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Mount Popa, Myanmar’s Mount Olympus, is an extinct volcano believed to be home to the 37 nats, the spirit beings ardently worshiped throughout the country. To the southwest of Popa is the sheer sided volcanic plug Taung Kalat or ‘Pedestal Hill’, also commonly referred to as Mt. Popa. At the summit is the gilded Taung Kalat Monastery made up of shrines and narrow terraces. To reach the monastery one must climb up 820 steps past scores of monkeys on the look-out for treats. These offerings come in such profusion from the locals that the monkeys have given up sourcing their own food. Knowing where their sustenance comes from, they are likely to ignore tourists completely. Before commencing your ascent you will pass through a throng of women selling treats for the monkeys, making as much of a racket as their beneficiaries. At the top you can wander about the various shrines and gaze over the spectacular view. For a view of Taung Kalat itself, you can delve into the Popa Mountain National Park and scale ‘Mother Hill’ (taung ma-gyi) itself. The viewing spot from the Mount Popa Resort Hotel is a particular fantastic vantage point.
Before you ascend Pedestal Hill, stop by the shrine at its foot with mannequins of the 37 nat as well as a few Hindu deities. At the centre is Mae Wunna, Queen Mother of Popa, who died of a broken heart when her twin boys were sent to the Kingdom of Bagan when her husband died. Also of note is the Pyu goddess Shin Nemi, a guardian for children and the recipient of toys and other little gifts donated by anxious pupils in exam season. At the other end of the spectrum there is the chaotic figure of Lord Kyawwa, the Dionysian guardian of drinkers and gamblers. Round this cheeky chappy you will see donations of full bottles of Mandalay Rum and the odd Red Label.
Mount Popa, from Bagan only half a morning’ drive, can be easily made as a day trip when staying amongst the pagoda ruins. An exploration of the different shrines on Pedestal Hill and in the Popa Mountain National Park is best carried out with a guide as it is the history and mythology surrounding these shrines that bring them to life. Locals will warn you against wearing red or black when visiting the shrines; nor should you swear, curse, of say bad things about anyone. Doing any of these will incite the wrath of the local nat, and they are not known to have the forgiving virtues of the Lord Buddha. You have been warned.