We have a lot to thank Buddhism for. Such as mindfulness, tolerance, the teachings of the Dali Llama, and learning to find contentment without wealth.
And absolutely magical and downright mind boggling structures, which I’d happily gaze at for hours on end. A paya made of 27 metric tons of gold in Yangon? A monastery balancing precariously on the side of a 3000ft cliff in Bhutan? The insane-looking Borobudur in Central Java (which you can read more about here)? The Buddhists built them.
There seems to be this unwritten rule in Myanmar that any high, craggy or generally awkward geographical feature needs a big holy golden stupa, magical rock or temple balanced on the top. Next to Mount Popa, which is actually the big mountain, sits Taung Kalat: an old volcanic plug made of solidified lava in central Myanmar, 50km from the Bagan complex. It’s home to a monastery and a collection of Nat temples and pagodas which sit right on top of it.
Many people believe that the monastery-topped pinnacle itself is Mount Popa; indeed, we did for most of our travels. So for this purpose I’m sticking to referring to this otherworldly sight as Mount Popa. It has a nicer ring to it anyway.
I’m so glad Matt and I stumbled across a snap of Mount Popa on Instagram whilst conducting research via Myanmar hashtags about where to explore and what to do in the country. Despite some people claiming it’s a bit underwhelming, I’d say it’s 100% worth the half-day trip from Bagan to Mount Popa, so long as the weather is good.
The 777 steps up the steep banks of Popa are always loaded with pilgrims and monks, and guarded by cheeky monkeys who will snatch anything off you given half the chance. Be careful with cameras, iPhones and especially water bottles!
There are numerous crazy myths and legends that surround Mount Popa’s volcanic plug, including one that it’s the Mount Olympus of Myanmar. All 37 great nats (spirits worshipped by Buddhists specifically in Myanmar) are represented there, and you can find funny, colourful idols and ornaments symbolising them all around it.
Something about Mount Popa resonated so deeply with me. It had every little bit of the otherworldly charm and colourful, confusing pockets and shrines to explore that I’d envisaged for so long in the build up to travelling Asia. On a clear day, the temple-topped pinnacle of rock looks like it’s straight out of a fairytale, and from the top, you can see Bagan far in the distance. It wouldn’t look out of place in a children’s book, or on a biscuit tin!
Getting to Mount Popa
Our journey from Bagan to Mount Popa was wonderful, since it allowed us a good eyeful of Burmese village-life outside of the tourist hotspots. Ox-drawn carts rattled past, grain was being ground by the roadside by a traditional method using cattle, and every kid we saw smiled and waved. If you’re thinking of visiting Myanmar, visit soon. Visit before 2017. Because for the time being, it’s one of the last remaining countries you can visit where it genuinely feels like you’ve stepped back in time.
It’s pretty easy to travel from Bagan to Mount Popa using public transport. Busses and the local trucks (resembling Thai songthaews) from Bagan to Mount Popa depart from Nyuang U bus station, and cost between 1000 and 3000 kyat per person. The journey will take up to an hour and a half, and you might have to change in Kraug Pradang (note that K’s are pronounced ‘ch’).
If you’re money-rich and time-poor (or just horrifically hungover after a Mandalay beer binge like Matt was), a driver for the day will set you back between 30,000 and 40,000 kyat, but allows you more flexibility: for example, you can stop off in local villages along the way like we did, and find some stunning vantage points of Mount Popa.
I don’t remember paying an entrance fee to get into Mount Popa, however I’ve read reports online it is around $5US.
I’d suggest rising early: perhaps head straight from a sunrise over the temples of Bagan to Mount Popa, to avoid climbing in the heat of the day. We visited in April and the heat was mad.
“Those who don’t believe in magic will simply never find any…”