Travelblog#10: Mount Popa & Monywa – Burma

9th-11th September, 2014

For our last day in the Bagan area we went out on a trip to Mount Popa; a sight famous in Burma for being a centre for nat worship.

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The nats (literal translation; “spirits”) originate from spiritual traditions which existed in Burma before the rise of Buddhism, and it was an area that I wanted to explore as I have always been very drawn towards animist traditions.

To get there we were crammed into a very crowded pickup and the journey took over three hours. When we reached Popa we discovered that the streets were very busy, which surprised us, as we had heard that Mount Popa was a fairly low-key attraction that only received a steady trickle of visitors.

A little confused, we began making our way towards the base of the mountain by foot. Dozens and dozens of buses and motorbikes, crammed with people, drove past us. We tried to ask some of the locals why there so many of them, but none of them knew enough English to be able to explain.

Eventually we saw a group of other western tourists, but they were walking in the opposite direction.

“What’s going on?” we asked.

“It’s crazy up there,” one of them said, shaking his head. “We tried to go up… but it’s too crowded!”

“It’s like India back there,” a girl added, thumbing behind her shoulder.

“We’re leaving,” the guy then said, just before they walked away. “Good luck!”

We were a little bit disheartened, but we carried on walking. We passed a few more backpackers along the way who had also given up.

We saw why when we reached this scene:

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But we decided that as had already made it this far we might as try, and so, we began negotiating our way through chaos. We passed a small temple along the way where some kind of weird party was going on.

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“They were right, you know. This is very much like being in India,” Roy said. “It’s noisy, there’s too many people, and, most of all, I don’t have a fucking clue what’s going on.”

We eventually reached the bottom of the steps leading up to the monastery, but the ordeal was far from over. We still had to squeeze our way through this crowd:

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It did take us a while, but we managed it. When we reached the top there were some pleasant views of the surrounding area and, most importantly, some very interesting nat shrines.

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In the centre platform devotees were placing offerings of bananas and coconuts: the spiritual essence of the fruits were being bequeathed to the nats.

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But, clearly, their physical representations were destined to be consumed by a resident gang of macaques.

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There was one shrine in particular which seemed to be a special focus of attention. People were crowding around it and they were taking it in turns to walk up to a golden statue of a man, so they could place an offering of money into his hat or collar. They would then pray, and some would even tenderly press their forehead or hands upon him.

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After watching this for a while we eventually met a someone who spoke a little English. He explained to us that the statue was “Boe Min Khaung”, and the reason everyone was here that day was because it was his sixty-second anniversary. Anniversary of what, we couldn’t quite get out of him. We did get him to write the name down, though, in the hope it would help us shed light upon it later.

So – who was Boe Min Khaung?

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I am not completely sure, to be honest. I searched online and only found one short reference, where he is described as; “the one famous of having magical power”. If you look closely at the photo above, though, you’ll see that next to the statue there is a picture of a man who bears a resemblance to him so, I am going to hazard a guess, and say that he was once a living person who somehow rose to the status of a demi-god sometime before or after his death. That would probably explain it being his “anniversary”, as well.

We went to visit more nat shrines on our way back down: it was less crowded by then so it was much easier.

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In some ways it was annoying that we happened to come to Mount Popa when it was crammed with so many people, because it meant that we were unable to find ourselves an English speaking guide to teach us some of the folklore surrounding the nats, but, in another sense it was a blessing, because it was an interesting event to observe. There were definitely some peculiar energies on the mountain that day.

The following morning we moved on and ventured north, to Monywa; a town three hours away. We arrived at around lunchtime, which gave us just enough time to go out on a sightseeing tour in afternoon. We began by visiting Thanboddhay Pagoda, which was one of the most impressive modern temples I have seen in Burma so far.

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The interior was like a maze, with gold and black Buddha statues stationed in almost every corner. There were also thousands of mini  effigies of Buddha perched upon the upper shelves.

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It is estimated that there are over five thousand Buddha’s in that temple, in all, but I don’t think they have ever managed to find out a definite number.

And, if that isn’t enough Buddha for you, then check this out:

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Bodhi Tataung – which we visited just before dusk. The Buddha at the front is 95 meters long, while the one at the back is 129 meters high – making it the second tallest statue in the world.

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While we were in Monywa I did not see any other white people, so it seems that not many foreigners make the detour – which is surprising, as it is not very far away from Mandalay and it has some pretty decent attractions. I am guessing the lack of visitors probably has something to do with the fact that Monywa has very poor options when it comes to accommodation. We were forced to cough up $18 a night for a depressing, dingy room with red stains on the walls where past guests had been spitting out betel nut – and it felt a bit like we were being robbed.

Being the cheapest guest house in a town which lacks competition comes with a special kind of privilege, and the owners of Shwe Taung Taun Hotel have turned stretching the limits of that privilege into something an art form: they simply just do not care. They know people will stay with them anyway because they have no other choice.

Maybe one day someone in Monywa will learn that guests might stay in town for more than just one night if you make things pleasant for them and don’t rip them off, because the town itself is quite pleasant.

The following morning we left, hopping upon a saunabus which was heading east.

There are lots of photos of both Mount Popa and Monywa available on my Flickr account.

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