Mount Popa: Of Nat Spirits and Monkey Poop

So we were on top of Mount Popa looking down at the village and expansive plains below.  We just climbed 777 steps in our bare feet, sidestepping monkey feces and urine en route to the summit. It was the most bizarre visit to a temple we made so far.

Spiritual Home to 37 Nats

Mount Popa, an extinct volcano, strikes a dramatic pose against the surrounding flat plains of central Myanmar and is a popular day trip from Bagan. Perched precariously on top of a volcanic plug (Think Devil’s Tower) is a gilded Buddhist monastery tempting visitors from far away to visit its complex of pagodas, shrines, and stupas.

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Popa Taungkalat Monastery

It is also home to 37 of the most powerful Nat spirits whose worship in Myanmar predates Buddhism. These Nat spirits were once humans who died a violent death and live on as irritable and vengeful spirits. Still an important part of Burmese culture, Mount Popa’s Nat shrines attract thousands of worshippers seeking favors from the Nat spirits.

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One of many Nats shrines in Mount Popa
Palm Candy and Liquor

We hired a driver to take us to Mount Popa from among the taxi drivers hanging out outside our hotel. Along the way we stopped off at a Toddy Palm plantation to see how they harvest the sugars from the palm fruit to make liquor and candy. The liquor was really good and we were tempted to take a few bottles home with us. Not wanting to deal with the antiquated TSA liquid rule we regrettably decided against it. Damn you TSA! We settled for a couple of bags of the palm candy instead. Not the same.

Ode to Monkey Poop or How Many Different Ways To Say Poop

Mount Popa, or should I say Mount Poopa, is also home to a gang of mischievous Rhesus Macaques who hang around hoping to get fed. Their excrement and pee were everywhere, so walking barefoot was extra challenging. We were used to walking around barefoot in the temples in Myanmar, as shoes are not permitted inside. We’d already had to walk barefoot through puddles, slipping on wet tiles, and on scorching hot bricks that burned our feet. But this was the first time where we had to walk through monkey shit.

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There were volunteers armed with dirty wet mops wiping away monkey droppings and pee off the steps.  As we passed them they would ask for donations as a reward for a job well-done. Despite warnings about the prevalence of monkey doody, the cleaners did a good job on keeping the floors cleared from monkey #2.

The monkeys have also been known to steal eyeglasses, bags and/or water bottles among other stuff. We made sure to put away our sunglasses and kept our belongings close to us while we made the climb. Despite their thuggy reputation, the monkeys were really fun to watch as they caused a lot of ruckus, chasing each other around and jumping on tin roofs startling the people around them.

The monkeys can get pretty aggressive and will approach you if they think you have any food. At one point, a clueless woman took out some gum from her bag and attracted a monkey who mistook the gesture as an offering of food.  It was amusing to see her freak out as the monkey stalked after her.

Tip: Do not carry any food or reach into your bag as the monkeys will think you have food for them. 

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Please, sir, I want some more

Was this excursion worth walking up 777 steps and barefoot in monkey excrement? Probably not. But if you have an extra day in Bagan with nothing better to do and want to see monkeys then go for it.

The Monastery

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View of the covered stairway

Views Of Mount Popa From Afar

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