The photos of the Popa Taungkalat monastery looked very enticing on the travel websites. As a result, I was excited to visit during my trip to Myanmar. However, I also decided to climb nearby Mount Popa on the same day I visited Taungkalat. Climbing Mount Popa is a most exhilarating experience, indeed I was a little surprised that Popa Taungkalat ended up being a side show.
This double adventure is an easy day trip from Bagan. But be careful when you book your ride to avoid confusing your driver.
Apparently some confusion exists between the two destinations. To be sure, Popa Taungkalat monastery is the temple complex sitting on a 737 meter high volcanic outcropping.
Mount Popa is the 1509 meter mountain adjacent to Popa Taungkalat. Also know as Taung Ma-Gyi, Mount Popa towers over the plains of Bagan and also Popa Taungkalat. To clarify, they are mutually exclusive, Mount Popa is not the volcanic outcropping with the iconic temple perched on top. The confusion arises because visitors also refer to Popa Taungkalat as Mount Popa monastery.
Legend of Mount Popa’s Nats
In Myanmar, there are some notable people who were done great injustice during their lives and/or died horrible deaths. As result, they have remained in the earthly realm after their death as powerful spirits called – “nats” or native spirits – similar to ghosts. Although they are not gods, they can do humans great harm if angry or bring good fortune when appeased. Mount Popa is the heavenly abode for four of these important nats.
Their origin is in ancient Bagan. King Anawrahta would send one of his servants named – Byatta – on a daily mission to Mount Popa to gather flowers. While climbing Mount Popa one day, Byatta met a flower eating ogress named – Mai Wunna – who lived on the mountain slopes. Their romance resulted in the king receiving his flowers later in the day. Unfortunately, the King had a fierce temper and Byatta was executed for neglecting his duties.
After the death of Byatta, it was revealed that he had two sons with Mai Wunna. As a result, the king felt remorseful and invited Byatta’s two sons – Min Gyi and Min Lay – to live in the king’s palace. Unfortunately, they were also executed when they failed to contribute bricks for the construction of a new pagoda.
When climbing Mount Popa, visitors should be aware that they are accompanied by these four powerful Burmese nats – Mai Wunna, Byatta, Min Gyi and Min lay.
Climbing Mount Popa
The trailhead is located near the Popa Mountain Resort which is located inside Mount Popa National Park – about a 90 minute drive from Bagan. Take a left at the fork in the trail about 300 meters from the trail head and you are on your way.
Indeed, the Mt Popa hike really is a luxurious climb, the slope is gradual, there are golden flowers along the trail, cool breeze in the morning, you are protected by Burmese nats (if they like you) and the views at the top certainly make Mount Popa worth it. What more could you ask for?
After you rise above the tree line, the final destination is in sight for the rest of the journey – which should be no more than three hours on the ascent and 1.5 hours on the descent. Plenty of time to catch Mount Popa monastery in the afternoon.
As you approach the top of the ridge line, you will see a group of of radio towers with a modest Buddhist temple. Apparently, this is the end of the trail for most hikers.
I am not surprised by this, however the peak with the radio towers is obviously a false summit. Additionally, I did not find the antennas and decrepit buildings made of rusted corrugated iron to be at all appealing, plus the real summit was only a short distance away. Why stop here?
At the top of Mount Popa, there are a couple of golden stupas and also an empty platform for checking out the view. Indeed, the panorama from the top is amazing.
Climbing Popa Taungkalat
After climbing Mount Popa, it was time to visit the Mount Popa Monastery. However, the views from the summit of Taungkalat seemed anticlimactic after my recent adventure. Additionally, Popa Taungkalat is very dirty especially after being in the clean mountain air all morning. In the afternoon sun, the outcropping is also backlit which makes photography difficult.
Furthermore, there is supposedly a wooden carving of Min Mahagiri and his sister at the base of Popa Taungkalat. I didn’t see it and my driver also said he did not know of it. Nonetheless, it is worth the climb up the 777 steps to the top.
Situated along the stairs are shrines dedicated to the 37 “inner” nats and numerous “outer” nats which are important but not as highly venerated as the inner nats.
Popa Taungkalat’s most notorious residents are the macaque monkeys around the monastery on the summit of Taungkalat. Although they have a terrible reputation for harassing visitors, they were pretty subdued while I was there. Fortunately, there appeared to be at least two dedicated security guards who were keeping them occupied.
Indeed, the highlight of climbing the 777 stairs was to get the best views of Mount Popa in the setting sun.