Thursday, April 30, 2009

Climbing 777 Steps to Mystical Mount Popa

Mount Popa. Buddhist Monastery on Taung Kalat. This photo only courtesy of Ralf-Andre Lettau.

Mount Popa is a dreamer's destination. Located 50 kilometers south of Bagan's Nyaung U township, I hired a van to punish myself once more. Climbing 777 steps on barefoot doesn't sound so inviting for me, but cogitate on this. Popa, which literally means "flower", is the center of Nats worship - animism religion - that pervades this barren region. A monastery of half a dozen temples rise on top of an extinct volcano that stands almost vertical (instead of the usual inverted cone that we're used to). On your way up, frisky macaque monkeys litter the steps, the roof, the side rails. Don't leave anything on the floor - or just bid them farewell forever! They populate your arduous path and whisk away with all that they can grab. Along the steps are vendors selling bottled yellow flowers that devotees offer to the gods. All I had to offer was a barrel of sweat and diligence. Myalgia notwithstanding, the view from above is breath-taking.

Suddenly, the arid surroundings turn into an idyllic canvas of earth and greens, and blots of golden stupas that arise from everywhere within your 360 degree view. It is a spectacle.

If I sound relatively pleased, wait up I am not done - I haven't even mentioned an earlier sidetrip to a shanty in the middle of the dusty terrain called nowhere. My mind was blaring, uh-oh - another shop hardselling goods to stupid tourists. But no! How wrong could I be? Everywhere you looked was a parched land. An old guy started entertaining me, giving me the lowdown on wine-making, juice extraction, peanut-wine grating (a cow grinds the peanuts around and around until the sap is extracted then fermented - I never realized peanuts had juice). I was in awe. Suddenly this barren place that God forgot didn't seem so. This was nature's bounty. A singular toddy palm tree turns into a stool, a table, a couch that looked like bamboo stacks, a wine, an alcohol, a roof, and - my favorites - the toddy palm juice (so sweet!) and the palm sugar curdled into a chestnut-sized candy! Then they gave me 2 small bags full of this palm sugar candy - "our gift," they said! I've never been so glad to hand in a "donation".

I still carry those "small bags" of candy with me - less 7 pieces.

This is the Eye in the Sky in a giddy hyperglycemic state, and reaching to the heavens from Mount Popa.

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