Taungkalat monastery, Mount Popa. Here be monkeys.
I have never been the sort of girl to look at a mountain and think ‘I wanna get to the top of that’. Having climbed Kinabalu in Borneo, a healthy 4000-odd metres ascent requiring actual head torches, these days I feel like I can rest on my laurels, so my response to hilly-like terrain is normally more related to visual appreciation and perhaps a nice mug of hot chocolate or perchance even a nice glass of vino. Also being somewhat anti-religion, the idea of voluntarily heading to yet another pagoda was not necessarily on my top ten list. These things duly noted, I was not entirely overwhelmed about the idea of travelling a bjillion hours to Mount Popa, home of Taungkalat monastery in central Myanmar, in a car driven by one of our [lovely] local drivers whose idea of a good road trip is to crawl along about 30km/h and play one single Taylor Swift song on repeat….and it’s not even that never ever back together one.
The rather daunting journey time of six hours down a Myanmar highway was another less than appealing thought. Highways are, admittedly, never super interesting in any country. I think the most exciting one I’ve seen was in France with the funky sculptures, or the Czech Republic motorway with all the Skodas dropping like flies as they overheated, although I also did enjoy our Germany school trip down the Autobahn when our teachers fell asleep and me and my friend saw the sign for our exchange partner’s town whisk past and were mildly perturbed that our bus driver may have been slightly lost. Three hours later… However, there is something just bewilderingly nothingy about the highways in Myanmar. Here is a picture, alas not my own, to make my point. And yes, I know the reddish soil is quite thrilling, but you just give it two hours.
Could be that a couple of Little Chefs would sort it out but as it is, a six hour journey down one of those roads was possibly not going to be the height of excitement for a Friday evening (although my standards have dropped waay low these days). Still, it was my friend’s birthday and I was lured there by the promise of chocolate fudge cake.
My first reprieve came when I realised we were with the other driver who was evidently not a Ms Swift fan, and enjoyed the beauty of pure silence as much as I do (yes, I’m well aware that I’m living in the wrong country for that). Another major plus was that we didn’t go the highway road, but instead some secret road that was of far more interest visually, mostly because of the cows and the banana trees. I have always loved cows, but I have a special love for Myanmar cows because they just resolutely refuse to budge out of the way of anything, and everything has to drive round them whilst they burp lazily into the middle distance. Cowz rulez. Banana trees are another ‘one of my favourite things’ because I just get that frisson of ‘I’m living somewhere super exotic’ whenever I see them.
We yabbered our way through the six hours eventually, with the last two filling me with fear that the restaurant might have closed by the time we got there (this is literally one of my worst nightmares – I do NOT skip meals), but after yoiking the car reluctantly up a steep and winding hill, we finally arrived at Mount Popa Resort and I promptly celebrated with slightly soggy noodles. Howling winds, mist and lashing rain greeted us. This is, of course, categorically not the sort of weather one wants back home, but after months of sweating my actual face off in 40 degrees in powercutland, it was bloody awesome. Our gang grew and by the time we shuffled off to bed in our slightly damp rooms there was a healthy party of 13 of us. We engaged in some highly amusing present-giving to our residential birthday girl, which I will hold back on details for fear of offending, and then a brief discussion about climbing Popa (the volcano, not merely the monastery, oh no) for dawn to catch a beautiful sunrise ensued with four of us deciding to go for it, whilst everyone else mocked us for being utterly ridiculous when we could just mooch up it at a reasonable hour and enjoy sunrise in bed like every normal person.
Teak. Everything is teak in Myanmar.
2am came round rather more swiftly than one might desire after a night of being kept awake by aforementioned howling wind and lashing rain. My companion and I agreed that it would be totally utterly crazy and pointless and cold and damp and that we should absolutely not go climbing a mountain in this weather. We composed a text to the other two intrepid explorers. Dammit, no reception. Waggling phones around, I opened the balcony door to assess the extent of the climatic devastation. The door smashed open into my face. Yup, definitely a smidge of wind going on. Ah well, we shrugged our shoulders, we would hope the weather might improve in a few hours, C’est la vie etc etc. Five minutes later one of our elder-and-betters piped up in full mountain gear and demanded to get going. Ah….Not being one to resist a challenge I…no, I didn’t. I went back to bed, whilst the others went. I am still being haunted by images of Everest the movie and decided to choose life. Plus someone had to stay at base camp in case the others never made it back and I had to contact mountain rescue, right? For punishment for my wimpiness slash laziness I then spent the next four hours having those blissfully surreal realistic anxiety dreams so beloved by epileptics where I had to identify frozen bodies of my companions who’d not made it up the glacier or had got stuck in an avalanche. Given that Popa is a mere 1518m, the dreams were potentially slightly excessive.
Dragging myself out of bed at the far more civilised hour of 6am, I spent a blissful twenty minutes in the hot shower going ‘ooooooh’ (I will never take hot showers for granted again after two years of Myanmar), and scooched on down to brekkie, where a veritable feast awaited me. Relieved to see that my intrepid pals had indeed made it down the mountain in one piece, although saddened to hear the weather was too crappy for a sunrise view, I had to find a way to deal with this intense complexity of emotions so chose food. I shoved some rice, fried egg aka salmonella inevitability (please cook both sides, long time, very cooked thank you) and some deceptively spicy cucumber salad onto my plate, with a side of fruit feeling like I was having a virtuous start to the day even if I hadn’t yet climbed a mountain. Feelings of virtue were, however, swiftly dispelled upon realising that there was gooey CHOCOLATE FUDGE CAKE. An amazing creation by my friend bedecked in brightly coloured M&Ms, and that’s when I realised I’d been doing it wrong all this time. Chocolate cake is by far superior when consumed for breakfast. Awesome.
After an exceedingly lazy morning lounging about and chatting over chocolate cake and coffee so strong it didn’t need a cup, a second intrepid bunch decided to scale the dizzy heights of Popa and this time I couldn’t think of an excuse, given that the weather was actually perfect- a very pleasant temperature and no wind or rain. We settled off, a smart band of seven, including one glutton for punishment eager to do it again. Mission: to conquer Popa!
I was also too lazy to drag my DSLR up the mountain, so these are courtesy of Samsung….
And despite my shoes giving out on me at about 3 minutes in and having to scale the dizzy heights of the volcano in socks, and despite not really liking walking, and despite spending more than 90% of the time terrified I’d step on a death-crazed snake, I had a bloomin marvellous time. The temperature was fabulous: a lush cool air with a soft breeze. My two companions happy to take it slow too were great company, and well, couldn’t really fault the view:
And finally, I made it. The top, the pinnacle, the summit! Wow, what an amazing thing, surely the view would be fantast- well, no. Deeply reminiscent of the time I climbed Snowdon. it was still thick mist, I couldn’t see a blimmin thing and they’ve decorated the top of Popa with a sort of transmission tower aerial thing and ….a pagoda, naturellement. I’m sure, however, that if the mist wasn’t there it would have been spellbinding! But the views on the way up more than made up for it. We schlepped our way back down, taking a somewhat ill-advised ‘shortcut’ which involved some serious mudsliding, before arriving back at Base Camp Extraordinaire.
All in all, then, Popa was a fab experience, with great company, great views and, of course not to forget the added bonus of being able to consume vast quantities of guilt-free mountain climber’s calories for the whole weekend.