If we were to tell you there is a temple in Bagan on top of an extinct volcano, guarded by monkeys you’d probably think we were lying. When we heard about Mount Popa, it sounded like something from Game of Thrones meets Zelda – defeat the monkeys and you’ll make it to the golden temple, not forgetting the 777 steps up the side of a volcano. Barefoot. I wish we were joking. To many, this may not sound like their dream day trip from Bagan, but for us it was the ultimate adventure and a highlight from our Bagan itinerary – here’s why…
THE HISTORY OF MOUNT POPA, MYANMAR
We get it, there are thousands of temples in Bagan so why is the Mount Popa hike worth a day trip? Thanks to the heat (and our fitness levels) hiking in Asia is not the easiest, but when we heard about the history of Mount Popa, we booked the excursion immediately.
Mount Popa means Flower Mountain and is, in fact, an extinct volcano, 1518m above sea level, earning its name due to the greenery and flowers that cover it despite it’s desert-like surroundings.
The monastery teetering on top is Popa Taungkalat, sometimes referred to as The Taung Kalat monastery and is one of the most important sites in Myanmar for Nat Pilgrimage.
It is believed by Buddhists that Nats are spirits who bring prosperity and “luck” when worshipped or bring suffering and misfortune to those who don’t believe in them. There are 37 Mahagiri Nats statues at the base of Taung Kalat which you can visit and notice many pilgrims offering food, money and flowers.
It is believed long ago, the kings of Myanmar would consult in these Nats before commencing their reign to bring luck and prosperity.
HOW TO GET FROM BAGAN TO MOUNT POPA
From Bagan to Mount Popa is around a 1 hour 20 minutes drive. Our hotel in Bagan arranged a local taxi to take us and we paid 20,000MMK (around £10) for both of us, for a shared mini van although there was only 1 other passenger. We found this incredible value for money, making Mount Popa the ideal day trip for those backpacking Myanmar on a budget.
The drive offers an authentic insight into Burmese life, passing farmland and small villages. Around 30 minutes into the journey from Bagan to Mount Popa, our driver stopped at a Palm Farm and Distillery which we originally thought would be a quick break to stretch our legs.
It turned out to be a chance to sample some local liquor (we never say no to free booze) called Toddy and some incredible homemade sweets. Both are made from palm sugar, created with sap from the palm tree. We also witnessed the traditional method for making peanut oil as peanuts grow in abundance in the area.
Darren necked the Toddy like Tequila, whilst I devoured the samples of sweet treats which reminded me of Scottish fudge. The locals were incredibly friendly and informative and not at all pushy for us to make a purchase. We did however, purchase a large bag of ginger “fudge” for 1,000MMK which was incredible. Bellies full of sweet treats and throats burning from the potent Toddy, we headed back to the mini van to continue our Mount Popa day trip.
THE MOUNT POPA HIKE
Quick geography lesson, before we get into monkey rabies and robbery. Taungkalat (meaning pedestal hill) is often referred to as Mount Popa, as Mount Popa is the name of the actual volcano that caused the creation of this volcanic plug to which the Taung Kalat monastery is on.
However, the real Mount Popa is often referred to as Taung Ma-gyi (mother hill) and is 1518m high, towering over the town of Popa and can be seen from the monastery. The official Mount Popa hike would take around 3 hours. If you’re confused by the name swapping, simply head for the huge green hill with the golden temple on top, hard to miss it to be honest.
Our driver dropped us in Popa, a bustling town filled with busy market stalls and small cafes. The entrance to the Mount Popa hike is a tad obvious thanks to two giant elephant statues and the crowds of tourists and pilgrims alike removing their shoes ready to conquer those steps.
If you’ve read about our hikes in Hawaii, you’ll know we are not at all fit. In fact, after hearing about the 777 steps up to The Taung Kalat monastery we were instantly regretting this day trip from Bagan. However, the Mount Popa Hike will prove to be one of the most fascinating 25 minutes of your life and a definite highlight of your Myanmar itinerary.
Those feared 777 steps spiral round at a steady pace and were roofed the entire way, providing a pleasant, shaded incline that even the inexperienced and hike haters can cope with.
What we couldn’t cope with was the amount of monkeys. Both due to fear of rabies and robbery, the abundance of monkeys definitely helped us move speedily up the steps to the top of the monastery, passing market stalls, pilgrims and numerous “cleaners” along the way.
There seemed to be a cleaner round every corner, asking for money which although we understand their enterprising efforts, didn’t feel it very ethical that they were cleaning the steps purely for profit from tourists with no connection to the temple itself.
As mentioned, the hike to the monastery was surprisingly quick and we reached the summit within 25 minutes.
THE TAUNG KALAT MONASTERY
There is one teenie tiny issue we forgot to mention during the Mount Popa Hike. Yes it only takes 25 minutes however, like all holy sites in Asia you must enter bare foot. This means completing the entire hike (dodging monkey poop and all) in your bare feet. Sexy.
Instantly, this put Darren off but more likely because they charged a fee to store your shoes and being a typical Scotman he hates paying for anything. You’ll notice when backpacking Myanmar that shoulders and knees must be covered in order to enter any religious site – monkey, guarded temples are no exception so dress appropriately for your Mount Popa day trip.
Unlike our usual advice for hikes, DO NOT bring snacks as these are perfect bate for the fierce monkeys. We saw several picnics savaged during our Mount Popa hike so to avoid your day trip from Bagan being ruined, leave the Haribo at home.
Following our amazement at the pagodas in Bagan and Hsinbyume pagoda in Mandalay, I wish we could tell you we were equally blown away by the dazzling splendour of the Taung Kalat Monastery.
I wish we could also tell you that after the monkey guarded climb, eccentric artwork and pushy stall owners that you will be left overwhelmed with amazement at the monastery, but to be honest the journey was definitely far more exciting than the destination.
Don’t get me wrong the views were amazing and we completely understand why thousands of people make the pilgrimage for the Nats and it will still be a monastery like no other we have ever visited, however it just felt odd how many people were sat in it watching their phones, playing loud to music, trying to sell us something or having picnics – nothing to signify a place of worship.
THE TOWN OF POPA
After returning from the hike, we had some spare time to explore the town of Popa. It was incredibly busy with locals and very, very few tourists. We enjoyed a drink in one of the numerous cafes as well as a walk around the market stalls selling clothing, flowers and souvenirs.
There were various other temples, shrines and religious sites which we wish we had more time to visit, but instead got distracted by yet more monkeys stealing fruit from the market stalls.
IS MOUNT POPA A WORTHWHILE DAY TRIP FROM BAGAN?
As mentioned, our Mount Popa day trip will always be one of the many highlights from our 3 days in Bagan – partly because it was unlike any other holy site we’ve ever been to, partly because it’s one of the few hikes I’ve managed without crying or sweating to death. We’d highly recommend escaping Bagan to Mount Popa for at least a few hours to see this epic site for yourself, just be prepared for a monkey standoff or ten.