A Burmese Adventure: Mount Popa & The Final Sunset

For our final full day in Myanmar we continued our theme of waking early, and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast before our driver arrived to pick us up from the hotel. We were off to Mount Popa, a volcano located 1518 metres above sea level, with numerous Nat temples and relics perched on top. The “Nats” are spirits that are worshiped in Myanmar in conjunction with Buddhism, and there are 37 “Great Nats”, most of which were supposedly human beings who met violent deaths.

The journey from Bagan to Mount Popa takes around an hour, although our driver added in a couple of stops along the way.

The first stop was to a small reservoir, where we stayed for a few minutes and saw the locals collecting water.

To be honest the water seemed very dirty, and I wouldn’t like to drink from it, but he did say they run it through a filtration system a few times before using it. Still, I would recommend using caution if drinking the tap water, as with most countries in Asia!

Our driver, who was constantly chewing the dark red betel tut I mentioned in the previous post, insisted on taking a picture of us with this ox cart!

Our drive towards Mount Popa continued, and our next stop along the way was a palm sugar factory. We arrived at the roadside “factory”, some small huts and a sort of restaurant, where a cow was walking in circles grinding the sugar into some sort of paste.

The Burmese men climb up the palm trees to collect the sap, and the women boil it up to make a syrup, which condenses and crystallises, and they turn into a sweet by adding shredded coconut. I tried a piece and although it was tasty, it was very sickly sweet!

After a quick look around, we hopped back in the car and drove on towards Mount Popa. We stopped a little bit before we got there to take a couple of pictures, as it looks fairly impressive from afar.

We had assumed we would be walking up some sort of path dug out of the mountainside, but it turns out there are covered steps all the way up.

Once there, you have to take your shoes off, and since we would have had to pay a fee to leave them at the bottom, we just carried them (both of us only had flip flops, pretty much the only shoes you’ll wear in Myanmar with the amount of temples there are!).

At the bottom just opposite the main entrance there is a shrine to the 37 Nats, which we had a quick look at before starting the climb. They were all rather creepy looking! There were also plenty of donations of money, fruits and even alcohol at each Nat.

Our driver had said that the walk was 777 steps up to the top, however it certainly didn’t feel like that many. Along the sides of the steps are a few stalls selling trinkets and tourist tat, but the vendors were not pushy at all.

One of the other interesting things about Mount Popa is that there are monkeys everywhere! As soon as you arrive they are roaming the streets, and although they are not vicious the local boys sell little rolled up newspapers with nuts inside which the monkeys like to throw everywhere, so the steps are all covered in bits of newspaper and money food.

You also have to watch out for monkey poo along the steps, although there are cleaners every few metres, all of whom ask for donations for cleaning. It’s impossible to tip them all so we stuck to giving just a few small Kyat notes. You can also give a larger donation (we gave around 2000 Kyat each, which is just under 2 US dollars!) when you reach the top of the steps.

Along the way there are plenty more small Nat shrines, which we didn’t really stop at. Once you reach the top there are even more Nat shrines, as well as some golden temples. The Taung Kalat Buddhist Monastery crowns the summit of Mount Popa, and is an important place of pilgrimage for Buddhist monks and nuns, of which we saw plenty.

If you make a larger donation ($20 or above) you can have your name engraved on a plaque…spot number 20 above with a sense of humour 😉

The golden stupa at the top was nice, however certainly pales in comparison to the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. We spent a bit of time admiring the view across the nearby hills, before making our way back down the 700-odd steps. I felt bad for Kirsty who at 7 months pregnant was doing very well climbing up and down all of those steps in the heat!

Once back down at the main entrance, we found our driver who had been waiting for us in the shade. We wanted to head back to Bagan to enjoy our last afternoon by the pool.

Along the way we stopped at a small roadside market, where we were the only tourists to be seen.

Along the way back to our hotel we made one final stop, which was to a Lacquerware shop. A traditional craft in Myanmar, the art of making lacquerware is called Pan yun, and the lacquer is the sap tapped from trees that grow in the wild in Myanmar. The sap is straw-coloured but turns black on exposure to air. It forms a smooth, glossy surface, and the local ladies scratch beautiful, intricate patterns and pictures into the items, which could be anything from small cups, to plates, chairs and more.

We had seen stalls selling lacquerware items around all of the larger temples, but the guide mentioned that most of these were cheap fakes, and had the patterns printed on, rather than etched in. I bought a beautiful tray, which along with intricate flower details, had pictures of the Bagan dancing ladies on it.

Our driver took us to a small restaurant to stop for a quick lunch before heading back, which consisted of the local Shan Noodles which Kirsty had heard about and wanted to try before we left the country. The dish consisted of rice noodles served up with shredded chicken pieces, peanuts, spring onions, some sort of gloopy gelatinous neon-orange sauce  (we are both still unsure as to what exactly this was!) and a broth on the side, which you mix in with the noodles. Very tasty and a bargain at $1 each – standard price for most meals in Myanmar!

After a few hours relaxing by the pool, sipping on iced coffee, reading our books and snoozing in the sunshine, we popped across the street to hire an E-Bike for an hour or two to catch the sunset. A bit quicker than your regular push-bike, but nowhere near as fast as the motorbikes the locals drive (in fact tourists are not allowed to hire motorbikes, only the e-bikes) and just a couple of dollars for the two of us.

We headed in the direction of the Dhammayangi temple, which we’d already visited the day before, as we were looking for the North and South Gu Ni temples.

We only got stuck in the sandy path once, and nearly got lost once along the way, but still managed to make it to the temple in time for sunset! It turns out the North Gu Ni temple is actually under construction after damage from the earthquake next year, but the South Gu Ni is right next door, so a great spot for watching the sunset away from the crowds.

As with the Bulethi temple that we visited for sunrise, this one is off the main roads, so is inaccessible for large tour buses. There were a few people already there when we arrived, but there was plenty of space for everyone to sit or stand and still get a great view across the plains of Bagan.

Without a doubt an absolutely spectacular sunset, although I will say that nothing can beat the incredible hot-air balloon-filled sunrise we witnessed the day before!

Pretty much as soon as the sun dipped below the horizon, almost everyone got up and left straight away. We stayed on for a while just taking in the moment, and capturing a few last pictures.

The perfect ending to our last night in beautiful Myanmar.

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