Climbing Mount Popa and Taungkalat

The photos of the Popa Taungkalat monastery looked very enticing on the travel websites. As a result, I was excited to visit during my trip to Myanmar. However, I also decided to climb nearby Mount Popa on the same day I visited Taungkalat. Climbing Mount Popa is a most exhilarating experience, indeed I was a little surprised that Popa Taungkalat ended up being a side show.

This double adventure is an easy day trip from Bagan. But be careful when you book your ride to avoid confusing your driver.

Apparently some confusion exists between the two destinations. To be sure, Popa Taungkalat monastery is the temple complex sitting on a 737 meter high volcanic outcropping.

Popa Taungkalat Monastery seen from the slopes of Mount Popa

Mount Popa is the 1509 meter mountain adjacent to Popa Taungkalat. Also know as Taung Ma-Gyi, Mount Popa towers over the plains of Bagan and also Popa Taungkalat. To clarify, they are mutually exclusive, Mount Popa is not the volcanic outcropping with the iconic temple perched on top. The confusion arises because visitors also refer to Popa Taungkalat as Mount Popa monastery.

Legend of Mount Popa’s Nats

In Myanmar, there are some notable people who were done great injustice during their lives and/or died horrible deaths. As result, they have remained in the earthly realm after their death as powerful spirits called – “nats” or native spirits – similar to ghosts. Although they are not gods, they can do humans great harm if angry or bring good fortune when appeased. Mount Popa is the heavenly abode for four of these important nats.

Their origin is in ancient Bagan. King Anawrahta would send one of his servants named – Byatta – on a daily mission to Mount Popa to gather flowers. While climbing Mount Popa one day, Byatta met a flower eating ogress named – Mai Wunna – who lived on the mountain slopes. Their romance resulted in the king receiving his flowers later in the day. Unfortunately, the King had a fierce temper and Byatta was executed for neglecting his duties.

Yellow “Champac” flowers are abundant along the Mount Popa hike.

After the death of Byatta, it was revealed that he had two sons with Mai Wunna. As a result, the king felt remorseful and invited Byatta’s two sons – Min Gyi and Min Lay – to live in the king’s palace. Unfortunately, they were also executed when they failed to contribute bricks for the construction of a new pagoda.

When climbing Mount Popa, visitors should be aware that they are accompanied by these four powerful Burmese nats – Mai Wunna, Byatta, Min Gyi and Min lay.

Flowers seen while climbing Mount Popa
When in season, visitors will enjoy an abundance of golden flowers while climbing Mount Popa.

Climbing Mount Popa

The trailhead is located near the Popa Mountain Resort which is located inside Mount Popa National Park – about a 90 minute drive from Bagan. Take a left at the fork in the trail about 300 meters from the trail head and you are on your way.

Go left at the fork in the trail.

Indeed, the Mt Popa hike really is a luxurious climb, the slope is gradual, there are golden flowers along the trail, cool breeze in the morning, you are protected by Burmese nats (if they like you) and the views at the top certainly make Mount Popa worth it. What more could you ask for?

After you rise above the tree line, the final destination is in sight for the rest of the journey – which should be no more than three hours on the ascent and 1.5 hours on the descent. Plenty of time to catch Mount Popa monastery in the afternoon.

Remains of volcanic caldera seen while climbing Mount Popa.
Final destination climbing mount popa
As you rise above the tree line, you will see the final destination at the end of the ridge line.

As you approach the top of the ridge line, you will see a group of of radio towers with a modest Buddhist temple. Apparently, this is the end of the trail for most hikers.

I am not surprised by this, however the peak with the radio towers is obviously a false summit. Additionally, I did not find the antennas and decrepit buildings made of rusted corrugated iron to be at all appealing, plus the real summit was only a short distance away. Why stop here?

Follow the trail…
….to finish the Mt Popa hike.

At the top of Mount Popa, there are a couple of golden pagodas and also an empty platform for checking out the view. One of the pagodas included statues of the four Buddhas from the new kalpa – Kassapa, Konagamana, Gautama and Kakusandha. Indeed, the panoramic view from the top is amazing.

Panoramic view after climbing mount popa
Panoramic view from summit of Mount Popa.
climbing mount popa
Flower Offering for the Buddha after climbing Mount Popa
Flower offering for the Buddha.

Climbing Popa Taungkalat

After climbing Mount Popa, it was time to visit the Mount Popa Monastery. However, the views from the summit of Taungkalat seemed anticlimactic after my recent adventure. Additionally, Popa Taungkalat is very dirty especially after being in the clean mountain air all morning. In the afternoon sun, the outcropping is also backlit which makes photography difficult.

Popa Taungkalat monastery is backlit in the afternoon which makes good photos difficult.

Furthermore, there is supposedly a wooden carving of Min Mahagiri and his sister at the base of Popa Taungkalat. I didn’t see it and my driver also said he did not know of it. Nonetheless, it is worth the climb up the 777 steps to the top.

Situated along the stairs are shrines dedicated to the 37 “inner” nats and numerous “outer” nats which are important but not as highly venerated as the inner nats.

Nat shrine seen along the stairs leading to Popa Taungkalat monastery.
Ba Boe Min Khaung – a local nat from Mt Popa – seen in a Nat shrine at the monastery on the summit of Taungkalat.

Popa Taungkalat’s most notorious residents are the macaque monkeys around the monastery on the summit of Taungkalat. Although they have a terrible reputation for harassing visitors, they were pretty subdued while I was there. Fortunately, there appeared to be at least two dedicated security guards who were keeping them occupied.

Macaque monkeys sitting at Popa Taungkalat monastery.

Indeed, the highlight of climbing the 777 stairs was to get the best views of Mount Popa in the setting sun.

Mount Popa in the setting sun.

Related Travel Posts:

Kyaiktiyo Golden Rock Hiking Adventure
Uppatasanti Pagoda in Naypyidaw, Myanmar