My Trip to Burma: Bagan Part 3 - Palm Sugar, a Local Village, and the Nats of Mount Popa

The day started out great, with a lovely buffet breakfast at our hotel.  Nice selection of food, although as I've said before, I just can't get into real Asian cuisine - noodles, fried rice, etc. - for breakfast.  I need my eggs, pancakes, and bacon.  Fortunately, they had all that.   And a nice view of the river.

Our guide and driver met us, and the sightseeing began.  Our big destinations today: Mount Popa and Salay.  But first, a side trip for a demonstration on how palm sugar is made. We arrived at this roadside facility where a cow was walking in circles, grinding the sugar into some kind of paste.  

Our guide has taken many people on this tour, so he did all the talking instead of the proprietors (who I don't think spoke any English at all), explaining the process. 

We watched the guy climb up the palm tree and collect the sap.

We watched a woman boil it all up to make jaggery.  When making sugar, the syrup is treated with charcoal to absorb unwanted particle and give it a clear, transparent appearance. It then condenses and forms sugar.  In the case of jaggery, there's no treatment with any kind of charcoal, nor is there any crystallization.  Instead, the syrup is boiled and boiled continuously until it is formed into a thick paste, which is then poured into molds to make blocks of jaggery. 
  Jaggery is similar to sugar, but not identical.  Sugar is white; jaggery varies in color from golden yellow to golden brown to dark brown.  Sugar is hard, solid, and crystalline.  Jaggery is softer and semi-solid. Here, they mixed it with shredded coconut to make a popular confection.  I tried a fresh piece. Very sweet.  Ridiculously sweet, in fact. 

The also set up a still and made palm alcohol.  Nothing goes to waste here.  They gave samples of palm alcohol.  Kinda weak.

Before leaving, they served us a snack.  Once again, we got to eat fermented tea leaf salad.  This time, we got to construct the salad the way we like.  In the center bowl are the fermented tea leaves.  In each compartment of the bowl are the other ingredients, which you can add in any proportion that you like.  I think this was our fourth taste of this unique salad, and it was one of the best.  

I was already stuffed from breakfast.  Now I was super-stuffed after munching on this salad.  We headed back to the car and hit the road.  In 90 minutes, we'd be at Mount Popa.

While in the car, we told Myint that everything on the itinerary looked great, but as culturally curious travelers, we would love to see something off the beaten path, something that show the authentic way Burmese people live their lives.

Myint had his driver pull over.  Before we knew it, we were walking down a dirt road and into a very small village.  He told us this was a very poor farming area.   Everything is done manually.  Myint led the way, asking permission of the people he encountered if it was okay to show us around.  No one objected, of course.  The Burmese are the most open, friendliest people, and they actually seemed to revel in the attention.

Peanuts were a popular crop, and we came across several families harvesting peanuts.  Here are a husband and wife, doing the labor intensive work of removing the peanuts from the plants by hand.

These folks, too.  Above, he's removing the peanuts from the plants.  The woman is tossing them in a big sifter.

There were lots of farm animals being raised.  Cows and pigs, mainly. 

I tried to play with some of the piglets, but they just ran away from me.  
This was the "supermarket".  Seriously.   If you needed something, this little shop was the only store in the village. The few little items hanging up were the main inventory.

 The homes were very simple.  Just a room or two, with a mat for a bed, and not much else.  I got to peek inside one.  This was the kitchen area.  There was a cat keeping warm by a pot on the stove.

Indoor plumbing?  No way.  Running water? Nah... you send your daughter to the well to bring some back.

Everyone seemed pretty happy, though.   Myint said he would show us the village schoolhouse.  On the way, we encountered these kids who were on their way to the schoolhouse, too.  They were fascinated by us.  I don't think they'd ever seen a tourist before.

We got to the schoolhouse and saw these cute girls, obviously best of friends.  I asked if I could take their photo.  They didn't mind at all.

Myint introduced us to the teacher.  She said there was one teacher for 63 students.
They had blackboards, posters, desks... a cute little classroom.  The kids were remarkably well behaved.

I indicated that I would like to

take their photos.  They loved the idea.  They ate it up.  After taking the photo, I would show them the image on the camera display.  They were enthralled.

After this very illuminating side trip, we hit the road again and headed for Mount Popa.  There it is in the distance.  Pretty amazing.    Popa Taung Kalat, more commonly referred to as Mount Popa, is the most popular day trip from Bagan.  For those intrigued by the practice of nat worship in Myanmar, Mt. Popa is the place to be, as it’s the most revered place in the country for this fascinating, millennium-old form of spirit worship.  Before we talk about this incredible site, we should talk a little about nats. 

 One of the most intriguing aspects of Burmese religious life is the worship of nats.  These are nature spirits who represent human flaws, weaknesses, or vices, and who died unnatural and often violent deaths. Nats may reside in trees, rocks, caves or summits, such as Mount Popa, the high altar of nat worship in Burma.  

Veneration of nats is known to predate Buddhism in Burma which arrived in the 3rd century BC.  Realizing that nats had quite a hold over his people, King Anawrahta of Bagan wisely incorporated nats into Theravada ritual in an attempt to encourage the Burmese to follow the new Theravada doctrines. This is why Burmese temples today nearly always also contain nat shrines.  The King fixed the official number of nats at 36, adding a 37th, Thagyamin, king of the nats, derived from the ancient Hindu deity Indra. In this way, he established the nat pantheon as subordinate to the Buddha, which is the position they retain today. 

Nat worship is still particularly prevalent in rural areas, although educated urban Burmese often dismiss the tradition and folk superstition.  Burmese nats come from a variety of sources including local animist nature spirits, folk deities such as Mai Wunna (the flower-eating ogress of Mount Popa), Burmanized versions of major Hindu gods.  Nats are also related to real-life historical figures, such as Min Situ, the nat spirit of Bagan’s King Alaungsitu. Basically, all of this merges in a bewildering historical and mythological mélange.  Some have followers nationwide; others may be linked to a single area, or even a single village.  Not all Buddhists subscribe to the practice of nat worship in contemporary times, but it does remain very popular in rural areas.

Except for Thagyamin, the king of the nats, every one of the 37 nats died a violent death, lending them something of a character of Christian martyrs. At the same time, however, they’re also an engagingly humanized bunch, in stark contrast to the exalted qualities of the Buddha himself.  Popular nats include some definitely unsavory characters with very recognizable personal flaws and earthly failings, like Min Kyawzwa, the Drunken Nat, whose image at Mt. Popa is draped with offerings of whisky bottles and cigarettes in homage to his life spend boozing, cockfighting, and hunting. 

Nats are completely integrated into Burmese Buddhism now, and nat shrines and images are usually found in most temples. All pagodas have a resident guardian nat spirit, Bo Bo Gyi, typically shown as a man dressed in pink robes with a white turban.   You’ll also see many shrines dedicated to Shin Upagot (aka Upagutta), a much venerated figure believed to protect worshippers against watery perils like flood and storms.  He’s easy to spot because of his distinctive pose, seated with one hand dipping into an alms bowl on his lap, his head tilted upwards, scanning the sky in search of rain. 

Mount Popa is Burma’s main center of nat worship, but other pagodas feature nats prominently.  Historically, the Shwezigon is interesting for its role in the development of Burmese Buddhism.  King Anawrahta decided to encourage interest in the new Theravada Buddhist faith by placing images of the 37 most revered nats on the lower terraces of the stupa, believing that the people would be won over to this new Buddhist faith more easily if it incorporated aspects of their traditional beliefs, setting a precedent for the combined nat and Buddhist shrines that are found throughout Burma to this day.  Unfortunately on this trip, we didn't get to visit the Shwezigon. 

Before climbing Mount Popa, we made sure to visit the quirky Nat Temple (also called The Shrine of the Mother Spirit of Popa Nat) just opposite the main stairway.  

Freaky looking almost life-size mannequins of assorted nats can be found here, standing along the back wall of the shrine in a glassed-in corridor. A few have banknotes stuffed into their hands.  

You can't miss the eye-catching Drunken Nat on a horse, decorated with rum bottles and packets of cheroots in honor of his wild life spend drinking, cockfighting and hunting. He’s probably the most popular nat.  He was born on Mt Popa and is famously claimed to have said, “If you don’t like me, avoid me. I admit I’m a drunkard.”  He’s the guardian of gamblers and drunks. Note all the bottles of booze hanging from the horse's neck, and the dollars stuffed in his hands and on the horse's neck.

Further along is an image of the elephant-headed Ganesh, one of several Hindu gods admitted into the Burmese nat membership (where he is known as Maha Peinne). 


Locals pray to Shwe Na Be (Lady with Golden Sides) when a snake enters their house.  Yes, she’s the one grimly holding a serpent.

Nats figure into several legends involving Mount Popa.  The first legend concerns Maung Tinde, (also known as “Mr. Handsome”) and his sister Shwemyethna (aka “Golden Face”). That's them on the left. According to the tale, the King of Tagaung, fearful of Maung Tinde’s supernatural powers, i.e. the ability to snap the tusks of an elephant with his bare hands, married his sister Shwemyethna in order to lure her brother to the palace, where he was promptly tied to a tree and burnt to death, only for his sister to leap into the flames with him.  Brother and sister later reappeared as malevolent spirits, haunting the tree where they had died, until the king ordered the tree cut down and tossed into the Ayeyarwady river.  The tree floated down the river to Bagan.  The two spirits then appeared in a dream to the king of Bagan asking him for a place t dwell, and offering in return to guard the city.  The king had the remains of the tree carried to Mount Popa, where the spirits of Maung Tinde and Shwemyethna are said still to reside, while shrines to the nats were erected at the Tharaba Gate, where they remain to this day.  My previous post showed a picture of the Tharaba Gate, and the shrine containing Mr. Handsome.

The second legend of Mount Popa relates to Mai Wunna, the Queen Mother of Popa (also called Miss Gold), who is said to rule over Mount Popa, on which her spirit dwells.  Mai Wunna was a flower-eating ogress who became enamored of Byatta, an Indian Muslim with supernatural powers who had been ordered by King Anawrahta to collect flowers ten times daily from the mountain.  Byatta was enthralled with Mai Wunna and he neglected his duty, which resulted in him being executed by the king, but not before she had produced two sons Min Gyi and Min Lay.   That's her, in green, flanked by her sons.  Mai Wunna is said to have died of a broken heart.  Her sons were taken away by the king, and were later themselves executed for dereliction of duty while in his service, becoming nats instead.  They have their own shrine near Mandalay, and it’s the site of one of Burma’s biggest spirit festivals. 


We left the nat temple, crossed the street, and walked through the pair of large white elephants and up the main steps, to start our climb.  

Because Mount Popa is famous throughout Burma as the home of the nat spirits, thousands of pilgrims to come and pay their respects to (and sometimes ask a favor of) the resident nats. Mount Popa’s name is derived from the Sanskrit word for flower. This rocky crag contains it all… monasteries, shrines, and pagodas, at the summit. There is a bit of a debate as to when the volcano last erupted. Some say it was 250,000 years ago, while others say 40 million years ago.  Either way, both estimates are far away enough to be sure that the volcano is truly safe and quiescent.

Tradition demands that you not wear red, black or green when visiting the mountain, so forget your favorite football jersey.  Nor should you bring meat, especially pork (possibly in deference to the Muslim sensibilities of Byatta, one of the nats said to reside upon the mountain.  This was frustrating, as I make it my habit to always carry a pork chop in my pocket to gnaw on in case I get hungry.  Oh well, today I’ll have to do without.  Violate these rules and risk the wrath of one of the 37 extremely powerful nats, who may retaliate by inflicting dramatic bad luck upon you.  You don’t mess with the nats.  They have a reputation for being much less forgiving than Lord Buddha, possibly because  almost all of them met a violent death during their lives as humans.

            Entry to the shrines is free.  It takes about 15 minutes to climb to the summit. 

 The covered stairway (zaungdan) is crowned with a seven-tiered ceremonial roof tower. There are 777 covered steps to the top.   As you can see, monkeys line the steps in and around Mt. Popa.

The lower third is lined with numerous souvenir  shops, and  people selling food.

 Then you come to a footwear stall where we had to leave our shoes.  We put ours in box 29. I wasn't too thrilled with leaving our shoes, because the monkeys urinate and defecate all over the steps.  Going up with shoes on, past this point on Mount Popa, is not an option, though.

Locals keep the stairs clean of monkey pee and poop, for which you are incessantly asked donations, which reminded me of being back in New York.  (The incessant asking for money, not the cleaning part.  No one cleans anything in New York City, that's for sure.)  Here's a guy wiping down the steps of monkey urine, for which our guide (in purple) gave him a small donation.

An abundant population of Macaque monkeys also call Mt. Popa home. They are quite brazen and some are so well fed that they’re the size of a small child, and more obnoxious.  We’ve been told to keep our belongings safely tucked away in a bag as you climb the 777 steps; despite being fed loads of bananas that hawkers sell to tourists and pilgrims, these monkeys won’t hesitate to snatch your water bottle. I'm an animal lover, but I have to say, these monkeys were pretty creepy.

More nat shrines dot the steps on the way up.  A pretty interesting one is the one just above the footwear stall, signed “Nat Nan”, featuring a parade of nats with helpful English signs.  Examples include (from left to right) Myin Phyu Shin (aka Aung Zawmagyi, the “Lord of the White Horse”), a messenger said to have been executed for delivering an important royal message a bit too slowly, and a family group showing Byatta, plus two images of his wife and sons.

Up and up we went. All 777 steps.

We finally reached the top.  The summit of the rock is covered in a cluster of Buddha and nat shrines crammed together.  The whitewashed and gilded Taung Kalat Buddhist Monastery crowns the summit of Taung Kalat and is an important place of pilgrimage for Buddhist monks and nuns, and lay people all across Burma.

On our flight from Beijing to Yangon, we met a woman named Renee from San Francisco who was well-traveled and very nice.  We told her that we had tried the only Burmese restaurant in New York before coming to Burma, and that it wasn't very good.  She said that San Francisco had four Burmese restaurants, and that she thought the best was one called Burma Super Star.  I thought of her when we got to the top of Mount Popa and saw this plaque.  The restaurant must have made a donation to get this  plaque installed.

I like gongs, and I hit this one a couple of times.

The gold stupa at the top was nice, but after seeing the stupa at the Shwedagon, this one pales in comparison.  The view from the terrace up here was pretty impressive, I must say.

I saw a cute orange kitty at the top.  I wonder how long it took her to get to the top.  Does she make the 777 step climb daily, or does she just live at the top permanently?  I guess I'll never know.

Going down was much easier.  
I like how our guide gave every step-cleaner a little tip.

We grabbed a quick lunch at the not-too-memorable Yangon Restaurant, and then we were off to the town of Salay.

Salay is about 50 km south of Bagan, on the banks of the Ayeyarwady.  It developed as a satellite of Bagan in the 12th and 13th century and remains an important religious center. There are about 50 active monasteries, many monuments, and some interesting colonial buildings. It's not visited by many tourists.  

The main attraction is the well-maintained 19th century wooden gem, the Yoke Sone Kyaung (Monastery). 

It’s an unusual wooden structure consisting of a large platform raised on pillars, with a cluster of intricately carved wooden shrines on top.  It was built from 1882 to 1892.  

There are intricate woodcarvings on the outer walls displaying 19th-century court life and scenes from the Jataka (stories from the Buddha’s past lives) and Ramayana (one of India’s best known legends). 

The monastery was renovated twice in the 1990’s and the government’s Department of Archaeology runs the site. 

The teak carvings are amazing, and very well-preserved.

There are many interesting artifacts inside.

It's an active monastery.  We saw a monk strolling around the premises.

The  monastery is also home to the small U Pone Nya Museum. It is named after the celebrated 19th century Burmese writer.  It contains assorted exhibits from other sites in Salay, including more fine wood carvings.

Close by, the Man Paya Pagoda is home to Shinbin Maha Laba, the largest (20 ft)  lacquer Buddha image in Burma, dating back to the 13th century.  As the legend goes, the Buddha image was originally located near Monywa and was washed downstream during an 1888 monsoon, all the way to Salay.

It was a cool looking pagoda

 I know this Buddha looks like gold, but trust me, it really is made of lacquer.  When you knock on it with your knuckles, you can hear that it's hollow.  Kinda freaked me out, but in a cool way.

Our last stop was a nearby monastery and meditation center, the Sasanayaunggyi Kyaung.  Standing outside was a very intense little monklet.

Inside we met a super-nice monk who spoke pretty good English.  He showed us this beautiful 19th century glass armoire with Jataka panels depicting the life of the Buddha.

 Inside the armoire were bundles wrapped in cloth.  Inside each bundle were these strips that looked almost like venetian blind blades. Each blade had small, meticulous inscriptions on them.  We were told that they were 400 years old. 

The monk then took out another document, which was were more holy writings, in Burmese. 

Then he took one out and asked us to sign it.  It was some kind of guest book for visitors to the monastery.  We signed at the bottom, as you can see. 

 The monk was really so kind and gracious. He saw my interest in cats and he thought that was nice.  Before we left, we made a donation to the monastery.

 As we drove back to our hotel, it started to get dark.  The cars had headlights, but most of the motorbikes on the road did not have any headlights and were difficult for drivers to see.  There were no street lights or road lights.  Mark commented how dangerous this must be.  “That’s Myanmar”, said Myint, with a chuckle.  For all the changes the country is going through, the basics, like headlights and street lamps, are unlikely to change any time soon.  

We got closer to the hotel, with dusk heavily descending upon us. Our driver was about to leisurely turn left onto the road that led to our hotel, when he suddenly he hit the brakes and swerved hard, narrowly missing a horse cart that seemingly came out of nowhere. There was no sound from any motor, obviously, and no lights of any kind. We just missed nicking the wheel of the cart.  A woman on the cart yelled out something in our direction.  “I don’t speak Burmese”, said Mark. “But I'm pretty sure I know what she just yelled.”

And so ends our three days in Bagan.  Tomorrow:  an early flight, and then new adventures in Inle Lake!