Okay, we are almost done with this terrible slog through what happened to us. Two things in this post. First, Mount Popa. Second, our terrible Christmas in Yangon.
Because of her school’s idiosyncratic ideas about pedagogy, Harriet has developed an obsession with volcanoes, which, honestly, are not a concept that should be described to three-year-olds. But because of this Harriet was extremely excited when she found out that there was a volcano – albeit an extinct one – an hour away from Bagan. So we took a taxi out to see Mount Popa. From a little way off, it looks like this:
It is that basically vertical hill with shrines at the top. When you get to the base, there are stairs and then you climb up them. Going up hills to see shrines was an poorly planned motif of this trip.
Mt. Popa is the residence of nats. Burmese Buddhism generally seems to be less inclusive than Thai Buddhism: in Thailand, you see shrines to basically everything and there’s a great deal of worship of spirits that have pretty much nothing to do with Buddha: almost every building in Thailand, for example, has a spirit house, to propitiate the spirits that lived in the land before the building was put up. And there’s also a healthy overlay of Hinduism. You don’t see this quite as much in the parts of Myanmar where we were. But Myanmar does have nats, which are a pantheon of spirits, the thirty-seven major ones of which are people who mostly died violent deaths. Mt. Popa is the home of the nats, so there are shrines to the various nats, and a lot of statues of them. Most of them look pretty grim:
I don’t know if this is an elephant-headed nat or Ganesh hanging out with the thirty-seven major nats:
After looking at the nats, we started climbing all the stairs, which takes a while. We stopped for a bit and had some noodles, which were delicious:
The other thing about Mt. Popa is that it is infested with monkeys, who menace the pilgrims climbing up the stairs and try to take their food. It is a problem. Also a problem is that the monkeys are not toilet-trained, and because this is a shrine no one is wearing any shoes. Every twenty-five steps or so is a step-cleaner; they are waging a Sisyphean war on befoulment which they almost certainly will not win. You try not to think about this too much. Our feet looked pretty awful at the end of the day.
But at the top there are a lot of shrines and lovely views of the countryside.
In conclusion, you should visit Mt. Popa, but it would help if you knew more about nats than we did, because then you’d probably get more out of it.
* * * * *
We took another overnight bus on the way back from Bagan to Yangon (this was the night of Christmas Eve) and arrived in Yangon at about five, where we discovered that our flight out wasn’t until very late at night and that no one had slept very well. So we spent a glassy-eyed Christmas wandering around Yangon trying not to kill each other. If we had more sense, we would have gotten a hotel room for the day and slept for a few hours, but somehow this did not occur to us. After breakfast at the hotel we’d stayed at before we went to the Botataung Pagoda, mostly because it has a turtle pond:
A couple of things about this turtle pond. First, in Myanmar, they feed the turtles vegetables (leaves and flowers) rather than fish-balls, as they do in Bangkok. This is probably more religious, but it seems like it makes the turtles less ambitious. Also their turtle pond was noticeably greener and more opaque than the one in Bangkok. I think they had less turtles, but possibly none of them cared about being fed and just stayed on the bottom of the pond all day rather than showing themselves. So we didn’t get any good pictures of turtles.
We actually did a fair amount of wandering that last day in Yangon (to the market, to some galleries) but eventually we threw up our hands and decided to go to the park, as there are a couple of large amusement parks in the center of the city. So we got in a taxi and said to go to Funtime Land or whatever it was called, and got taken to a park that looked like it overlapped with Funtime Land on the map. This one was called The People’s Park. It cost fifty cents to get in. It had large displays of plaster fruit:
But that – and some similarly large and tasteless public art seemingly designed for people to take selfies with – is basically all it has. There is a single path that loops through the pretty enormous park and every single shady spot is occupied by lovelorn Burmese teenagers. Also it is hard to progress through the park because everyone is taking pictures of each others. At some point Harriet fell asleep and we were dragging her around and sitting on the ground in the shade of garbage cans because things were that dire.
But then! It turned out that there was a much nicer park next door – what park this was I don’t know – and there was a steady trek of people from the People’s Park through a small hole in the barbed-wire fence dividing the two parks. This certainly appeared to be illicit, but the People’s Park was terrible, and everyone else was doing it and also they thought it was funny that we would be sneaking a sleeping three-year-old out of the People’s Park so they held down the barbed wire so that we could get across. So we left the People’s Park. And the other park was much, much better. It had a large playground for children that Harriet enjoyed:
(that weird rope-and-bamboo tunnel was the only way to get from the bottom section to the top section, so it was constantly packed with children) as well as enormous towers with rickety wooden bridges between them and wonderful views. Also there was a decommissioned passenger airplane. We assumed that we had broken into a much more expensive park than the fifty-cent People’s Park, but it turned out, when we were leaving, that the park we had broken into was free. Myanmar is confusing that way.
I don’t know what all happened after we left that park. Oh right, we went and looked at two more pagodas because we figured we hadn’t seen enough pagodas this trip. One of them had an enormous reclining Buddha:
And it had three sets of bathrooms, for men, women, and foreigners.
After that we went to the airport and came back to Bangkok and that was the end of our trip to Myanmar.