We had decided to break up our time in Bagan by sandwiching tours of temples around a trip to Mount Popa. The mountain rose from the plains surrounding Bagan as a solitary monolith which could be seen on the horizon. Popa was revered as holy in Myanmar; it consisted of a dormant volcano with a plateau on top of it where a variety of stupa had been built. We had arranged for a car to take us to the mountain and back, leaving at 10 am from the hotel.
After driving for about 30 minutes, our driver pulled over and wanted us to see a factory. I figured that there must be some catch to our little outing, but was curious nonetheless, so I decided to take a look. The “factory” consisted of an extended hut with a small straw-covered pavilion attached to it, along with an ox outside which was hitched to a wooden contraption. The ox, we found out, was grinding peanuts into peanut oil, the man who was tending it let the two boys and I take turns riding on the back of the contraption to drive the ox. He also pointed out buckets that had been hung in the nearby palm trees in order to collect the pulp from them. The activities going on inside the hut all involved this pulp.
Inside, a lady was stirring a big pot where she was cooking the pulp to get sugar. In the corner, a man was tending a still that was making the palm sugar into alcohol. He gave Trudy and me a drink of the alcohol- it was very strong but had a pleasant taste. We then all sat down in the pavilion to have tea. Our driver showed us how to eat sesame seeds, mixed with tablets of palm sugar, as a snack to have with our tea. When we were ready to leave, the workers gave us little baskets filled with sesame seeds and palm sugar. They didn’t ask for any money, but I gave them some anyway- it was worth it for the education, the tea, as well as for the little gifts.
It took us another hour to reach the mountain, the last 20 minutes or so involving a steady climb up twisting roads, similar to the bus ride in Lantau Island. Finally, we reached a little town at the foot of the mountain. Our driver parked the car and said that he would wait in a nearby restaurant for us, he told us to turn right and we would find the way up the mountain, he even motioned in the “correct” direction to show us where we should go. We would later find that this direction was far from correct.
As we walked out of town, we caught our first glimpse of the monkeys. I had read about their presence and was excited about seeing them. I also figured that Brennan would really like to see more monkeys. We had brought the hard boiled eggs which had been left over from our breakfast in Yangon, as well as some bananas we had collected from breakfasts in the Eden Hotel. The monkeys were watching us with interest as we walked out of town. Then, they all began to follow us, as if they were in some kind of simian gang. One monkey snuck up behind Brennan and tore the plastic bag which contained the food we had brought, spilling about half of it. We high-tailed it out of town with the rest of the food as the “gang members” stopped to devour what had spilled.
As we walked up the path we were on, it didn’t seem like it was leading to the top of the mountain. We stopped and asked some people if the trail led to the top, but they just smiled at us. Soon, we had entered a dense jungle, while the path had deteriorated into a tiny rocky trail, which led up and down through the hills. We seriously doubted that we could still be going in the right direction so, since Trudy was having a hard time on the trail and I was helping her, the kids decided to run ahead to see if we were on the right track. When they had not returned 15 minutes later, Trudy began to get really worried. After all, we were in the jungle, miles from civilization, in one of the most reclusive countries in the world- and both kids were nowhere to be seen!
To console Trudy- I offered to run ahead and look for them, since she could not move very fast on the trail. I even began to worry myself as I covered more and more ground without seeing them, but I finally heard them ahead of me on the trail. They had entered a village, which was just up ahead, and had asked the natives which way we needed to go to get up the mountain, and were just on their way back to tell us. We were soon reunited with Trudy and we all headed back to the village together, to take the way that the kids had found.
By the time we had reached the cement staircase that obviously headed up the mountain, we were all worn out from the hike we had just taken. We had started to walk up the staircase when we noticed the gang of monkeys who happened to live there were now slowly stalking us. I threw the rest of our food on the stairs and we hurried to reach the top.
Trudy was almost ready to give up a few times, but didn’t want to be left behind with the crazed monkeys, so she pushed herself to climb higher and higher. At last, we joined the main route up the mountain, and were treated to the sight of even more stairs! Luckily, there were a number of people on this route, which kept most of the monkeys away, so we allowed ourselves to rest some and to get some water from those who were selling it along the main route. I took a picture of Trudy while we rested- her face was all red and her hair was dripping with sweat, but she was happy.
The side staircase we had ascended had taken us one third of the way up the mountain, we spent the other two thirds climbing stairs and trying to avoid the monkeys, who didn’t seem to understand that we were out of food, even though I told them this fact repeatedly. We finally made our way out onto the top of the mountain, which gave us a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside. Brennan was a little freaked out that there were no guard railings keeping us from falling off the shear cliffs which fell back towards the jungle through which we had come, so he did not get particularly close to the edge.
The temple and the stupas at the top of the mountain were a bit of an anticlimax, after climbing for so long. They were really no different from those which had surrounded the Shwedagon Paya or which dotted the plain of Bagan. I tried to explain to the family that what was most important was that we had completed the journey to the top of Mount Popa, and that it really didn’t matter what specifically was on top- but I’m not sure if they bought it.
The trip down the mountain was much easier than going up it. One exception was when a lady tried to sell us some monkey food (as if we would want to attract the monkeys even more), and when we refused to buy some- she threw some onto the stairs, causing the monkeys to go wild. The monkeys of Mount Popa were definitely not our favorite wild life on the trip! We realized when we reached the bottom of the main set of stairs that we were just a short walk to the left of where the car was parked, not the right. The whole journey had taken us about 90 minutes.
When we got back to the hotel, we all took showers and then decided to walk to a restaurant which our horse cart driver had recommended to us to have a late lunch/early dinner. The place was deserted and slow, just like the pizza place, but the food ended up being good- just what we needed after our busy day. After dinner, we returned to the hotel and took it easy for the rest of the evening.