Of Makeup, Monkeys and Mt. Popa

Two words: wet wipes.
 
I’ll come back to that later.
On our second day in Bagan, our guide brought us to Taung Kalat – a monastery perched atop the volcanic plug caused by the extinct volcano, Mt. Popa. One needs to climb 777 steps to get to the summit which is home to nats or spirits represented by statues. 

Taung Kalat Monastery – often confused to be the actual Mt. Popa
 
On our way to Taung Kalat, we made a stopover at a roadside tea shed that also makes palm sugar candy and palm liquor among others.
 


They showed us the old school way of extracting the palm sugar syrup using a bull-powered grinding wheel. Next, a guy climbed a palm tree like nobody’s business. The sap was then distilled to make palm liquor. 

A nice Burmese lass also showed us how to prepare thanaka. It is a form of makeup produced by grinding a tree bark with a small amount of water on a circular stone slab to create a paste. She even painted our faces with a leaf design. 🙂
Claire and I sporting our leaf design thanaka
Aside from cosmetic purposes, thanaka provides protection from sunburn and gives a cooling sensation.
Photo credit: Ann Umaña

Next, we were treated to some tea and snacks – an assortment of pickled tea leaves, fried lentils, sesame seeds etc.
 
The side trip seemed a bit touristy, all right, but we didn’t feel pressured to shell out some kyats. But because they were so kind – and since tipping is not customary in Myanmar – we bought some palm sugar and plum candies as pasalubong.
Taung Kalat was still an hour’s drive from the tea shed. We traveled through uphill and winding roads before we reached the foot of the monastery lined with vendors and shops.
 
There is no entrance fee, but really, it should just be imposed for the monastery’s upkeep.
 
As usual, footwear and even socks must be removed. There are racks where you can leave your footwear.
 
A humongous nat a few steps from the entrance
The culprit
Photo credit: Jyse Salubre

The climb was okay, but because we are so physically fit, we stopped every now and then.
Once, we stopped to buy soda from one of the vendors when a monkey snatched my friend’s drink, which startled another friend and caused her to drop her iPad. It’s still in one piece, thankfully, though its camera had been somewhat damaged. 
Be very wary of these mischievous monkeys because there are lots of them in Taung Kalat. And oh, expect that you’ll inevitably be stepping on their piss and/or poo, too, so bring lots of wet wipes and alcohol.
Although there are ‘caretakers’ who are stationed to mop the steps every now and then, it seemed to me that they only actually start mopping when they see tourists approaching so they could ask for donations. Again, probably better to have a fixed entrance fee, no?

We weren’t even halfway through the climb and we were already panting. If it weren’t for the senior citizens — some even with a foot cast — that passed us by, we would have probably given up and just waited for the rest of the group to descend.

 Life-like nats that have human characteristics, wants and needs

After we finally managed to drag ourselves to the summit, we weren’t exactly bowled over with what we saw. Aside from the nats and a number of Buddha statues, there’s really not much to see. So unless you have more than 2 days in Bagan, I wouldn’t recommend getting a Mt. Popa tour.

Taung Kalat as seen from Mt. Popa Resort

Our driver then brought us to Mt. Popa Resort which has amazing views! Had we known how filthy Taung Kalat was, we would have skipped the climb and headed straight to this resort.
 

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