Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Nats and Mount Popa.

Popa Taungkalat Monastery.

From the dry, arid plains of Bagan, our drive took is into the mountains.  Temperature wise, it wasn't all that much cooler but the air felt cleaner.  I think we were just away from all the dust that's constantly stirred up by cars on the streets running through Bagan.

Here, we got to experience a bit of tropical forest.  For a few minutes, I felt like we were back in Thailand.


Win parked the van outside the entrance to the Popa Mountain Resort.  I had no idea why we were here but we all dutifully followed Miu inside the lobby and then out the other side, continuing on a path that led through the back garden of the hotel.   With every step we took, we all had to comment on just how nice this place was.  There was virtually no one around the place and we were surrounded by lush, tropical vegetation. This was what I had imagined all of Myanmar to be like.  It was so tranquil here.



Miu led us to a spot where we had an unobstructed view of Mount Popa and the Popa Taungkalat Monastery that sits on the very top of this now extinct volcano.   The site of the monastery sitting atop the free standing boulder immediately brought back memories of Meteora, Greece.  Bro and I marveled at those monasteries and this evoked the same feelings.  I was excited at the prospect of getting to the top of Mount Popa and seeing the plains of Bagan from there.  I was expecting a phenomenal view!


We were standing an incredible distance away which gave us this wonderful view but I had to use the full length of my zoom to get a closer look.   I could see the stairs that wound its way up to the monastery.  We would have climb those, something I was not looking forward to especially after I realized they are in the open sun - it's going to be a hot climb!



Miu gave us a few minutes to use the facilities and wander about the grounds of the resort before we continued on our journey to Mount Popa.  I strolled through the garden.

Baby jackfruits.


Ficus hispida with baby figs.  They don't look to be an edible variety, at least for humans.


A very dainty orchid flower.  I'm sure Bro would know the species but I have no clue.

We had all scattered about so it took a while for everyone to arrive back at the van.  Down the mountain we went.  We made a stop at another vantage point.  This one even had a cheesy stand where you could pose with a framed view of Mount Popa and the monastery.


From the ground level, the monastery looks much more imposing.  What is it about monks that drives them to building their homes so hard to get to??


A short distance later and we had arrived into an area filled with roadside vendors and quite a few tourists.  There was so much traffic that Win stopped the car just long enough for us to get off. 


As he drove off, we walked alongside Miu and entered into a small pavilion hall.  It was a bit of a strange place.  Considering that the Burmese are devout Buddhists, I was expecting to see Buddha images but there was not a single one in sight.


Instead, we were greeted by dozens of small statues of what looked to be *regular* human beings.  My initial reaction was how odd this was and then of course, I wondered what the heck this was.


I introduce to the Nats, spirits that are worshipped in Myanmar in conjunction with Buddhism. The worshipping of Nats likely predates the introduction of Buddhism into the country.

King Anawrahta of Bagan (1044–1077) designated an official pantheon of 37 Great Nats after he had failed to enforce a ban on Nat worship.

The 37 Great Nats are spirits that have human characteristics, needs, and desires.  They are flawed, having desires considered derogatory and immoral in mainstream Buddhism.  Almost all 37 Great Nats are of royal descent and met violent deaths.

No. Name Meaning
1 Thagyamin Indra or Sakra, King of Nats
2 MahaGiri Lord of the great mountain
3 Hnamadawgyi Great royal sister of Magagiri
4 Shwe Nabe Lady with Golden Sides
5 Thon Ban Hla Lady of Three Times Beauty
6 Taungoo Mingaung King Mingaung of Taungoo
7 Mintara King Hsinbyushin
8 Thandawgan The Royal Secretary to Taungoo Minkaung
9 Shwe Nawrahta The young prince drowned by King Shwenankyawshin
10 Aung Zawmagyi Lord of the White Horse
11 Ngazishin Lord of the five white elephant
12 Aungbinle Hsinbyushin Lord of the white elephant from Aungbinle
13 Taungmagyi Lord of Due South
14 Maung Minshin Lord of the North
15 Shindaw Lord Novice
16 Nyaung-gyin Old man of the Banyan tree
17 Tabinshwehti King of Myanmar between 1531-50
18 Minye Aungdin Brother-in-law of King Thalun
19 Shwe Sit thin Prince, son of Saw Hnit
20 Medaw Shwedaw Lady Golden Words
21 Maung Po Tu Shan Tea Merchant
22 Yun Bayin King of Chiengmai
23 Maung MinByu Prince MinByu
24 Mandalay Bodaw Lord grandfather of Mandalay
25 Shwebyin Naungdaw Elder Brother Inferior Gold
26 Shwebyin Nyidaw Younger Brother Inferior Gold
27 Mintha Maungshin Grandson of King Alaung Sithu
28 Htibyusaung Lord of White Umbrella
29 Htibyusaung Medaw Lady of White Umbrella
30 Pareinma Shin Mingaung The Usurper Mingaung
31 Min Sithu King Alaung Sithu
32 Min Kyawzwa Prince Kyawzwa
33 Myaukpet Shinma Lady of the North
34 Anauk Mibaya Queen of the Western Palace
35 Shingon Lady Hunback
36 Shingwa Lady Bandy-legs
37 Shin Nemi Little lady with the flute

 Much like sainthood, Nats can be designated for a variety of reasons, including those only known in certain regions in Myanmar.  There are also *lesser* Nats e.g., spirits of trees, water, etc.

They look so calm but they all died in a horrible way.


Not surprisingly, Nat worship is less common in urban areas than in rural areas, and is practiced among ethnic minorities as well as in the mainstream society.   The most important Nat pilgrimage site in Myanmar is Mount Popa.  Ergo, why this pavilion hall is here.  I presume that the images of all 37 Great Nats are displayed here.

There were barely any people inside the hall but there was plenty of offerings - mainly food and of course, money.

Bananas and coconut - apparently the traditional offerings for Nats.

Money and a shopping basket for this Nat.


The most neatly presented bills I've ever seen, not to mention a few US bills.

I don't know who this Nat is but he needs a horse and lots of booze to keep him happy.

Nats.  Definitely something different though a bit odd to someone like me who doesn't quite understand the desire to worship a spirit that left earth in a violent way.  I guess you can say they offered a change of pace from seeing more Buddhas.  :-)

Once we were done with the Nats, Miu led us over to the entrance to the steps that would take us up to Popa Taungkalat Monastery.  We went on ahead without him.  I'm sure he's been up more times than he can remember.

You can see the top of Mount Popa and Popla Tuangkalat Monastery.


People watching :-)





Before we began our way up the steps, Miu warned us about the monkeys.  A cheeky bunch that are so used to humans, they will fearlessly come up to you and snatch something out of your hands.  Apparently, cellphones are a popular item they steal.  I would've died laughing if I had spotted one with a cellphone in hand - you could probably teach them to text :-)

Ayşe had never seen macaques before, at least not running freely.  So, she was just fascinated by them.  That is until a small one snarled at her.  That put the fear of Allah in her and well after that, she was not so keen on them, avoiding them as best she could.  I had to tease her about being scared off by a creature that was probably a 10th of her size and weight.


Vendors had set up stalls along one side of the steps.  So far, I've not found the vendors to be aggressive here.  In fact, unless you approach them, they don't make a move towards you - not even shouting that famous phrase, *looking is free*.


Aside from the usual tourist souvenirs, stall after stall had these bottled flowers for sale.  Bro immediately recognized them as yellow champa flowers (Michelia champaca) which are a member of the Magnolia family.  The white flower is more common but both are apparently renown for their fragrance.  Here the tree grows wild in the hills around Mount Popa.  I'm guessing these bottles of flowers would be used as offerings in the monastery.


There were also quite a few food vendors set up along the path leading up to the monastery.  Pilgrims do need to eat!  I would have gladly stopped to sample food and I think Bro would have joined me as he has been on enough trips with me now that he has built up a bit of a cast iron stomach.  Understandably, Ayşe would have refrained as she is still leery about eating streetside.



All along our walk, those cute macaques criss crossed our path.  Ayşe recoiled very time any of them looked her way.  Too funny!


Where there are animals, there will be someone feeding them.  A few vendors were selling small paper cones filled with what looked to be sugar.  There was a woman seated on the steps near this group, handing out cones.  No wonder these guys were so active - they were on a sugar high!  Given how many visitors this place sees in a day, it's a constant sugar high for these moneys!

This one is double fisting cones. :-)



It was at this point, that we had to leave our shoes behind to continue on. I mentioned that where there are monkeys, there's monkey poop.  Immediately, I had a flashback to the time when I was in Casablanca, Morocco.  My travel partner and I had gone to visit an abandoned cathedral. The caretaker told us that, for a small fee, we could climb up to the top of the bell tower for a view.  Sounded good, so we handed over a few dirhams and proceeded to make our way up.  We were nowhere near the top when the pigeon poop started showing up on the steps.  The higher we climbed up, the more pigeon poop there was.  Eventually, I decided I was not about to walk on any more poop as I had seemed to recall that the poop carries diseases with it.  I turned around and went back down and my travel partner was right behind me.

The steps leading up to the monastery seemed clean and I had no idea if we would encounter more monkeys or more monkey poop as we walked.  But I decided that I would not go further.  The other two were welcome to continue on but for some reason, they lacked interest.  I think we've had enough pagodas, monasteries, and Buddhas that missing out on this one would not be a big deal.  So ironic that I was originally so keen to come to this place that I arranged our travel itinerary to specifically come to this place.  There are some things that websites and guidebooks just don't tell you!


Back at the bottom of the steps, we decided to check out a few of the small shops that line the main road, before meeting back up with Miu and Win.  I think both guys were surprised that we returned in such a short amount of time.  We had to sheepishly confess to them that we never made it up to the top.  If I ever come back to Bagan, I will have to go all the way up to the monastery.

From here, it was back to Bagan where we had lunch at another local restaurant serving traditional food to tourists.


Outside the restaurant, we crossed paths with a motorcycle gang.  They were fully outfitted in leather jackets and helmets.  It was so damn hot, I was wondering how they were able to survive all covered up.

Burmese Pythons.  I liked the name.

Everywhere you go, you see flowers, arranged in simple patterns, floating in water.  I love the idea.  Inspires me to do the same at home.

Today's lunch turned out to be more like Chinese food than traditional Burmese fare.  I welcomed the change although my dish of fried noodles with veggies was not what I expected.  Still, I enjoyed it.



Fried noodles and veggies.  I was expecting stir fried noodles with veggies.  Doh!

After lunch, Miu and Win deposited us back at the hotel.  It was time for our siesta.  Bro decided on a nap while Ayşe and I decided to cool off a bit in the room before heading out to explore the area around our hotel.