2015
06.27

MOUNT POPA

About trying to pay respect to the Nat of Myanmar and being rebuffed.   The mountain conspiracy.  Meeting the umbrella lady and a lot of rambunctious monkeys.

The gods are on to me.  I have no other explanation for the fact that both of my mountain pilgrimages in Myanmar were ruined by total downpours and two out of three falls in this country happened on those holy mountain precincts.  I am not talking  a little shower, mind you. I have enjoyed those over the last few weeks.  They clear the air, are finite, and they are part of this season, after all.  No, I am talking downpours, which make sightseeing frustratingly impossible, and moving around on the ever-present marble floors a slippery, dangerous endeavor.

Remember my pilgrimage to the Golden Rock at Mount Kyaiktiyo early on?  That was a first encounter with such a downpour.  It made me worry that my entire trip would be cursed like this.  I literally would have had to go home.  I still evidence the damage daily when picking up my warped Lonely Planet which I had to dry for hours with a hair dryer.  And I still l have trouble putting on my lens cap on my camera from the fall on the marble there…

What Mount Kyaiktiyo is to Buddhists, what Mount Olympus is to Pagans, what Mount Meru is to Hindus, Mount Popa is to the Nat Worshippers.  For me, a visit to Myanmar was not complete without a visit to Mount Popa, especially since I had chosen one of the minor Nat deities — the patron Nat of children, the “Little Lady” who was holding an umbrella, or Shin Nemi as she was  also known — as one of the protectors for this trip.  I had to pay my respect.

It’s just a day trip from Bagan and a good break from the Archaeological Zone if you are here for a few days.  It’s a popular enough destination that every hotel advertises it. Share-taxis are arranged daily.  Easy enough; I signed up.  The weather has been cloudy and there have been a few sprinkles every day.  But there was no storm or anything unusual in sight.  Not that I checked, I had only made my assumption.  But a few other people on this trip had checked.  They found out the same as I had assumed; and you see how much that got them.

We left with a cheerful, English speaking driver who the three of us in the car immediately bonded with.  But within ten minutes we were abandoned and dumped into another car, a station wagon with a grumpy driver who none of us cared for.  That’s how things go around here.  You think you sign up for one thing and then it’s another; usually “sort of” of what you expected but not quite.  The full price for such an excursion is $35.  With four paying customers each paying $10, the driver makes extra; why not.  But when it turned out that this driver packed not four but six passengers into his station wagon — two of them having to sit in the cargo area — then you get a bit annoyed.  Was that necessary?!  Greed is not part of Buddhist teaching…

You could feel the weight of the car now that we were fully loaded.  Thankfully, the two in the cargo area were lean young boys from Nepal.  The heavier and older of us, an Italian couple, a Dutch man and myself were sitting in the seats.

The trip took about 1.5 hours, first on flat land and then slowly winding ourselves up a mountainous region.  Mt. Popa consists of two holy areas.  One is an extinct volcanic crater named Taung Ma-gyi, a natural site that can be climbed in about four hours from a base camp.  We did not even get to see the crater nor did any of us have plans to climb it.  You need a full day to do so, you need a guide, you need gear.

But then, there is a small flat mountain plateau nearby, the religious site.  It has been completely built over with a steep, metal covered staircase leading up that is filled with vendors, and dozens of shrines and pagodas that crowd the very top.  It’s the typical Myanmar way.

By the time we serpentined up the mountain in our overloaded car, the downpour started.  As we got very silent in the car I knew that everyone prayed and hoped it would stop by the time we arrived.  But it did not…  We had two hours to explore the mountain.

Across the main entrance there is a shrine flanked by tigers, mainly obscured by vendors, which invites a first stop.  It was an important one for me: that’s where the “umbrella lady” was.  She is not one of the main 37 recognized Nat deities.  She is one of the countless ones that local folklore have produced.  But I found her: just as described, she was holding a green umbrella, and toys had been put in front of her as offerings, as she is the protectress and patron of children.  I added an offering to it.

But maybe she knows that I am not really superstitious?  What else could it be?  I had even followed protocol and made sure that I would not wear a single piece of black or red clothing!  My guidebook had pointed out that Nat don’t like these colors and can get quite upset with people who wear them on their holy mountain.  You don’t want to offend these guys, even if you don’t believe in them, right?

Or was it Lord Kyawswa who was upset with me?  He is the patron Nat of drunkards and gamblers.  Had I not partied enough in Myanmar?  Did I not drink enough beer?  Ever since the Australian couple had left (with whom I had plenty of beer every night), I have only had two (2!) beer since.  Was it him?  He seemed happy and jolly in this temple supplied with plenty of whiskey bottles as offerings.  Why would he do this to me?  I don’t like whiskey!

We all asked ourselves what we had done wrong to cause this misery as we climbed up the marble steps, extra carefully putting one bare foot before the other, holding on to any railing that was provided.  Step by step.  We all realized how dangerous this climb would be.  The only one to fly up like a gazelle, was the Dutch man.  He was an athlete and a surfer and quite surefooted.  How did he do that?!  The rest of us, as we inched upwards, were holding out hope that after the 30 minutes it would take us to reach the top, the clouds would have parted, but they did not.

Mount Popa is not only known for its Nat.  It is also a notorious gathering place for monkeys, who are held in high esteem for one or another good reason.  They are everywhere and every female seemed to have been blessed this season with at least one offspring!  The little ones were clutching to the mother’s bellies as the mothers and the mean looking fathers were searching out treats and trinkets they could snatch from the visitors.  Our Italian passenger put down her bottle of water to take a picture and you could not even look as fast as that bottle was gone!  It ended up in a female’s possession, who with a quick bite opened the side of the bottle and drank the water, dripping a good portion over her little one who did not seem to mind.  Wow!  These monkeys are not only annoying, they are smart, too.  You really had to watch out for everything.  Another girl walking up lost one of her shoes to the monkeys, never to be seen again!

Along the path vendors and small shrines interspersed.  At the top there was a walkway around the various shrines and pagodas with supposedly gorgeous views into the surrounding landscapes.  We could barely see the foot of the hill…  The downpour did not let go.  There was no point in lingering.  We might as well start the treacherous climb down, sooner rather than later.  It would have been a good idea to hire a guide to tell us all the fun and funny folk stories associated with this mountain. I am sure that would have brightened our experience.  But that was not possible with the share taxi.  Well, we missed out on that.

Mindful as ever we put step before step going down.  At one point — I even had two railings to hold on to, left and right — I lost traction with my feet and started to slip.  Instead of holding me in place, the railings turned into additional slides for my hands, and so I went down several steps slipping right into the people in front of me. They finally slowed my fall.  Thankfully, I did not knock them over, too.  But since I had been holding on to the slippery railing the whole time, it was only my butt that got bruised a bit.  My camera was still safe, nothing else got hurt.  It was a slap on the wrist.  But damn it if it wasn’t one of those Nat latching out.  Who else?!

Well, this is the end of holy mountains for me in Myanmar and I hope that means the end of falls and downpours.

Just to spite us, the downpour stopped precisely at the moment we had reached the bottom of the stairs.  It did not only stop, the sky was blue, some nice picturesque clouds were strewn across the sky for perfect photos — that is if you were on top of the mountain rather than at the bottom of it at that very moment…

It was not meant to be.