Saturday, February 21: After having breakfast and a strong cup of coffee at the Floral Breeze, a driver takes me to Mt. Popa, 50 km southeast of Bagan. As the distance is short, I expect we will get there quickly, but the roads are rough and the going is slow. The trip takes a long hour and 40 minutes. Slow travel seems to be a given here in Myanmar. I sit back and enjoy the ride, drinking as much water as possible to contain my coughing, caused by the pervasive dust that arises like fine powder from the dry plains. I started getting a tickle in my throat yesterday while riding my e-bike around on Bagan’s dirt roads, and it’s even worse today.
Mt. Popa is best known for the sheer-sided volcanic plug known as Taung Kalat, meaning “pedestal hill,” which rises 737 meters (2,417 ft) above sea level. A Buddhist Monastery, which is home to 37 nats (spirits) represented by mannequin-like figures, sits atop the summit of Taung Kalat. Taung Kalat is sometimes itself called Mount Popa and given that Mount Popa is the name of the actual volcano that caused the creation of the volcanic plug, to avoid confusion, the volcano (with its crater blown open on one side) is generally called Taung Ma-gyi (mother hill) (Wikipedia: Mount Popa).
I enter into the shrine between two guardian elephants.
Immediately, I’m bombarded by strange-looking “spirit” nats, exuberant colors, frilly umbrellas, clocks, bowls of green bananas and other fruits, piles or baskets of flowers, and the local currency, kyat, stuck at all angles into every nook and crevice.
There are 777 steps to climb to the summit, and along the way, I pass various vendors and small shrines with wild-looking figures in them.
At one point along the 777 steps to the summit, there is a place where visitors are required to leave their shoes. This is typical in all temples throughout Myanmar, and I have left my flip-flops all over the country with no problem, except for yesterday, when I accidentally absconded with someone else’s flip-flops. After I realized my error, I returned to the temple and was finally reunited with my own Havaianas. I found them sitting there all alone in the dust, awaiting my return, but I don’t know if the ones I had taken were ever reunited successfully with their owner.
I know it’s not something I should be bothered about, especially in a country as poor as Myanmar, but I do take issue with being forced to leave my shoes, and, in addition, being required to pay a shoe minder. Here at Taung Kalat, about midway up the stairs, there is a monopolizing shoe minder with quite a big operation. Along with some other tourists, I find a spot away from the shoe minder to stash my flip-flops. The shoe minder, who reminds me of the Soup Nazi in that famous Seinfeld episode, sees that I am tossing my flip-flops in a quiet corner, and comes over and kicks them, along with random others, out of sight. He seems angry that I am avoiding paying him to mind my shoes, and his anger makes me feel justified in not paying him. Admittedly, a vicious circle.
When I continue up the stairs to the top, I have a bad feeling, from the way the shoe minder reacted, that my flip-flops will truly be lost when I return. I shake off the bad feeling and continue to the top.
The steps are crawling with Macaque monkeys and their droppings, along with a small army of locals trying, to little avail, to keep the steps clean. The locals are positioned at every 50 steps or so, and all are hoping for tips. I don’t see how I can give money to every local cleaning those steps, so I give tips to them sporadically.
As I walk up the steps, I find it annoying that I have to walk barefooted through all the monkey poop that is all over the steps. Why am I required to leave my flip-flops behind when it is still so far to the summit? I was supposed to pay the shoe minder, and now I’m supposed to pay the locals that sit every 50 steps or so to keep the steps clean; this is an impossible task with the hordes of monkeys scampering about. It seems they’ve set up a whole business enterprise revolved around monkey poop. The tourists could have been allowed to wear their flip-flops to the top, where at least we could have kept our feet relatively clean, and left them outside of the shrines at the top.
As I continue up the stairs, I dip into various shrines, checking out the all the kitschy decor.
It’s possible that the nat in the picture below, not counted among the 37 “official” nat, is the Flower-Eating Ogress (aka Mae Wunna or “Queen Mother of Popa”) and her two sons Min Gyi and Min Lay (Lonely Planet Myanmar).
At the top, I find a 360-degree panorama of the arid surrounding areas; surprisingly, I’ve heard that the Mt Popa area has over 200 springs and streams. It is therefore like an oasis in the desert-like dry central zone of Burma. This means the surrounding landscape is characterized by prickly bushes and stunted trees as opposed to the lush forests and rivers Burma is famous for. Prominent among the wildlife are Macaque monkeys that have become a tourist attraction on Taung Kalat (Wikipedia: Mount Popa).
In addition, at the summit, I find a labyrinth of shrines to explore (Go-Myanmar.com: Mount Popa and Popa Taungkalat Monastery).
I also encounter some monks and nuns.
After wandering around on the summit for a while, I begin to make my way back down the steps, stepping gingerly in my bare feet around the monkey droppings and sporadically giving some kyat to the locals who are trying to keep the stairs clean.
When I return to the platform where the shoe minder has his monopoly, I go to the spot where I left my Havaianas, and just as I feared, they are nowhere to be found. I poke around in every possible place and I can’t find them anywhere. I even see some flip-flops that have fallen to a lower platform, and I go down there to see if mine are there. Sure enough, my Havaianas are gone. I still have about halfway down the 777 steps to walk, and I will now have to go barefoot for the remainder of the way.
I realize that I’m now facing bad karma in response to my cheap skate nature. I know now I should have just gone ahead and paid the shoe minder, who obviously was so angry he disposed of my flip-flops! I honestly don’t believe anyone else would have taken them as flip-flops can be stolen from any one of thousands of temples throughout Bagan. Throughout my entire two-week holiday in Myanmar, I leave my shoes at temples with no problem at all. I honestly believe that shoe minder was trying to teach me a lesson. I guess he did teach me I shouldn’t be a cheap skate, but the whole situation also annoyed me to no end, being forced to leave my shoes behind when I would have preferred not to and then forcing me to pay for someone to mind them when I didn’t want to leave them to begin with!
After looking around for an inordinately long time, feeling sure I will find where the shoe minder hid them, I finally give up and walk down. Along the way, I find various vendors selling uncomfortable bamboo soled flip-flops with velour straps, and I buy a pair, as I know I will still need some flip-flops while I’m here in Myanmar. All the way back down, I look at the locals’ and other tourists’ feet trying to spot the flip-flop thief, but I don’t see anyone with my Havaianas.
At the base of Taung Kalat, when I finally get in my driver’s car for the ride back to Bagan, I know that I will never see my flip-flops again. I guess bad karma will always catch up with a person in the end. 😦 We head back to Bagan, making a couple of stops along the way.
This post is in response to Jo’s Monday Walk: Bowlees and Low Force. I invite you to hop over and check it out!