Few tourists make the half-day trip from Bagan to Mount Popa, and even fewer undertake the hike up to its actual summit. The hike is peaceful, the experience rewarding and the views sublime – so why so few? Misinformation, confusion and rumour are the main culprits: fact-finding has become a complicated task, and making arrangements a hassle – two factors that have consequently deterred tourists. In reality, everything is fairly straightforward, and with the correct information you can organise it yourself.
Nearly every Bagan tourist office advertises trips to Mt Popa. But these only take you to Popa Taung Kalat – the rocky volcanic plug topped with a picturesque temple (at least when viewed from afar). This excursion can be done in the morning or afternoon; a space in a shared taxi from Bagan sets you back 8000ks or 9000ks respectively. If you want to climb to the extinct volcano’s summit, however, you need to scale Taung Ma-gyi (‘Mother Mountain’), a new name given to distinguish it from the more popular Popa Taung Kalat.
This is where the difficulties and misunderstandings begin. Taung Ma-gyi (the extinct volcano) was previously called Mt Popa, but now Popa Taung Kalat (the volcanic plug with the monastery) is officially referred to as Mt Popa. To avoid confusion, you’re best avoiding the name Mt Popa altogether – just use Taung Kalat or Taung Ma-gyi.
Guide books recommend hiring a local guide, but the hike is dead simple: from the hotel reception, backtrack along the road you came in on, then take the stony dirt road up to your right. After approximately 200m, take an elbow turn left onto a slightly smaller, though still sizeable path and follow this all the way up.
To get to Taung Ma-gyi, you’ll need a private taxi to drop you at the Popa Mountain Resort. I put up a sign advertising my plans in my Bagan hotel reception, and by mid-afternoon four others had joined me. By the next morning, we were six. For a total of 50,000ks, we arranged for the taxi to leave at 9am, wait for us at the Popa Mountain Resort while we hiked to the summit, then take us to Taung Kalat afterwards. When the tourist agent, through whom we’d booked the taxi, realised we wanted to scale Taung Ma-gyi, she almost cancelled the trip: “You cannot do that! The path is bad and it’s so far!”
The hike to the summit only takes 2 hours, but convincing her we would be fine was a challenge. To understand her concerns, you need to know a little about traditional Burmese thought: most Burmese consider walking an unenjoyable necessity, and thus the Western concept of ‘going for a walk’ is one that few grasp. I was once told by numerous villagers that a hilltop pagoda I was trying to reach in Pyay was “ayàn waì-deh” (‘extremely far’), but it turned out to be a mere 30-minute walk away.
When we succeeded in convincing her that foreigners are allowed to climb Taung Ma-gyi, that it doesn’t take 2 days to reach the summit, and that we wouldn’t get lost and perish, the rest was plain sailing. We picked up a crude map from the luxury Popa Mountain Resort and set off. Guide books recommend hiring a local guide, but the hike is dead simple: from the hotel reception, backtrack along the road you came in on, then take the stony dirt road up to your right (it’s the only path – you can’t miss it). Follow this all the way.
The hike is pleasant and interesting, and we only saw one other group of tourists. The heavens opened halfway up, but even those of us wearing flip-flops managed no problem. Taung Ma-gyi last erupted about a quarter of a million years ago and is steeped in local legend; one story ascribes its creation to a great earthquake, which caused the mountain to erupt out of the ground in 442BC. The fertile volcanic soil nourishes vegetation both rich and diverse. The flowering plants and herbs make the hike up a joy for the senses, and their sheer abundance gave Mt Popa its name – popa derives from the Sanskrit word for flower, puppa.
Our ascent was dogged by cloud, giving the jungly lower regions an ominous rainforest feel, and making the mossy upper ones resemble the misty Scottish Highlands. By the time we reached the crater rim, whose northern section has collapsed, the dense canopy had been replaced by sparse towering pines. Had it been sunny, we would have been able to glimpse the true summit from here.
We reached our first pagoda one hour later. It sits atop one of the false summits, joined by an MPT telephone tower and patrolled by a grey and gold macaque. The true summit still wasn’t visible, and we were just about to give up and go back when the clouds cleared. I quickly got out my camera to snap a few shots, but almost immediately heard shouts from behind me: “Your bag! Your bag!” In the 30 seconds or so I had left it unattended, the macaque had reappeared, undone my bag’s zip and stolen the orange folder containing my passport – cheeky monkey! One of my companions hurriedly handed me a banana, allowing me to the lure the thief away and steal back my belongings.
With a summit reaching a height of 1500m, Taung Ma-gyi affords far greater vistas than Taung Kalat (740m). You can see the sparkling Irrawaddy River in the distance, and the views were certainly the best I’ve seen yet in Myanmar. To reach the true summit – which, you guessed it, is topped with another golden pagoda – skirt round to the left of the MPT summit and follow the green ridge up to the top.
Our descent was blessed with blue skies and accompanied by enormous, dazzling butterflies. The booming of drums and crashing of cymbals, presumably originating from Taung Kalat, echoed up the mountain as we followed our tracks back down. The beauty of Taung Ma-gyi and the peacefulness of the hike made our subsequent visit to Taung Kalat a disappointment. Admittedly, we didn’t have a guide to educate us about its infamous resident nats, retell local legends and explain the plug’s religious significance – half the point of going to Taung Kalat. But if a comparison is to be made between the two ascents, favour must fall with the hike up Taung Ma-gyi. The 777 steps up Taung Kalat were swarming with aggressive monkeys (one even attacked my leg) and slippery with their faeces – no shoes allowed: it’s a monastery!
So, if you’re planning a trip to Mt Popa, make sure to include a hike up Taung Ma-gyi – don’t be deterred by the abundance of false information. Organise the excursion yourself, and you’ll be duly rewarded with lush scenery, fresh mountain air and spectacular views. It may not be a popular tourist destination yet, but the rapid expansion of Myanmar’s tourism industry will inevitably change this – take your chance now to be the only one at the top.
Story & Photo by James Fable, a freelance travel writer based in Myanmar. You can contact him at [email protected]