I’m Climbing That??

Bagan, Myanmar


So on Wednesday morning I got up and started watching the election results. By 8:30 a.m. I did not like the direction the results seemed to be going. Fortunately for me, my guide and driver arrived just in time to save me from further agony. Today we were taking a 1 1/2 hour drive outside of Bagan to Mt. Popa. Mt. Popa is the most popular location in the country for “Nat” worship. Nats are spirits worshipped in Myanmar in conjunction with Buddhism. However, Nat worship actually predates Buddhism and going back to 9th Century. At some point the two religions merged and Nat worship became part of Buddhism in Myanmar.

There are 37 primary “Nats” each having been a human being in a prior life who was either murdered or met some kind of violent death. The Nats are protectors of various facets of life like safety, health, good luck and on. It is common in Myamar’s rural areas to have statutes of Nats in temples and pagodas where people go to pray. In addition, there are nnual festivals to celebrate Nats.

So the temple at the top of Mt. Popa Popa Tuang Kyat Temple, is home to the 37 primary Nats. The temple is accessed by climbing 777 steps to the top and sits at 2,718 feet above sea level. Mt. Popa is part of a range mountains and includes an extinct volcano named Taung Ma-gyi, which sits some 2,000 feet higher than Mt. Popa.

Anyway, I was going to climb 777 feet to the top with my stitched leg and all. I was hoping for some cool weather, but given the unusual heat and humidity in the Bagan area, I was not optimistic.

So we left the election behind and began the drive to Mt. Popa. Along the way, Zaw advised that we would be stopping at one of the local palm sugar operations that are set up along the road where they make local moonshine and candy from the sap of the toddy palm.

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Making palm oil

It was about a half hour into the trip when Mr. Tin pulled over to a little operation. The operation was really basic. There were four or five people working different areas of the little business, which consisted of nothing more than a three sided building with a palm leaf room.

So first up we watched an ox walk around in a circular path grinding the palm sap into palm oil. The remains were used to feed the animals with some of the palm oil is used for salads and other palm oil is used for cooking.

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Collecting the palm juice

Next we saw a guy scale a toddy palm all the way to the top to recover the two large bowls into which palm fruit were dripping their juices. He then replaced the two bowls, tied the full bowls to his waist, made new cuts in the fruit and shimmied back down the tree. That will keep you in shape.

We then went under the little lean to and met a woman stirring palm sap boiling in large “woks” over an open flame. The process begins with low heat and ratchets all the way up to a full boil. It takes two hours of constant stirring in the full boil process, but you are eventually left with a sticky substance in which they add coconut, butter, or sesame to make candy.

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Making palm candy

And last but not least, we saw the local stil where palm sap is distilled in what can only be described as a traditional local moonshine. Drip, drip, drip. At this point, given the election process I was all about the booze.

While I was learning about all of the palm oil processes, a young couple began to tag along with me and Zaw. “Reece and Emma” were from Britain and absolutely lovely. They were asking me about the election and commiserating because they had just experience the pain of Brexit and were appalled by their nation’s choice just as much as I was appalled by America’s choice.

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Making moonshine

By the time we got to the tasting section, we were all about taking a few shots of the moonshine. So … cheers to international relations. In addition to the booze (and let me tell you it was “bitter beerface” every time I took a shot) we threw in some candy tastings to boot. It turned in to a real good time and if all the candy and if booze weren’t enough, after we made some purchases (no booze for me), we ended up being served a seaweed salad with palm oil, sesame and peanuts along with some green tea.

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Seaweed, peanut and palm oil snack (YUM)

Reece, Emma and I then began to talk about the US Election and Brexit and when we decided we had thoroughly depressed ourselves, we changed the subject and began to talk about travel. Turns out that Reece and Emma were six weeks into a year long trip around the world. You can imagine my interest in that kind of trip. While I admit I was really envious of the coming months for these two, it was an absolute blast to hear about their plans and where they were going in the world. Good for them! So in the end, my morning turned out to be much more fun than when it started out.

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Brits Reece and Emma

And as luck would have it, Reece and Emma were also headed to Mt. Popa with a driver, but no guide so they both said they would likely see me at the top. So onward to Mt. Popa.

The drive from the palm oil operation to Mt. Popa took just about 45 minutes as we meandered along roads in need of repair through little villages and past person after person sitting on the side of the road with their hands out. I had no clue what was going on because up until this point in the trip, I had seen very little begging. I came to learn that the pilgrims going to Mt. Popa to pay homage to the Nats bring with them extra money, bananas and other fruits to hand out to the local people, who are among the poorest in the state. This has led to a cavalcade of begging in a two or three mile stretch along the road. It was very, very sad to see.

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Mt. Popa with temple at the top

Eventually, the road began to wind up a small hillside, and I could see Mt. Popa and the volcano in the distance. Damn it looked really high! Just before the town of Popa, we stopped at a little shrine where I was able to take pictures of the staircase and top of Mr. Popa … again it looked really, really high. In addition to the viewpoint, there were various statutes of Buddah and guardians like my favourite little ogres and very depressing statute of Buddah at the end of his time under the Banyan tree (for years he had only subsisted on rain water and the occasional plant). The statute looked like he had been living in the middle of a famine. Gesh.

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Ogres near Mt. Popa

So after the brief stop, followed by a bathroom break, it was time to take on Mt. Popa. We pulled up to the staircase that would led up to the top, climbed about 50 steps in my sandals past a myriad of vendors before we reached the point we had to remove our shoes and climb the remainder in bare feet. Ugh. Now at this point, I had kind of become impervious to removing my shoes and walking on the bare rocks, stones and concrete. However, the big ugh factor here was that the staircase and temple were literally overrun with monkeys, and there was monkey poo everywhere despite the best efforts of the local “helpers” to keep the stairs clean.

Now these monkeys were little buggers. They jumped on people, grabbed food, grabbed glasses and grabbed water bottles so it was away with everything, off with the sandals and hope for the best.

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I’m climbing this!

The hike was a series of staircases built to left and right with some stairs leading straight up with a brutal incline. The portions of the staircase left and right had a much friendlier gradient. Fortunately there were railings on either side of the staircase so as you hiked up, you could hold on for balance on the slick stairs. At the end of every 50 to 75 steps there was a small rest area where folks were cleaning poo off the steps, looking for donations to the temple or selling water. At one point in one of the little rest areas there were folks sitting having lunch out these little tins in which they carry their rice and veggies.

The tough part of the climb was the humidity, it was brutal. My light blue t-shirt was literally soaked with sweat and my eyes stung from the dripping into my eyes. I don’t think I had ever been this hot. We stopped once on the way up so I could drink a cold bottle of water and then it was onward.

The other part that was tough is that the staircase was covered in a tin roof and every so often you would hear a crash and clatter as the monkeys jumped on the roof overhead. Fortunately, the monkeys were completely ignoring us as we climbed.

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At the top of Mt. Popa

We finally reached the top after what seemed like forever, but actually turned out to be only 20 minutes. WOW. That might have been the longest 20 minutes of my life. I did a little victory dance at the top, and as I was standing there with arms raised who should we run into but Reece and Emma. Cool.

Since Reece and Emma were without a guide, I agreed to let them come along as Zaw and I wandered around and he gave a brief history about Nats and the temple. I will say that while the temple was little underwhelming, the stupa was beautiful and the views from the top were fantastic. Totally worth the hike up.

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Stupa at Mt. Popa

The unfortunate part, is that there were some other tourists at the top and every one of them wanted to know my thoughts about the election. All I could do was shake my head and tell them I thought it was a disaster for America and the world. I did not find anyone who disagreed with me.

So with Mt. Popa conquered, Zaw and I said goodbye to Reece and Emma and made the much faster hike down. This time, though, there were hordes of monkeys everywhere so I kept one hand around my bag, my sunglasses in my front pocket and my free hand in another pocket. I was not going to be attacked by a monkey.

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View from the top of Mt. Popa to the dormant volcano
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Proof I made to the top

As we neared the bottom, I spotted a small monkey cleaning a blue toy monkey (seriously). The little bugger must have grabbed the toy monkey from one of the vendors and was now treating it like its child by picking whatever it could off the toy (which is how monkeys clean one another). It was fascinating, and I simply had to have a picture. I quickly pulled out my camera, snapped the picture and moved on without an attack.

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Monkey playing with a monkey

We finally reached the shoe depository and the place was overrun with monkeys. I sat down and tried to clean my feet while two monkeys hovered over my head. Uh … I think I’m done here. I’ll clean my shoes in the car. So with that, Zaw and I finished the hike back down and made our way across the street to pay homage to the Nat shrine. I quickly found that my favourite Nat was Lord Kyawswa (aka Drunk Nat), who spent his his time cockfighting and drinking. He is apparently the guardian of gamblers and drunks. We found his statute and he was sitting on a horse surround by bottles of booze. Somehow paying respect to Lord Kyawswa this morning seemed appropriate given that the drinking seemed the best way to forget the nightmare going on in the U.S.

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Lord Kyawswa (aka Drunk Nat)

By now it was after 1:00 p.m. and time to head to Salay, which is a 12th century town about 20 miles outside of Bagan. It was apparently home to 50 plus monasteries, but less than 20,000 residents. Now that is a lot of monasteries for very few people. My only purpose for going to Salay was to see the teak monastery known as Youqson Kyaung Buddhist Monastery built between 1882 to 1892. Now had I known it was going to take almost two hours to drive from Mt. Popa to Salay and then another hour to drive back to Bagan, I probably would not have asked to go there (my bad).

Nevertheless, off we set through village after village, past day markets, horse carts and roads in the middle of renovation or construction.  (Construction by hand mind you.   Fill a basket with rocks, dump and refill….) We passed through a myriad of toll checkpoints, which seemed to me to be just a license to extort since each checkpoint was simply one or two guys at a checkpoint with their hands out. No accounting for funds, no records, no nothing. I told Zaw it seemed like an easy way to earn a pretty good living and he laughed.

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Widening the road by hand

The biggest hazard on the road was the large petrol trucks. One of the areas between Mt. Popa and Salay was oil country (including active, pumping wells). These trucks were taking fuel to China and they were hell bent on getting there in the fastest manner possible. The best thing Mr. Tin did was as soon as he saw a petal trucking coming, he simply pulled over and waited for the truck to barrel by. I wondered how many of these guys ended up crashing. Zaw had no idea.

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Palm trees in the middle of a flooded plain

At one point, we passed a flooded plain filled with palm trees and we stopped for a picture. It was unbelievable to see all the palms surrounded by water. Zaw said that the rainy season had ended late this year and normally the water had receded by now, but based on my experience in Myanmar, the rainy season still had not ended. It was a regular occurrence for it to rain over night here. Fortunately, I only had one really rain day the whole time in the country and that was my first day in Yangon. The rest of the time, it had been sunny, partly cloudy or morning cloud giving way to afternoon sun. No matter the forecast, it was always hot and muggy.

So we finally reached Salay and I have to say that the monastery was simply not worth the trip. While it was pretty, it did not come anywhere close to the two teak monasteries I saw on my trip to Mandalay and Inwa. However, all was not lost. As I wandered around, I found an elderly man sitting at a table painting. He was very talented. He would take a blob of tar like paint, put it on a sheet of paper, take a sharp tip pen like instrument and begin to carve a picture from the paint. It was fascinating to watch. I found a couple of lovely pictures and all he wanted for the pictures were 5,000 kyat and 2,000 kyat. The total of about $5. Seriously?? I felt bad agreeing to such a small amount so I gave him 10,000 kyat and called it good. I am sure I was the only sale of the day as there was no one else in sight, so hopefully my sale made it a good day for him.

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Monestary at Salay

With my purchases in hand, we got back in the car and made the 1 hour drive back to Bagan. While it was only 20 miles, the trip was long because the roads were not the best. However, we made it back to Bagan just as the sun was setting so the final couple miles was lovely as I stared at the changing sky as a backdrop to the temples and pagodas that dotted the area. It had been, however, a loooong day.

Once back at my lovely little hotel, I confirmed the worst by checking the CNN website. I sat and sobbed in the dark. I can’t ever remember feeling genuine fear and uncertainty after an election. After sitting in the dark staring into nothing, I finally collected myself and joined some Americans from Colorado and Berkeley who were drinking and commiserating about Rome burning. We were soon joined by some Brits, Germans and French tourists who all shook their heads, expressed concern and wondered what would become of the world. It was was a rough day for humanity.

Author: lawyerchick92

I am a lawyer by trade, but long to be a full time traveller. My life changed for the better when my brother donated a kidney to me on October 14, 2002.

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