Mount Popa Monastery, Myanmar
You feel every one of the 777 steps climbing to the top of the monastery at Mount Popa. Partly because of the burn in your legs. Party because of the constant threat of attack from the hundreds of monkeys who live along the staircase, seemingly guarding it, army-like, from any enemy invasion. In lieu of any enemies, they make food in your bags or pockets their target.
The monastery is built on the top of a volcanic plug, caused by the nearby volcano Mount Popa. It rises 737 metres above sea level and stands out awkwardly on the landscape, like a lone skyscraper in a city of shacks. From below, the gold at the top shimmers in the Myanmar sun.
Along the staircase to the top, various temples and shrines provide a chance for rest and spiritual reflection on why you’re tackling such a climb.
A hermit called U Khandi maintained the staircase until he died in the 1940s. For a hermit, it wouldn’t have been a particularly solitary life, though. The monastery is a popular pilgrimage site for the Myanmar people.
They come in a large part for the residents of the mountain. Not the monkeys… or the monks… but the spirits known as nats. There are 37 of them in residence, apparently, and are depicted in their human forms in these statues at the bottom of the staircase.
The Mount Popa monastery, or Taung Kalat as it’s technically known, is an easy day trip from Bagan. It takes just over an hour to drive there and there are plenty of people in Bagan who will gladly take you.
If you would like to book a tour in advance, there are some options here:
If you’re not scared of monkeys – or nats – it’s worth it.