Day 73: Fail to see spirit world on Mount Popa
I managed to miss the point of Taung Kalat entirely during the visit. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
THE minivan plodded forward with eight of us, including the driver, packed in. The air conditioner lackadaisically blows on the seven of us, all solo travelers from the US, as we head toward Taung Kalat, a sheer-sided volcanic plug with a place of Buddhist worship at the top.
Mount Popa, the actual volcano plugged by Taung Kalat, is considered the abode of Burma's most powerful Nats, spirits, and as such is the most important Nat worshiping site in the country. Having done no research and just joined in with the group instead of spending another day in the breathtakingly beautiful maze of fields and pagoda in the Bagan Archaeological Zone, I don't know any of this. In fact, the only thing I know as pile into the van is that visiting Mont Popa is one of the those things people do in Bagan – if they have the time.
With only five days left before I need to be out of the country, I don't have the time, but then again, if I'm coming back on my motorcycle in a couple of weeks, I do.
I dodged one bullet earlier this morning when I nearly put Gomok on as a possible next destination of travel. Though determined to get there eventually, it turns out that you need a special permit, which takes ten days to get. Additionly, I would have had to book a fairly expensive tour for three days, two nights.
Instead, the roll was between Mandalay, Kalaw and Inlay Lake.
It felt good to roll again. During these last few days, the dice have been making such minor decisions that it's been frustrating – I need a bit more adventure, a possible side effect of being constrained by having locked myself into a backpacking circuit of Myanmar instead of an off-the-beaten track motorcycle adventure.
Also, after having battled through a particularly long “Meditation Week”, as dictated by the dice, I was waiting for Sunday to roll around to start a new weekly focus project up. I drew up a list: magic, photography, socializing, fitness/health, nature and videography. Again, was feeling constrained by not having the freedom and independence of my motorcycle. The die bounced on the wooden table, then landed on photography.
The plains give way to heavily eroded sandy hills as the seven of us in the van chat about this and that. The driver occasionally chimes in with some random piece of irrelevant information in that derails the conversation.
“My Mom teaches,” he says in English, though we'd been talking about Dice Travels. Unfortunately, his English isn't good enough for him to field follow up questions.
As the mountainous Popa volcano comes into view, the driver says something about visiting a jackfruit farm afterward, which sounds appealing.
Before the road starts to snake up the mountainside, the fields of peanuts and sesame are replaced by corn and fields of the bright yellow faces of sunflowers. Our driver doesn't stop, or slow down. He's on a mission.
“Okay, you go up and come back down. Only takes maybe an hour and half,” he says as he drops us at the base of the 777 steps leading to the peak of Taung Kalat.
We're on a dirty, wide street lined with open-faced business fronts selling fruits and other items to be given as offerings. Razor wire wraps around sections of roof and few poles – monkey deterrent. Packs of red-faced Rhesus Macaques sit on roof tops, a constant threat.
“I hate monkeys,” I say. The group is somewhat split on whether or not the little devils are cute enough to merit the havoc they wreck.
I'm still not a fan of monkeys. Look at this little thief stealing from Buddha. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
A group of colorfully dressed Burmese woman sit on the lower steps, which leads into a covered stairway cluttered with souvenirs and generic, touristy clothing. The cheap t-shirts and bright dresses brush our heads as we duck inside. Wooden elephants, flutes and numerous other carvings are on the left as we head up, still in our shoes. The wet, dirty tiles do not inspire one to remove their shoes until absolutely necessary.
On the left, the occasional vendor is sprawled out, asleep on a stone bench. Further up, there is a place for us to store a shoes, for a donations of 1,000 Kyat for the locker. As we make our way up the 777 steps Burmese men wearing checkered longi and holding onto mops time after time mumble something about donations for cleaning. It could cost you nearly ten dollar to make it to the top if you took every opportunity to make a donation.
Every so often there is a small room branching off from the stairway that clings to the sheer cliff face, inside the rooms are Buddha shrine. Without a guide, or a clue, the seven of us continue marching up in our attempt to “do Mount Popa”, failing to really understand any of it.
A male monkey starts to approach me, trouble flashing across his eyes.
I splash him with water. He's only slightly deterred, so I hit him directly in the face with more of water. Though not shocked or even surprised, it's enough to get him to give way as I pass.
One of the girls I'm with, says something, which sounds slightly disapproving by the tone, but I miss it. She seems to worry that I was escalating the situation, which is of course possible.
The sky opens up above us, rain pounding down on the sheet metal roof covering the tiles steps.
Despite the cleaners, and now the rain, here and there are still the remains of black monkey shit.
The view at the top, overlooking Old Bagan – which simply looks like a featureless plain – is underwhelming. On the green slops of Mont Popa is large statue of a monk that looks like an child's toy at this distance.
We wander around the top. I attempt to make a rubbing gong sing, but fail.
We give the place of worship what seems like an appropriate amount of time based on the price – 50 Kyat – for the ride here and back, as well as the fact that Mont Popa is one of “the things” that's done by travelers.
Of the girls, Sasha, nearly takes me down as her feet slide out from under her as we start down the stairs. She thumps down several steps before her momentum is drained.
“Are you okay?” I ask
She remains sitting on the steps, the others already too far ahead of us to notice that she fell. I sit down next to her as she examines her elbow and hand.
A beautiful young woman with yellow thanaka powder spread all over her face, Sasha is about to start her PHD in psychology, looking into the physical responses of emotions and eventually looking at how yoga and meditation can be used to counter mental disorders, many of which are connected to abnormal emotional responses.
She's fine, but we sit for a few minutes until a couple of the others come back up to check on us.
Back on the road, at the base of the cliff, our driver is revving to go. We explain that we want to stop for lunch somewhere, as we're all pretty hungry.
Fears of the general hygiene caused by monkey shit, and monkeys in general, deter us from eating anywhere too close to Taung Kalat. With a little prodding we manage to get the driver to stop as we leave the site, to get a few photos.
At this distance, several hundred meters away, the golden temple shines like a crown on the volcanic bhut. It's magical, mythical, far more impressive than the views from above. Going to the top was like climbing on the head of an elephant in order to get a good look at the beast.
We speed through a wooded stretch where a number of what appear to be restaurants, local beer gardens and teahouses have staked claims near a small junction.
“What about here?” we suggest.
“Only tea,” our driver replies, which doesn't exactly explain the enormous signs marketing beer at a few of the places.
The girls all fall asleep on the drive back, as John – one of the guys I've been hanging out with the last couple of days – and I talk about magic and ponder the possibility that the driver is ignoring our request to stop for lunch.
It turns out he is.
We pass several local vendors selling peanuts and other food items clear plastic bags from stalls along the road. We then pass a few places that might sell food. We pass a lot of things.
I feel trapped. I miss my motorcycle. Only five more days and I'll have the little beast back between my legs. However, at the moment, that level of freedom is just out of touch. The ability to stop at any of these places, at least to see what they are selling, is the chance to see Myanmar, to understand some nuances and maybe even some of the bigger picture.
As it is, we're trapped. It's the will of the driver, the man at the wheel, that rules.
“Can we get change,” one of the girls asks him after he comes to a stop across the street from Ostello Bello.
“No time for change,” he says.
He has another customer to go pick up. The understanding we had was that we hired the driver for the day, at least for a leisurely trip. Clearly, this wasn't the case, which makes the 50 Kyat seem a bit steep for the drive there and back. Of course, had I known what I was looking at it when I was there, it might have all been worth it.
One legend tells about the scared site tells the story of a brother and sister Mahagiri (Great Mountain) Nats, from the kingdom of Tagaung, who sought refuge from King Thinligyaung of Bagan. Their wish was granted and they were enshrined on Mount Popa.
Another legend I later find tells about Popa Medaw, who was a flower-eating ogress called Me Wunna. She lived on the mountain and fell inin love with Byatta, whose royal duty was to gather flowers from Popa for King Anawrahta of Bagan.
“Byatta was executed for disobeying the king who disapproved of the liaison, and their sons were later taken away to the palace. Me Wunna died of a broken heart and, like Byatta, became a Nat. Their sons also became heroes in the king's service, but were later executed for neglecting their duty during the construction of a pagoda at Taungbyone near Mandalay. They too became powerful Nats but they remained in Taungbyone where a major festival is held annually in the month of Wagaung,” so says the internet.
The wealth of local lore, legend and significance embodied by the site would have no doubt have sent my imagination running through the forests of the mountain, clambering up the steep rocky bhut and deep into Myanmar's spirit world. However, without the context at the time, my eyes missed the details, my mind failed to grasp the significance and my imagination floundered in the obvious.