The temple on the mount
This trip report is relatively short compared to my others on Myanmar, due to the fact there’s not much to see at Mount Popa, other than the temple.
Mount Popa is approx. 53 km east of Bagan and for most people it’s an out of the way location. Because of this most travellers to Myanmar will not bother going there. For those who make the effort it generally means making a day trip from Bagan, with a hired taxi and driver. With a day to spare in Bagan I decided to make the trip to Mount Popa. I arranged my transportation with the travel shop across the road from the Zfreeti hotel, and for 35000 Kyats I got a comfortable taxi and driver for the days outing.
After another enjoyable breakfast in the cool morning air, on the roof top of the Zfreeti Hotel, I was on my way to Mount Popa at 8 am. The scheduled run time to get there was one hour, according to the travel agent, but as with any road travel in Myanmar delays can be expected due to the narrow nature of the roads and the upgrades which seem to be occurring all over the country. An interesting aspect of the road works being carried out in Myanmar is a lot of the construction work is done by hand i.e., the manual distribution of rocks and heated bitumen along the stretches being worked on. And on the way to mount Popa it was no different with piles of rocks at regular intervals along the roadside, and teams of labourers standing around large drums of bitumen being heated by fires. It is all manual labour with very little in the way of machinery to be seen, apart from the occasional heavy road roller or the trucks for hauling the rocks.
NOTE: if you are planning a trip to Mount Popa, be sure to go in the morning as the sunlight will be on the correct side of the peak for getting good shots.
My driver spoke reasonable English and with an hour so to kill before arriving at Mount Popa we passed the time by engaging in a bit of informative conversation about Mount Popa and the area in general. Inevitably, and not from any prompting by me, the conversation turned to the ongoing problems in the Rakhine State. According to my driver the widespread bad publicity Myanmar was getting over the ill treatment of the Rohingya, was having a definite impact on tourism in the country.
“Tourism in Myanmar not so good this year, last year (2016) was better. A lot less tourists coming this year. I think because of the problems in Rakhine.”
Knowing this would be a delicate subject to discuss I didn’t want to push things too far but I was interested in getting a local’s perspective on the situation, as opposed to some one-sided western journalists view.
“So, is it a bad situation over there?”
“Yes, but I think the world news only give one side of the story and make Myanmar look bad. Rakhine is a strong Muslim area, about ninety percent are Muslim. The government try to be patient with them for a long time, but they got organised, and got some weapons, and they attack police stations a lot. In past few years they attack about thirty police station and kill policeman. The government lost patience with them and decide to punish them. Many of them are not Burmese citizen, they come from Bangladesh, because Bangladesh is more poor than Myanmar. They not understand that Myanmar is a Buddhist country and will never become Muslim.”
I had few reasons to doubt what he’d told me, and it certainly gave me something to consider. Just with the ongoing problems in the south of Thailand, there’s always two sides to a story. But the western media, looking for a bad guy and wanting a sensational story which sells, always focus on an easy target; the Burmese government and the army. In their one-sided perspective, they forget to report about the attacks on the local police stations.
After about forty minutes of travel time I got my first glimpse of Mount Popa as we began ascending into elevated terrain. Mount Popa is a huge rock pinnacle, which rises abruptly from the surrounding plains, and sits on the eastern flank of another higher peak. At just after 9 am we arrived at Mount Poppa and, with the sun shining brightly on its vertical, western wall, it was a great time to get some good photos.
Unfortunately the access road, to the entrance stairway at the base of the mountain, was in a chaotic state with roadworks being carried out. At a point approx. 1 km from the entrance my driver told me he was stopping at a parking area, to avoid damage to his vehicle, and I could get a motorbike taxi the rest of the way. That suited me because I could stop off at a couple of viewpoints along the track and at 2000 Kyats for the round trip, the extra cost was hardly worth worrying about.
After getting some good distance shots at a couple of viewpoints, my motorbike taxi driver dropped me at the entrance and told me he’d be back to pick me up at my nominated time. The entrance and the stairway to the top were much like every other temple sites on a peak, I’d been to in Myanmar already. There was a chaotic melee of vendors around the entrance and also running up either the side of the stairway for a good distance. And just like all the previous sites I’d been to, the stairway had a roof over it all the way to the top. My driver had informed me the total number of steps to the top was 777. I asked him if this number had any significance in terms of Buddhism? and he said, “not that he knows of.” It was just the number of steps to the top. A strange twist of fate, for sure.
Once again, and as with all approach stairways to all other temple sites I’d been to in Myanmar, there was the obligatory removal of one’s shoes and socks. After depositing them in a locker box, I began the long ascent. Even though removing one’s shoes and socks is a bit of a pain in the butt, it must be said the locals do a reasonably good job of keeping the stairways clean. Unfortunately, the cleaners who work on the stairway have turned their job into a way of badgering tourists for a handout. At around the midpoint of the flight of stairs they can be seen standing idly about, with a sponge mop in their hands. As soon as you get near them they wave a fistful of local currency at you and ask for “a donation for cleaning?” There’s every possibility they don’t get paid for doing the job and that the handouts they receive from the sightseers is their only means of income. After passing over a couple of 1000 Kyat notes I continued my way to the top. Little did I realise the harassment for “donations” I experienced on the stairway would be replicated in the temple at the top.
NOTE: The stairway to the temple is a very solid cement and steel construction and very safe to walk on. In that regard locals have a done a fantastic job of building something which, on the upper levels, hangs in a very precarious position.
Once you arrive at the top the view is fantastic, especially on a morning with bright clear skies. There is one stairway which leads straight up to the temples and another, to the right, which takes you around the western, outer side of the complex and gives brilliant views across the terrain towards Bagan. There is also a sheer drop to the ground below. From this location the stairway leads into the temple complex proper. It’s a bit of a hodgepodge construction with different rooms at different levels, and stairways leading off to nooks and crannies to be explored. There are three main worship rooms and in each one there is a local sitting on the floor, behind a small table, asking for “donations.” As you approach he’ll point towards a large silver bowl and ask you to contribute. In smaller rooms off to the side, large glass cases filled with paper currency can be seen. To be honest, I found the whole experience to be rather crass when considering what the idea of Buddhism means. I understand they need funding for maintenance and upkeep of the place, but one would think the 3000 Kyat entry fee one pays at the bottom of the stairway would go towards that. When compared with Buddhist temples in Thailand, Myanmar’s approach is a lot more hard-nosed and business oriented. Another thing I found quite amusing was the placards which had been fixed in place showing the names, and the amount given, of those who’ve donated. It seems Buddhist temples in Burma have no issues in advertising for beer bars in Beijing.
Thirty minutes spent looking about (and dodging the requests for donations) was enough for me. The view from the top was great but my own take on whether Mount Popa is worth visiting is about break-even. If you’ve got nothing else to do with your time, then make the trip. Otherwise it’s a bit of a ho-hum sightseeing experience.
TBC in the trip report about Pindaya…….