Bagan---magnificent, breathtaking, with serendipity at every turn—it’s one of the handful of world heritage sites that can make you tremble with appreciation. That said, too much time there can possibly lead to a case of Buddha and stupa fatigue. When you log many dozens of different Buddha statues a day, even though each might have a lot of distinct personality, they do tend to melt together after a while. For that reason alone-- and it is not the only one—taking a half+ day excursion to nearby Mount Popa is a recommendation to break up your time in Bagan into more manageable doses.
The Road Trip Begins
Just getting out of the tourist ghetto of Bagan has immediate rewards. We hired a car and driver for the two+ hour trip (i.e. half+ day for the visit and return) and loved the scenes of everyday life that we passed along the way.
One curiosity that borders on disturbing is the great numbers of beggars that you encounter as you get close to the mountain, all seemingly evenly spaced from one another, and perhaps taking advantage of the superstitions of the many pilgrims who take those roads to pay homage to the spirits that live there.
(Note: you can do the same trip by truck for less money, but you lose flexibility on when you come /go and the taxi hire only cost us about US$13.)
Mount Popa is actually an extinct volcano. The town at its feet doesn’t strike as anything special until you venture into the Mother Spirit Nat shrine and begin to take in the Nat universe and how it sheds light on how and why the Buddhism of your friends back home seems to be from another universe than that found in Burma.
Don’t Offend the Nats!
Nats are spirits that you have to bend over backwards not to offend. Most came to be spirits because their once mortal life came to a violent end. They guard things and they do have a temper that differs from ever-forgiving and enlightened Buddha. You will see many offerings to the nats—they don't look pleased and that's the reason why you are supposed to give them generous offerings that will put you in their good graces. If you don't placate them you will suffer the consequences of their rage.
Visually striking and all with personality, each of these nats (Burmese spirits) has his or her own story. Some of the spirits are smaller in stature, but that doesn't signify that they have less power. New Yorkers and others exposed to Puerto Rican culture may be struck by the similarity of Burmese Nat mannequins to those you see in the window of Santeria stores. To many, they will also look like somewhat threatening carousel figures.
You will see that the multi-colored regalia of the nats are quite distinct from the simpler Buddhas.
THE thing to get is that Burmese Buddhism coexists with the animist superstitions of nats. They are not competing religions but rather of a piece in terms of the spiritual mindset.
Guidebooks may tell you to hire a guide to tutor you in nat mythology and all things nat. That would have advantages, but the unadulterated visual banquet of wall-to-wall nats or nats tucked in between Buddha disciples has its plus side too.
From your nat short course you cross the street and begin the 777-step climb to the Buddhist monastery atop Mount Popa.
Leave your Western notions of sanitation behind because you must go barefoot and even if you are meticulous to avoid monkey droppings you are in anything but an aseptic environment. Tip: bring saniwipes because you might be able to delay washing your feet until you get back to your hotel but you will need to sip some water before then and you’ll want clean, or relatively clean hands.
The monkeys do startle a bit when they break out into a cacophony of scampering on the metal roof along the climbing path.
Long Hike Up
The journey up is a time to make friends with shared smiles. No matter how old you are, you will likely encounter someone older, even though that doesn’t seem mathematically possible. Buddhist shrines compete with monkeys for your attention. Shoe storage fees are collected and you’ll meet several people who are accepting donations, such that you have to repeatedly invoke your prior payments lower down the hill.
Views from the Top
In the anteroom of the monastery at the peak there is an expansive and cool marble floor where members of large families and other groups seem to linger to wait for their stragglers to arrive.
You may read that the views aren’t all that spectacular. They are enough to give an acrophobe a pause. It’s fun to hit a supersized gong you’ll find there. Better, it is a restful place to let the sunset settle around you, although our timing was a bit lacking. (You don’t need an English speaking driver but it is advised to have a translator up front before you leave Bagan to make it understood that you want to stay atop the mountain until sunset.)
Why to Visit Mt. Popa
Don’t go to Mount Popa for views. Go because you want to take in the world of nats long enough to make you aware of how little you really understand of the Burmese Buddhist mindset around you.