The deep relationship between Burmese society and Theravada Buddhism is apparent just about everywhere you go in the country. Whether you're in a big city or small town, you're bound to come across a pagoda or Buddha statue on almost every block.
A little beneath the surface, though, is the ancient tradition of 'Nat worship' - Myanmar's animistic tradition of giving offerings to the spirits. The culture of Nat worship still holds a major influence over large portions of the population, especially in rural areas.
One of the best places to get a glimpse of Myanmar's Nat culture is Mt. Popa, a volcanic plug situated just 50km from the tourist hotspot of Bagan. I decided to hike up Mt. Popa's 777 steps to learn more about the Nats, while enjoying some stunning scenery from the top.
Approaching The Mountain
Mt. Popa is just about a 90 minute drive from central Bagan. The most popular times to visit are in the early morning before sunrise or late afternoon, just before sunset. Having already woken up 4am the two previous mornings, I decided to give myself a break and opted for the later climb.
The scenery on the ride over is relatively uneventful, but what did stand out were the dozen or so hitchhikers waiting alongside the road at different points of the journey. Miles away from the nearest village, I had no idea how any of them made it all the way out there, or what it was they'd been doing.
One thing did seem clear, though - they were all hoping to get closer to Mt. Popa, one of Myanmar's holiest mountains. I could sense the magnetism of this major pilgrimage spot even before Popa itself crept into view.
Mt. Popa & The Nats
In traditional Burmese mythology, there are 37 Great Nats, all of which are worshiped and represented in shrines on Mt. Popa. The mountain itself is also where four of these Nats are said to officially reside.
Each of the 37 Great Nats have their own complex backstories, but they mostly share one thing in common: they've typically died horrible, often violent deaths. Mt. Popa's four permanent Nat inhabitants are no exception.
Legend has it that in the 11th century AD, a man named Byatta was commissioned by the first ruler of the Kingdom of Bagan, King Anawrahta, to go pick some flowers at Mt. Popa. There, Byatta met and fell in love with a flower-eating ogress named Mae Wunna. The couple ended up having two sons together, but the king strongly disapproved of the relationship. Anawrahta even went as far as executing Byatta for the crime!
Shortly thereafter, Mae Wunna would die of grief. Mae Wunna is one of the main deities watching over Mt. Popa. (Popa, in fact, means 'flower.') Mae Wunna herself, for some reason, is not counted as one of the 37 Great Nats, although her two sons are.
The Brothers & The King
After the death of their parents, the brothers, known collectively as “Shwe Hpyin Nyinaung” were forced to work for King Anawrahta. They made a mistake while constructing a pagoda for him and the merciless king made them pay for it with their lives.
Today, the ill-fated siblings are worshipped by thousands of pilgrims visiting Mt. Popa every month. Interestingly, Byatta, the father of the Shwe Hpyin Nyinaung brothers, was actually believed to be a Muslim from India. Therefore, devotees of his sons abstain from eating pork out of respect for the traditions of the family.
'Nats are considered to be powerful yet neutral forces, with the potential to either cause harm or provide protection.'
Various members of the Great Nat pantheon take center stage at Mt. Popa's many shrines
The Shwe Hpyin Nyinaung brothers, along with another pair of siblings referred to as the “Mahagiri Nats,” are the four permanent Nat residents of Mt. Popa. The backstory of the Mahagiri Nats is also long and complex, but they too died violent deaths.
After being killed, the angry Mahagiri spirits wreaked havoc on the local population for years. In an effort to quell the spirits and receive their protection instead of harm, the Mahagiri Nats were eventually enshrined on Mt. Popa.
Many of the Nat spirits are not necessarily considered to be saints known for their good behavior. On the other hand, they are not inherently evil, either. Nats are considered to be powerful yet neutral forces, with the potential to either cause harm or provide protection. Nat devotees feel the need to make offerings to keep the spirits happy and to keep them on their side.
The Creation of The Great Nat Pantheon
Though so many of the Nats were killed by King Anawrahta, the king himself would go on to decree that they be worshipped as spirits. In fact, Anawrahta is largely responsible for the form of Nat worship still found in Myanmar today.
Anawrahta was a major proponent of Theravada Buddhism and wanted to make this the official religion of his kingdom. At the time, the Theravada sect of Buddhism was competing with Hinduism, Mahayana Buddhism and Nat worship. The Nat worship traditions were especially strong, as most villages had their local spirits that they believed presided over the daily affairs of the community. The traditions also varied greatly from region to region.
Unable to directly compete with the culture of Nat worship, Anawrahta came up with the 37 Great Nat pantheon as somewhat of a marketing move. By unifying the Nats, he was able to turn Nat worship into something closer to an organized religion.
He then went ahead and merged this new brand of Nat worship with Theravada Buddhism in an attempt to win over the folk practitioners throughout his kingdom. Clearly, as evident by the prevalence of both Theravada Buddhism and the 37 Nats over a thousand years later, Anawrahta's plan was a great success.
During your time in Bagan, you may also want to visit the Shwezigon Pagoda in the town of Nyaung U. This is the main temple where Anawrahta's experiment with fusing the two religions first came to fruition. Just like on Mt. Popa, visitors to Shwezigon can make offerings to both the Nats and Buddha himself.
Nyaung U's Shwezigon Pagoda: Where the Nats first merged with Theravada Buddhism
Mt. Popa's 777 steps (a number which surely must have some local occult significance) are not especially difficult to climb on their own. Provided you're in decent shape, you shouldn't have much trouble with the climb, although you'll definitely work up a decent sweat.
What makes the climb a challenge, though, is the need to watch out for the seemingly endless amount of monkeys you'll encounter all the way up. The monkeys here are infamous, with many visitors getting their sunglasses or water bottles stolen. I didn't have any problems, but I was extra careful to keep small items zipped up in my bag. I also wouldn't attempt the climb while carrying food of any kind, even if it's concealed. The monkeys somehow just know!
The monkeys are also not all that will be vying for your attention. There are so many shrines to explore along the way up, each of which houses a different Nat or Buddha image. Some of the shrines can only be found by taking a detour off the main path up.
You can also stop to rest at a number of vantage points along the journey, but if you have a smaller camera, be sure to hold onto it extra tight. Though not really intended for foreign tourists, you'll also encounter numerous stalls selling offerings for the Nats, mainly flowers. (Popa, as mentioned earlier, means 'flower.')
Reaching The Summit
Finally reaching the top, I arrived at what's known as Taungkalat Monastery. This Buddhist temple sits directly on top of the volcanic plug at over 1,500 meters high. Here I encountered even more colorful and shiny shrines. Most of them had one or two worshippers inside, silently but intently praying to both Buddha and the Nats.
From the summit you can get a clear view of the surrounding town and forests, and even see Mt. Popa in the distance. Wait - a view of Mt. Popa from Mt. Popa? Yes, well, sort of.
The real Mt. Popa
The volcanic plug with 777 steps that is home to the Nats is actually called 'Popa Taungkalat Monastery.' Many people refer to it as Mt. Popa, as this is the main tourist attraction and pilgrimage site.
Technically, the real Mt. Popa is the large mountain you see in the distance once you get to the top of the volcanic plug. This mountain supposedly takes around 4 hours to climb, and you shouldn't expect any elaborate shrines or infrastructure of any kind.
Don't worry too much about it, though. Tell any tourist office or hotel desk in town that you want to be taken to 'Mt. Popa,' and they will understand that you want to climb up the 777 steps to the monastery.
Climbing back down just as the sun was setting, the stalls selling food and offerings were already closed. Even the monkeys seemed tired after another day of shenanigans with the pilgrims and tourists.
Local spirits, monkeys and a volcanic plug came together to form a memorable and worthwhile day trip that I'd recommend to anyone with an extra day in Bagan.
Mt. Popa shows no sign of dwindling popularity with the locals, and things are only going to get busier as more foreign tourists visit the country. That's going to make the monkeys - and one could only hope - the Nats, very happy for some time to come.
'Local spirits, monkeys and a volcanic plug came together to form a memorable and worthwhile day trip.'
Any hotel or travel agency in New Bagan, Old Bagan or Nyaung U should be able to book transportation to Mt. Popa for you.
You can either hire a private taxi for around 30,000 kyats or ride in a shared minivan for just 9,000 kyats.
The ride takes about 90 minutes each way and on the way there you will likely stop at a factory where they make local Burmese sweets.
Like any religious site in Myanmar, you will need to keep your shoulders and knees covered.
As this is a holy site, you will also need to hike up the steps barefoot. Lockers are available at the base of the steps but you will be charged a small fee. You may want to consider leaving some space in a backpack to carry your own shoes.
The Bagan area consists of three different towns: Old Bagan, New Bagan and Nyaung U. All three towns are equally convenient when it comes to getting around the Bagan area.
To get to Mt. Popa, the driver should be able to pick you up at your hotel regardless of which town you're staying in.
I stayed in Motel Zein in Nyaung U which was conveniently located and has excellent breakfast buffets.
Most people reach Bagan by either a train or bus from Yangon or Mandalay. Taking a boat ride from Mandalay to Bagan (as well as vice versa) is another very popular option.
Bagan is also accessible via Nyaung U airport.