Kyaukpadaung, Mandalay Region, Myanmar
May 30, 2018
My closest encounter with the flat-top monolith favored by aliens in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind was with its less famous cousin on the other side of the world. I had never even heard of it until a Google search led my travel buddy Melds and me to photos of Taung Kalat (Pedestal Hill), the 600-meter volcanic plug sticking out of the gentle slope of 1,500-meter Mount Popa. It would become a non-negotiable stop in our Myanmar itinerary the following year. Devil’s Tower in the US gained Hollywood fame, but what set Taung Kalat apart was the sprawling Buddhist monastery at the summit.
Our drive of moderate speed from Bagan took a little over an hour. Much of the sleepy, dusty countryside was dotted with towering, slender sugar palm trees that bordered farmlands left fallow in the summer. The landscape turned greener as we reached the lower slopes of conical Mount Popa. I rolled the window down to take in the cooler, less humid air. The volcano, extinct for thousands of years, was a lush oasis in the arid plains of central Myanmar.
Quite suddenly, this massive, dark-colored rock peeked out from behind the trees. Taung Kalat looked every inch as majestic as I had imagined. And it looked surreal in its isolation in this rather unremarkable landscape. Five gleaming pagoda spires crowned the summit as if reaching up to heaven. How the monastery was built on this vertical outcrop defied the laws of physics. It might as well have landed on the summit intact from a spacecraft, decidedly Spielberg-inspired.
At the village at the base of Taung Kalat, the car had to maneuver through mud and potholes of the only road through it. Shops selling votive offerings crammed alongside brightly-colored Mahagiri Shrines and animal statues. It was a world away from Bagan’s sparse spaces. Further down the block, a line of run-down, curiously abandoned houses, paint peeling off, lent a ruined ambiance to this village of contradictions. Business was brisk, yet it had apparently seen better times.
The crowd was comprised not so much of people as of seemingly feral animals. Gravity-defying dogs were lounging precariously on balustrades several meters above ground. One on street level was not as oblivious to visitors. It growled and was poised to pounce as I walked by, likely a foreshadowing of my close encounters of the simian kind.
A mob of macaques had taken over the village, perhaps outnumbering humans. They went about their monkey business all over as people would. When a van-full of pilgrims bearing baskets of fruit arrived, they sprang across the street and swarmed around the food source.
Twin white elephant sculptures guarding the entrance stopped me in my tracks. I threw a game-on look at my friend Jo before we took on the 777 steps – roofed, thank goodness – up Taung Kalat. The level of difficulty was upped by the barefoot climb as temples in Myanmar required the reverential removal of footwear. Slippery steps, though mostly tiled, were wet and muddy in parts and overrun by hyperactive macaques on a constant lookout for food. We made sure we had nothing truly or suspiciously edible on us.
Pilgrims, though, deliberately fed them as a form of religious expression. Our climb was akin to stop-motion as we froze in place to keep from getting knocked down the stairs by food-grabbers making a mad dash for treats. Not to mention we had to walk gingerly to avoid stepping on monkey droppings. Meanwhile, vendors of clothes that flanked the stairway glanced at us vacantly. The experience was jarring. Was it a menagerie, a shopping strip, or a religious site?
Reaching Popa Monastery at the summit, we tiptoed around prayer rooms where devotees were performing rituals, offering gifts, and bowing in prostration to elaborately garbed images of the ancients in Myanmar history. Outside, a golden spiraled pagoda rose higher amidst smaller pagodas.
Foreign visitors like us stood transfixed at the view of the sweeping Mandalay plains and the looming Mount Popa, also called Taung Ma-gyi (Mother Hill) to differentiate it from Taung Kalat that went by the name Mount Popa as well. The volcano was almost entirely within cloud cover, substantiating its mystical rep as the abode of nats, spirits of ancient ancestors. Down its slopes, golden spires of nat shrines pierced out of the verdant forest.
Nats were not gods. Rather, they were human spirits that needed to be pleased and appeased. Their worship predated the advent of Buddhism in Myanmar. That explained the diversity of images other than the Buddha. Over the centuries, this indigenous belief merged with mainstream Buddhism. As such, the monastery was more akin to a Hindu shrine than any Buddhist temple in Bagan.
The writing on the wall was the legend of Mount Popa. The story told on posters detailing in English the story of a star-crossed couple, as was usual in such legends, went this way: In 11th-century Bagan Empire during founder King Anawrahta’s reign, a royal man Friday named Byatta made frequent flower-picking trips to Mount Popa, flower in Sanskrit. He had to fall for Mai Wunna, an ogress no less who lived on a diet of flowers – what else? It was downhill from there. Byatta was executed for the illicit relationship, Mai Wunna succumbed to a broken heart, both their sons met no better fate. The lovers in life became nats in death and remained on the mountain. But grapevine had it that the king proclaimed people he killed as nats to be worshiped to stem the public’s rising anger toward him.
Legend or otherwise, what was evident from our vantage perch on Taung Kalat was the thick forest cover on the Mother Hill. Designated as a nature reserve and national park, Mount Popa had started to attract nature-worshipers of another kind. The resort set relaxed in a high-end hotel with a view of both Taung Kalat and Taung Ma-gyi while adventure-seekers came for eco-tourism activities. Culture vultures like us, however, were immersed amongst pilgrims and primates.
Jo and I were relieved to have lost the macaques that haunted us at the stairway. Our solace was short-lived, though. A lone macaque jumped at us from the pagoda roof. There was no escaping them! It turned out it went bananas for a bunch of bananas that some Indian tourists had brought. I never had close encounters with nat vibes at all, only with marauding macaques.
This post is dedicated to my friend Melds Bayle. We planned this Myanmar trip together. At first I had to sell Myanmar to her. Photos of Mount Popa, however, sealed the deal. Alas, in the end she had to beg off due to a lingering illness. She passed away just hours after my visit to Mount Popa, the mountain of the departed from untimely death. Melds made her final journey in the early hours of May 31, 2018.