Located just a short drive away from Bagan, Mount Popa is an extinct volcano rising to over 1,500 meters high. Mount Popa has played a significant role in Myanmar’s culture, religion and history for over 700 years. Its shrine is dedicated to the worship of the 37 Nats, the Burmese ancient animist spirits. Learn about nats and nat worship with your guide as you climb the stairs of 777 steps to the top. The view over the surrounding plains from the top of the volcanic peak is extraordinary.
Mount Popa (and Taung Kalat) are famous all through Myanmar as the nat spirits' home, drawing thousands of worshippers to pay a polite visit to (plus possibly ask for a bold favour of) the nats that reside there. The full moon festival seasons of Nayon (May/June) and Nadaw (Nov/Dec) are mostly very busy periods.
In accordance with tradition, you are neither allowed to put on green, red or black when paying a visit to the mountain nor permitted to bring meat, pork in particular - perhaps in respect to the Muslim sensitivity of Byatta, one of the nats alleged to be residing on the mountain. Climbing to the peak of the rock takes approximately fifteen minutes while exploring the site as a whole takes about one hour or a little longer.
Make sure you stop over at the peculiar Nat Temple, directly opposite the major staircase prior to heading up the steps. You can find somewhat strange near life-size dummies of various nats, positioned next to the shrine's back wall within a glassed-in passageway, with several banknotes stuffed into their hands. Relatively standing at the centre of the gallery is Mai Wunna, the “Queen Mother of Popa”, sandwiched between her sons Min Lay and Min Gyi. Some figures down to the right are the striking Min Kyawzwa, the “Drunken Nat”, placed on top of a horse and decorated with packets of cheroots and rum bottles as a celebration of his wasted life hunting, drinking and cockfighting. Further down is a figure of the elephant-headed Ganesh, one of many gods of Hindu initiated into the Burmese nat pantheon where he is recognised as Maha Peinne.
To the summit
From the temple, go towards the pair of huge white elephants opposite and up the major stairways. There are seven hundred and seventy-seven steps up to the top, enclosed throughout. The lower third of the flight of steps is lined with many stalls, past which is a footwear stall where you are required to leave your foot wears. The trip is interrupted by the never-ending demands for “contributions” for maintenance by residents who keep the steps unsoiled with monkey poo and other debris, even as the monkeys themselves are very much obvious, and keen on grabbing food from the unsuspecting.
There are more nat shrines that dot the staircase going up. The most attractive is the one immediately on top of the footwear stall, marked “Nat Nan”, showing a display of nats with useful English symbols. From left to right figures here comprise Myin Phyu Shin (aka Aung Zawmagyi, “Lord of the White Horse”), a messenger that was allegedly executed for being too slow in delivering a vital royal communiqué, together with a family group showing Byatta and also two figures of his sons and wife.
Growing just to the east of Taung Kalat, the densely wooded slopes of the Mount Popa massif (1518m) include the battered remnants of a huge, dead stratovolcano, topped with a massive volcanic crater some 850m deep and 1.6km wide. Frequently depicted as the Mount Olympus of Myanmar, the massif continues to be regarded as the religious abode of the four Mahagiri nats of the country and the nat shrine approximately in the middle of the mountain is still considered a well-liked pilgrimage place.
Various tracks twist through the forest wrapping the mountainside, which is the abode of many orchids and plentiful vegetation. It is believed that the name Popa comes from the Pali/Sanskrit puppa, which means flower, plus flowers become largely visible in the local myth of Byatta and Mai Wunna. Reaching the summit takes about four hours - you can arrange for guides through the Popa Mountain Resort, midway up the mountain.