It’s become a tradition for me to take a group of children from the 90th Street neighborhood in Mandalay on a day trip of some sort when I’m town. We’ve been to a variety of places in the area over the past five years. The time was no different, or actually it was; instead of a single day excursion, we spent three full days on the road exploring historic sites much further away from Mandalay. In the case of one remote place, it would qualify as “out in the boondocks.”
Our destination the first day was Mt. Popa, one of the most sacred sites in Myanmar. Mt. Popa is located near Bagan, so our plan was to arrive there in the morning and end up at Bagan in the afternoon, where we would spend the first night. Mt. Popa is an extinct volcano, but it was last seen spewing lava about 250,000 years ago, so nowadays the only thing to fear on the mountain is the hordes of monkeys scampering all over the place, begging for food and trying to snatch the hats or sunglasses from the heads of unsuspecting tourists. The big attraction of Mt. Popa, however, and what makes it sacred for the locals, are all the nat shrines located there. A nat is spirit, and most people in Myanmar have a belief in them to some degree. In addition to the various nat shrines, there are some more traditional shrines to Buddha at Mt. Popa too.
And all those monkeys! Really, they are more than a bit of a nuisance the way they run around and create havoc; it’s as if they owned the place! Well, maybe they do; they’ve probably been in residence there longer than any humans have. Of one thing there is no doubt; the monkeys have turned into an attraction themselves. Vendors stroll up and down the stairways selling monkey food as well as flowers for the shrines. I used all the pocket change (small banknotes, actually, since there are no coins in Myanmar) that I had to buy monkey food and flowers for the kids to distribute.
I’ve been to Mt. Popa three times already, so the excursion wasn’t that special for me. But then again, I got a kick out seeing how excited everyone else was about being there. For Maw Hsi and the kids it was definitely a big deal. They can now boast to their friends and family; “I’ve been to Mt. Popa.” And most of them bought souvenir t-shirts as proof!