Sunday 28 April 2013

Monkeys, 777 steps and a taxi driver called Jelly Fish - a day on Mount Popa

Mount Popa is one of the holiest places in the whole of Myanmar. It is a volcano, which peak reaches 1518 meters above the sea level. Located 50 km from Bagan it can be reached by road in around 1 hour. The monastery, located on the top of the mountain hides one of the most fascinating places in Burma. 

I was lucky. During my first day in Bagan I met a wonderful taxi driver, whose English was excellent and the knowledge about his country extensive.
Mr Jelly Fish showed up at 9:00 am on the dot to took me and my fellow travelers to the mountain. Squeezed in his small car, without air con, we were fascinated to hear more about his country and its people.
The hour journey was full of little anecdotes about his private life and his family. It seemed like the time flew by.
On the way we stopped to admire the mountain from afar. The bare rocks with the golden and white monastery on top looked like a castle from a fairy tale.

Mount Popa from afar

One of the main attractions, but also one of the most annoying things, on the mountain are the monkeys. I really wanted Mr Jelly Fish to climb the mountain with us, so we can find out more about monastery, but the drivers usually stay in the cars to defend them from the animals, who can break into cars without any problems.
So, we set off to climb the 777 steps alone.
In Burmese culture 7 is a magical number, which brings luck and good fortune. After around 300 steps I really started to doubt that it will bring me anything, rather than sweat and sore legs. I got a little bit encouragement from the ladies, who looked like they were 100 years old. They giggled a little when they saw my sweaty, red face. At least the monkeys were distracting enough so I didn't have to think about how painful the whole way was.

Little devils!

The mountain is believed to be inhabited by spirits, called Nats. There are 37 of them and their purpose is to guard and protect people. Each village in Myanmar has a little shrine to one of the Nats, but Mount Popa is the actual home to all of them.
The spirits were once human beings, who met violent death. That's why they also have their moods. They can be good to people, or they can punish or turn people's life into misery. That's why it is important to 'buy' their good will. Burmese people not only pay their respects at home, where they keep a small shrine, but once in a while they climb the mountain to leave money or flowers for the spirits.
On the way to the top there are bigger and smaller altars with natural size human manikins, which are personifications of the Nats. At every one of them there is a person, who looks after it and encourages the pilgrims to come and pray to a particular spirit.

One of the shrines

When you climb the mountain you need to remember that talking about someone in a wrong way can be overheard by Nats and bring you bad luck. It is also considered offensive if you wear something black. That's why all of the pilgrims are dressed in their best colorful outfits.

The top of the mountain hides a few small shrines and a spectacular view. Luckily for all of us foreigners,  not accustomed to the heat, it also has an area with a roof, where you can enjoy light breeze and watch the people as they come to pay their respects.

View from the top

A shrine on the top of the mountain

Other useful information:

-You need to leave your shoes at the bottom of the mountain, in a provided locker.
- The monkeys don't only steal valuables, but they also attack people by jumping on their legs and arms, so be careful!
- On the way you'll be bothered by people pretending to be cleaning and asking for money to buy cleaning products. This is a common practice in Myanmar and Burmese people with their good will and hearts often give them change. It is up to you if you want to support the practice.

Mr Jelly Fish is a wonderful person, who will be more than happy to take you for a trip around Bagan. A day costs around $40. His contact details are: 09-402500886, email:
His parents also own a wonderful gift shop in Nyaung Oo: Room No4, Yadanar Booth, Nyaung Oo Market.

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