a day at mount popa & the popa taung kalat monastery {& the last of the flip-flop debacle}

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).

approaching Popa Taung Kalat

approaching Popa Taung Kalat

I enter into the shrine between two guardian elephants.

Entrance to Popa Taung Kalat

Entrance to Popa Taung Kalat

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.

Nats

Nats

Bananas for the Nats

Bananas for the Nats

nats

nats

Nats

Nats

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.

small shrine with offerings

small shrine with offerings

nats

nats

patterned door

patterned door

diminishing returns

diminishing returns

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.

guardian chinthes

guardian chinthes

As I continue up the stairs, I dip into various shrines, checking out the all the kitschy decor.

Nat Nan

Nat Nan

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).

The Flower Eating Ogress and her two sons

The Flower Eating Ogress and her two sons

attendants to the Flower Eating Ogress

attendants to the Flower Eating Ogress

Nats galore

Nats galore

More nats

More nats

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).

views to the plains

views to the plains

at the summit

at the summit

at the summit of Thaung Kalat

at the summit of Taung Kalat

I also encounter some monks and nuns.

monks at the summit of Thaung Kalat

monks at the summit of Taung Kalat

a nun at the summit

a nun at the summit

view of the plains

view of the plains

shrines at the summit

shrines at the summit

at the summit of Thaung Kalat

at the summit of Taung Kalat

at the summit of Thaung Kalat

at the summit of Taung Kalat

dragons atop the peak

dragons atop the peak

views over the plains

views over the plains

me at the summit of Thaung Kalat

me at the summit of Taung Kalat

more kitschy shrines

more kitschy shrines

shrines on the summit of Thaung Kalat

shrines on the summit of Taung Kalat

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.

view from the top

view from the top

views from Mt. Popa

views from Mt. Popa

views from Mt. Popa

views from Mt. Popa

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.

back at the bottom

back at the bottom

back at the bottom

back at the bottom

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!

 

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Categories: Asia, Bagan, Mount Popa, Myanmar, nats, Taung Kalat, Taung Kalat Monastery, Taung Ma-gyi | 9 Comments

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9 thoughts on “a day at mount popa & the popa taung kalat monastery {& the last of the flip-flop debacle}

  1. What a strange place Cathy. The Nats are bizarre and I wonder who collects the offerings, could be the shoe minder, or the monkey poo people! I can’t imagine what the steps are like, the hill looks almost straight up, do they wind back and forth?
    I think any bad karma you gained was transferred to the thief!

    • Mount Popa was a very strange place, Gilly, but I liked its colorful, kitschy nature. I have no idea who collects the offerings; maybe it is one of those people. The steps are along the backside of the mountain and I think they do wind back and forth, although I actually don’t remember now! I think you’re right about the bad karma… maybe! 🙂

  2. I saw that coming! You know, I never have a problem paying people for things like that. In countries where there is no work unless you create an opportunity for yourself, I admire the creative ways people come up with to earn a living. Shoe-minding is how this man puts his kids through school, and feeds his family and pays his bills.

    And. ….You are right, you did create some bad karma there and it came full circle.

    In Africa, I always (and in Haiti as well and wherever I go actually) find someone in the back kitchens of wherever, and pay them daily rather generously to take care of me and my stuff.

    While everyone around me in my groups were robbed or ignored or ripped off, I never was. One time, everyone in our group lost all their laundry, every stitch. Except mine, it was all there on the line, untouched.

    Paying for these things is an investment, in my opinion. We each have to find a way to make a living wherever we are and for a few bucks you create trust and you also show that you respect this person for the work he is doing, as work is everything in the third world.

    I am sorry you lost your good sandals, but I know in future you will remember your lost Havaianas and the lesson, indeed, this man taught you.

    (I bet he either sold them, or gave them to his wife).

    Lesson learned on the road.

    • Hmm. In some ways I agree with you and in other ways I don’t. Certainly, it wouldn’t have broken me to pay the shoe minder, so I could have easily done it. On the other hand, no one should be forced to do business with anyone else. If I choose not to do business with someone, I shouldn’t be punished for it. The shoe minder’s reaction of throwing a tizzy fit because I didn’t want to use him certainly didn’t make me feel any warm and fuzzy feelings toward him. Suppose every time I applied for a job or sent out my novel and got rejected, I started stomping around, kicking things here and there, and being generally nasty? That kind of behavior is uncalled for and shouldn’t be rewarded at all. In some ways I was glad I didn’t give him my money. Of course I’ll never know who stole my flip-flops. If someone unrelated to the shoe minder, some random person, stole them, then I got what I deserved for not paying him. However, if the shoe minder himself stole them, as I suspect he did, then I don’t feel one bit of regret for not doing business with him! Of course, I’ll never know, will I? The only thing I can say with certainty is that everything is not black and white and there are many gray areas in life.

      I don’t agree that we should have to pay everyone we meet in our paths when we travel. People can choose to make a living however they want, but as a traveler, especially on a fixed budget (on a 6 week trip on a very low Chinese salary), I don’t feel compelled to hand out my hard-earned money to anybody who wants it.

      When I travel, I am supporting the local economy time and time again. Wherever I travel, third world or otherwise, they get their share of tourist dollars from me. I don’t feel guilty that I can’t and won’t give money to everyone I meet along the way.

      I do appreciate your comment though, and I do agree with you in some respects. 🙂

  3. Unbelievable that this was almost a year ago now, Cathy!
    And I echo Gilly- quite bizarre! It looks so spectacular looking up at it but the view from up top is of ‘nothing’ but empty plains. Oh- the sights you have seen! 🙂

    • I know, Jo, it’s hard for me to believe this was almost a year ago. I would sure like to finish posting about this by the end of February, which will be one year. We’ll see if it happens. Mount Popa was a crazy place; so much kitschiness all around. It was a grand adventure, I’ll give you that. 🙂

  4. Pingback: Jo’s Monday walk : Bowlees and Low Force | restlessjo

  5. Such a crazy kitsch place Cathy. And I would have never managed all those steps! So I am happy that you did. Just a thought. Could you not have put your flip flops in your rucksack? I was always worried about losing my shoes in India, but thankfully never did.

    • Yes, Jude, kitschy it is! Those steps weren’t that steep, so I’m sure you could have made them without much difficulty. There were a lot of nat places to stop in along the way. The monkey droppings were the biggest challenge. I could have put my flip flops in my backpack, but I usually carry a very small backpack in which they probably wouldn’t fit. I guess I should have carried them with me nonetheless! I’m surprised you never lost your shoes in India, but then I never did when I was there either. 🙂

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