They were everywhere, cluttering the staircases leading up Mount Popa. A mother held her baby close to her chest as we walked by, eyeing us curiously and suspiciously. A child slid recklessly down the banister. A portly fellow, slumped on the ground, longingly following with droopy eyes the motion of my bag, which I tucked tighter to my body.
Three friends huddled together, combing each other’s hair. Their deft fingers caught stray lice between thumb and forefinger and popped them into their mouths before the critters could escape.
Mount Popa, near the temple town of Bagan, is known just as much for its primate inhabitants as it is for the golden temple that adorns the summit. From afar, the mountain stands incongruous with its surroundings. At 737 metres, it rises rigidly from the Myingyan plain. It is a part of the greater Popa Mountain Park, which is home to an extinct volcano, but Mt Popa is a stand-alone volcanic plug.
The golden Buddhist temple atop the mountain is what everyone goes to see. But to reach it, you have to scale the 777 steps to the top, watchful of the monkeys keen to claim your personal belongings. There is plenty to keep you amused.
Various shops sell wooden chalices, vases, cups, serving spoons and boxes, and shirts of all colours and patterns intoning “Remember Mt Popa” (going for roughly $2.50, but unlike Shwezigon Pagoda, the shop keepers languidly watch you pass without any sales pressure). Men armed with brooms mop the stairs clean of monkey poop and then stick out a hand for a “donation”. Children sell peanuts bundled in newspaper to feed the monkeys, who riot on the tin roofs overhead.
The atmosphere seems far removed from the temple’s raison-d’être. Mount Popa’s original inhabitants are not the monkeys, nor the hermits and Buddhist monks who occupy the mountain now. This sentinel above the plains is home to Myanmar’s famous spirits, the 37 nats, of whom the Mother Goddess of Popa is most revered.
Mt Popa’s Mother Goddess
It is said that in the tenth century, a captive princess called Wunna Thanegi was transported to Bagan after her brother King Manuha was taken prisoner by Anawrahta, King of Bagan. The princess escaped into the woods and to evade capture, she used meditative powers to change her appearance into that of an ogress.
Here, she met Byatta, one of the soldier heroes of Bagan. They fell in love and she soon gave birth to twin boys. The grown sons served the king, but were executed for a slight misdemeanour. Their mother died of a broken heart. The mountain is haunted by her spirit; her bitterness prevented her from gaining the natural circle of rebirth.
There was almost a sense of eerie magic in the air: here we were, in a place where heroes once trod, ogres stalked, and red-clad Zawgyi, the magician alchemist of the forest, frolicked with the nympths they had created out of thu-yaung fruits with a wave of their wands – Ma Thanegi, The Native Tourist
Today the nats are represented as bizarre shop mannequins, bedecked in spiritual regalia. Before them are offerings of bananas, rolled kyat notes, and items of personal taste for each nats (the guardian nat of drunkards, for example, is given flasks of Johnny Walker). Nat shrines are placed at various points along the stairs, the arrangements like some kind of pagan nativity scene.
Today, Buddha has claimed the mountain for his own. At the top is a split-level complex of Buddhism shrines. We had it to ourselves, except for the keepers of each shrine, who bunked down on mattresses beside Buddha’s representation and either ignored us or called for donations.
The temple is much like any Buddhist building, with large tiles dedicated to donators from the world over and the omnipresent serene Buddha statues looking over you from niches and inner rooms.
The view is spectacular as well, but for some reason I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the monkeys. They seemed to think nothing of the temple other than as a fun playground. A local groundsman threatened them with a well-aimed slingshot and the mere sight of him sent them screeching and scarpering down the hill.
Monks and monkeys. Cleaners, gatekeepers and shopkeepers. Nat mannequins and Buddha casts. Mount Popa seems like a place where insanity congregates. Yet like local author Ma Thanegi said in The Native Tourist, there really is something about this place, a sense of eerie magic…
More of Myanmar
Found out how much I love this country by perusing some of my other Burmese travel stories: