From the village below we could see golden stupas glimmering high above on top of a tall shear rocky outcrop. We had heard of this unusual monastery where locals come to worship spirit nats in colourful shrines.
Mt. Popa is an extinct volcano not far from Bagan, Myanmar. Precariously perched on top of one of its volcanic plugs are the nat worshipping shrines of Popa Taungkalat Monastery. A long staircase with 777 steps climbs the shear walls of the rocky outcrop taking you to the top, 225 m above. The steps are covered by a roof to protect you from the strong Myanmar sun.
These steps are also home to frisky short-tailed macaque monkeys. They hang around the steps hoping for food from tourists. Reports were to watch your belongings from these little thieves, but we found them to be playful rather than aggressive, especially compared to other monkeys we’ve encountered. One cute baby was trying to get Richard’s attention by tugging on his pant leg. As with most temples in Myanmar you have to remove your shoes and the steps can be dirty from monkey droppings so watch where you step.
This monastery’s interesting location alone would make it a worthwhile visit, but it had something else we were curious to see. Before Buddhism was widely practiced, people in parts Myanmar practiced a form of animism spirit worshipping, called ‘nat’ worshipping. In the 12th century when the king converted the country to Buddhism, he let these people continue their tradition of nat worshiping along with Buddhism. It is still an important componenet of Buddhism in many places today including around Mt. Popa. There are 37 main nats. They represent spirits of real people who died tragic deaths. Shrines have been erected in their honour. It is these shrines that really set the monastery apart from others. The shrines include unusual statues of nats dressed in bright clothing and posed as if they are alive. The shrines often have colourful decorations and flashing lights. Worshippers leave flowers, money and food in front of the shrines. Most of the nats are guardians of a certain aspect of life. A favourite is the drunken nat, who protects drunks and gamblers.
Surrounding the the monastery are dozens of gold and white Buddhist stupas typical in a Myanmar monastery. Their grandeur seems to contrast the flourescent colours of the shrines.
Being on the top of a tall pinnacle gives you lovely views of the surrounding valley. We were able to enjoy a pretty pink sunset in a smokey sky.
The drive between Bagan and Mt. Popa takes you through mountain villages many of whom have palm sugar ‘factories’. We stopped at one and were astounded by the antiquated equipment and techniques that they still use today. It was hard to believe that it wasn’t a museum, but a working shop. There was an ox-driven press and an open fire where they were boiling down the sap. The small alcohol stills sat in the open and dripped moonshine into bottles.
The shop made candy, alcohol, syrup and vinegar from palm sugar. We bought some tamarind candy. It was really tasty, so their old equipment still does a good job.
Getting to Mt. Popa
Mt. Popa is 60 km from Bagan. Many tour companies in New Bagan offer day trips to Mt. Popa.
Tips for visiting Popa Taungkalat Monastery
As in all temples in Myanmar you have to remove your shoes once you reach the temple grounds. On Mt. Popa you remove them after 200 of the 777 steps. You must dress in temple attire which means knees and shoulders must be covered. There is a small entrance fee.
Coming Next – Trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake
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