Pilgrimage to Mt. Popa
Bagan to Mt. Popa, Myanmar
Ready to depart by private taxi to Mt. Popa at 10am but with no sign of our guide we could only assume that the beer bottle excesses of the previous day were still impacting poor Phohtaoo and as such he would not be making the trip.
Cycling passed red brick temples the previous day it was impossible not to notice the prevalence of peanut and sesame crops planted throughout the area. As we left the plains behind and into more farming areas these two crops continued to dominate. As such, it was no surprise when some thirty minutes into our two hour journey to Mt. Popa that we stopped at a wayside bamboo built farm that appeared to refine both of these crops.
A very large pestle and mortar
To the side of a large bamboo hut a harnessed ox circled around a two foot diameter mortar and pestel. Inside a large basket of peanuts (a standard unit of measure in Myanmar) was being ground into a brown-grey paste. At the base of the mortar a small dish collected the golden oil being crushed from the peanuts. This process would last for two hours. The result would be about four liters of peanut oil and a peanut mash, which when mixed with onion and garlic, and then deep fried would make a delicious sounding mid-morning snack. We were reliably informed that whilst many areas of Myanmar produce both peanut and sesame oil, Bagan produced the best. Holidaying Burmese would usually stop at one of the ten or fifteen similar stands in this area to purchase high quality oil, direct from source.
Cooking up the Palm sugar
In addition, to oils the farm also harvested palm sugar. Expertly climbing a female palm tree (it had fruit whilst the male does not) the farmer swapped an earthenware pot dangling from the end of one of the palm trees stems for a presumable empty pot. Returning to earth we could see that the earthenware pot was filled with a yellow, sweet tasting liquor. This was the palm sugar, secreted continuously by the palm tree and as such available for harvest every two hours.
Fermented Palm sugar
Whilst we drank this raw, tasty liquor it was in its fermented and distilled forms that it is typically sold. After harvesting the liquor it is boiled in large, wood fired woks until a thick syrup remains. Once cooled these are made into sweets, called Jakatta. These sweet treats are usually eaten when additional energy is required. Workers in the fields will take one before drinking water to provide a natural energy boost. Whilst these are sold they can also be mixed with water and yeast to produce a fermented liquor similar to beer. This sweet tasting drink with a flavor and appearance similar to Mead was very quaffable but in the early morning we resisted sampling more than a single shot glass of the amber liquid.
Distilling the Palm Sugar
Naturally, this fermented liquid can also be distilled. The addition of heat produces a clear relatively smooth palm whiskey. Normally imbibed along with Jattaka and sesame seeds the mix of flavors was not unpleasant. Appropriate quantities of palm whiskey purchased we were soon back on the road heading towards the pinnacle of volcanic rock that is Mt. Popa. However, now we were also accompanied by Phohtaoo. After arriving a few minutes late at the hotel, to find we had already departed, he had obtained a lift from a friend with a scooter to catch up with us at the peanut oil farm.
Relaxing with freshly distilled Palm whiskey
Stopping en route at Popa village the quality and volume of fresh fruits and vegetables on display were testament to the fertility of this volcanic ash laden lands. Our hotel nestled near the summit of a neighboring hill overlooking Mt. Popa. Yet, with low clouds once again affecting visibility our view of the fabled mountain crowned with a golden Stupa resplendent monastery was somewhat obscured. Undaunted we were soon trekking through the jungle to the base of the mountain careful to avoid ‘large black spiders’ and ‘red snakes’ that Phohtaoo assured us were prevalent in this area. Relieved to reach the small village at the base of Mt. Popa without being attacked or poisoned by fang wielding creatures of the jungle, and having made a strong mental note to take a taxi back to the hotel at the end of our walk, we stopped first for lunch before commencing our ascent of this 2,700ft column of volcanic rock. With Phohtaoo ordering a $2 Myanmar curry that was accompanied by a myriad of side dishes ranging from recognizable onions and chili to strange look dishes of who knows what, it was a little while before we were ready to begin our climb.
Mt. Popa in the clouds
Strangely the elderly ladies sitting in our restaurant all appeared to be carrying catapults and small round lumps of rock. Wondering at first if this was some strange geriatric fusion of bowls and archery it became readily apparent that this was to deter the many monkeys, prevalent in this region, from climbing on roofs or approaching the restaurants and market stalls of the village. As we sat and ate troops of monkeys, resembling the Barbary Apes of Gibraltar ran up walls, loudly announcing their presence on the ill conceived but extremely noisy corrugated iron roofs that provided shelter for the majority of the village dwellings. As families of monkeys jumped across the roofs, the loud reverberations meant that their presence could not be overlooked or ignored.
Not overly friendly
Cooling assisted engine
Mt. Popa appears from the clouds
Beginning our thirty minute hike to the mountain top monastery we were warned to tie down or strap on anything lose about our persons. This time the potential pickpockets would be simians only slightly less evolved than those pickpockets we had already encountered in Mongolia and Papua New Guinea. Walking, as is typical, barefoot to the monastery we were also to be watchful of monkey poop that might affect our progress. Whilst the spaces between roof and walls were filled with razor wire this did little to keep the monkeys out of the covered walkways that led to the top of the mountain. Similarly, with roofs of corrugating iron the frequent jumping of monkeys on this noisy surface gave more than a passable effect that the entire mountain was about to fall, after millions of years happy existence.
To help ward off the more than curious and at times aggressive monkeys an old technology was utilized. A humble backscratcher slapped into the palm of one’s hand or on a stainless steel railing was relatively successful at removing all but the most stubborn of monkey from our path. As we ascended the mountain a variety of Buddha and nat shrines were passed. The latter were important as the Two Brother nats that we had celebrated at the Spirit Festival in Mandalay - Min Gyi and Min Galay – were, according to legend born on this sacred mountain. Peering into a small cave, marked by a golden rock, we could see nothing but money and thrown offerings but this was, we were assured, the finally resting place of the two naughty nats.
With the cloud having lifted before we began our ascent of the mountain the summit provided panoramic views towards the Plains of Bagan and the distant Ayeyarwady river. As with all tourist sites in Myanmar we did not have to wait long before local tourists, this time from Mon State, were eager to have their picture taken with us, well Trey! With Golden Stupas and a curious female monkey in the background Trey posed as a procession of local tourists posed for their pictures to be taken, giggling after the fact and at having shaken our hands.
Famous Trey poses for photos
Looking down on Popa village
Old temple Pagoda's were being replaced
Just as with our ascent monkeys had to be dodged and guarded against throughout our descent. Rounding one corner a clearly quite mad vendor was happily selling a favorite monkey treat – peanuts – to those making the ascent. This encouraged large numbers of the creatures to congregate in ever increasing numbers, eager to grab the paper packets from quivering hands. More concerned about cameras being mistaken for packets of peanuts we made the descent through this chaotic throng. Obviously, confusing my backpack with a packet of peanuts I soon found one monkey jumping on my back only to be swatted off by the trusty back scratcher. It was with some relief that we made the ascent, in remarkably quick time, with all our cameras and accoutrements in order.
Count the monkeys!
Stalls line the start of our ascent
From there the floor of a vaguely covered truck took us the ten minute ride back to our hotel, avoiding the ordeal of a second jungle trek and a soaking from the now threatening afternoon monsoon. Returning to veritable isolation at our remote, but comfortable hotel, we had few options for supper but found ourselves retiring early, ready for an early four o’clock start in the morning.