by Marc Escanuelas
After Bagan, our fortunes in Burma seemed to be changing, giving us a false sense of confidence that let Mount Popa take us completely by surprise. Mount Popa is a volcanic plug crowned with a Buddhist monastery on its summit in the Burmese countryside.
Kat and I made the acquaintance of an English couple named Betty & David at our hotel. Although they were from Yorkshire, they spent their summers at a house they owned in Turkey. As you do. Betty was constantly scolding David over this or that. He was the more carefree of the two and seemed to be coping with his midlife crisis by reverting back to a mischievous teenager. On their invitation, we all piled into a minivan one morning to visit Mount Popa.
Along the way, David spied a small farm below a grove of palm trees. Actually, what he really noticed was an old woman smoking an enormous rolled cigar. The family made a number of products from palm sap. One man climbed a ladder nailed to the palm tree to demonstrate how he collected the sap. We watched politely until David said, “Just like a little monkey”.
“David, don’t be daft,” tutted Betty.
David and I sampled a palm sap liqueur they made, which tasted like motor oil and lit a match in my throat that threatened to spread to my belly.
David got his chance at the giant doobie. I declined as I tried to swallow the taste of the liqueur from my mouth.
We drove on to Mount Popa. On a gloriously sunny morning like this one, the golden stupas of the monastery were impossible to stare at directly. I saw the covered stairway snaking up the side. Unfortunately, this view on the approach would be the best part of the outing.
Over a thousand steps climb its steep sides. A thousand steps that must be walked barefoot per Buddhist custom. Unfortunately, legions of monkeys have made their home on the mountain so the stairs are covered in a ceaseless stream of monkey piss and piles of feces. Men and women traverse the stairs up and down all day cleaning dutifully. It’s not enough. I spent the first third stepping gingerly before I finally gave up.
I had never been among monkeys before, but it was this encounter that made me hate them. Every time I looked up into their alarmingly human-like faces, I assumed they were plotting against us. Betty had thought it would be cute to feed them a banana. As she reached into her purse to withdraw the plastic bag with the banana in it, dozens of monkey faces paused to stare. Within a minute, one of the larger ones had dived to the ground near her, snatching the plastic bag (and its small bushel of bananas) on its way.
We reached the last stair and took a deep breath that owing to the height we attained was mercifully free of the fetid smell of monkey dung. We walked amid the small pagodas that each house a few gold statues holding clumps of dollar bills left in offering. The monastery enjoyed a commanding view of the surrounding mountains and villages. The wind was strong and its insistent whistle was enough to remind me of my fear of heights. I can usually assuage it by grasping a railing for at least ten minutes before stepping over to the edge, but the railings atop Mount Popa seemed moments from collapsing.
I had to decide which was worst: the irrational fear of falling or a rational fear of over a thousand steps covered in piss and feces.
Although I grumbled the whole way down, I survived. The last indignity? There was nowhere to wash my feet. Clever Kat had worn sandals. I had worn socks and shoes.
In Part 4, the final part, we find that Burma has kept its best secret for last.