On day 3 of our Myanmar tour we caught an early flight to Bagan. We were picked up whisked to nearby Mt Popa, a picturesque temple complex precariously perched atop a volcanic plug in the Myingyan Plain. It is rather stunning, sticking up like a thumb and topped with glistening stupas and spires. It is a sanctuary for Myanmar’s 37 nats, the pre-Buddhist, animist spirits worshipped in Myanmar for centuries. Like most religions, Buddhism merely absorbed primitive local religions as it extended across the country 2500 years ago.
Before the long climb to the temple one can observe the colorful effigies of the various nats in a ground-level sanctuary. For those who wish to scale the heights it’s 777 steps to the top – in bare feet (required in all Myanmar temples). We huffed and puffed our way to the great views, passing monkeys and vendors all the way up. Local superstition suggests you not wear red or black, curse, or bring meat on the mountain as it might offend the nats, who could retaliate with a variety of maledictions and bad luck.
Before we arrived at Popa, we had a very interesting stop at a palm sugar farm. I normally don’t enjoy this sort of stop but this one was really fascinating. We learned how they harvested the palm sap, cooked it into a paste, and rolled palm sugar candies from it. We got to see them making thanaka and several from our group had it applied to their cheeks. Something one notices immediately upon entering Myanmar is that many Burmese wear this beige paste on the cheeks. My guidebook says it is traditional make-up but our guide Tun Tun told us it is home-made sunblock, made from the bark of trees (several, but most popular is Thanaka and Wood Apple trees).
I’d say it is more aesthetic than functional with some women applying it in stylized patterns. Apparently, everyone has a “grinding stone” at home for rubbing the bark into paste. They also make spirits from the palm sap (think grappa or schnapps). There were various other farm-like activities and then tea and snacks for the group. All in all it was a very pleasant little distraction.
After Popa it was a bumpy ride back to Bagan to our comfy hotel where someone produced a bottle of scotch for a spontaneous pool-side happy hour. For dinner we had local Myanmar cuisine while being entertained by local dancers and puppets.