of Taung Kalat you will have sweeping views of Mount Popa itself, the flat arid plains of the dry zone and the Irrawaddy River in the distance. If the weather is clear you may also catch a glimpse of Bagan’s temple spires in the distance. As you catch your breath and enjoy the breeze, take a look around: at the top of Taung Kalat you will see both nat statues and Buddhist shrines, a testament to how these two belief systems coexist in Myanmar culture. Once you have had your fill of scenic views and spiritual discovery, it’s time to bid farewell to this sacred spot and return to Bagan armed with a greater understanding of local culture.
Zar Yi Hnin (Ms.)
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- Enjoying panoramic views over Bagan’s region
- Interacting with local pilgrims and cheeky monkeys
- Learning about Myanmar’s unique spirit worship
- Discovering local products created in the countryside
BEST TIME TO VISIT
● From September to February
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