A visit to Mount Popa is an ideal day trip from Bagan. After touring the dusty, hot and arid plain of Bagan, it is a welcome relief to drive up into the cool green surrounds of this extinct volcano. Mt Popa is the center of animist worship in Myanmar, a fascinating collection of shrines in a lush jungle setting.
Your guide and driver will meet you at your hotel at 10am, and you set out on the leisurely one-and-a-half-hour drive to Mount Popa, 50 kilometers southeast of Bagan. On the way, stop at one of the primitive roadside mills, where you may watch docile buffalo slowly circumnavigating the central stone, grinding palm seed into oil. This is a good opportunity to taste some "jaggery," the local candy made from palm sugar.
As you continue your drive, Mount Popa slowly rises into view. It is in fact an extinct volcano which dominates the area with its imposing expanse. At its foot is a magnificent rocky outcrop, a table mountain topped with shimmering gold stupas - this is the Popa Taungkalat, famously confused with Mount Popa itself. The Popa Taungkalat is the favored home of 37 Burmese "nats" (aminist spirit entities), statues of which can be found at its base. For centuries newly-crowned kings of central Burma made pilgrimages here to seek the nats' prognosis on the future of their reigns. The principal nat is Pabe Maung Tint Dai, ("Mr Handsome, the Blacksmith"). Transgender spirit mediums gather here each year for spectacular nat-pwe (nat festival) celebrations where they become possessed by these powerful spirit deities. Pre-dating Buddhism, spirit worship is equally central to Burmese life, and Mount Popa therefore ranks as is one of Asia's most important spiritual "power spots."
You arrive at the foot of the Taungkalat, remove your shoes and socks, and begin the half-hour climb to the summit. The walkway winds around the outcrop, at first gradual but then steep. It is covered to protect you from the direct sunlight. The views from the summit are quite spectacular, although most guests will prefer not to complete the risky final leg of the climb.
Descend at your own pace to find your car waiting to take you to lunch. You have a choice between trying some Bamar dishes in local restaurants at the foot of the Taungkalat, or having a Burmese or European lunch at the Mount Popa Resort nearby. Whether you decide to lunch there or not, your guide will take you to see the resort, a five-star eco-friendly soft adventure hotel nestling in the side of the mountain. It is surrounded by thick jungle teeming with natural springs, butterflies, monkeys, medicinal herbs and exotic flowers (Popa is the Pali word for flower). This forest was the one-time abode of Mai Wunna, a flower-eating ogress.
In the mid-afternoon you embark on the scenic drive back down to the plain of Bagan.