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How 777 steps & monkey poop led me to enlightenment

Wanderluster Samantha Hussey and friend at Mount Popa in Burma. (PHOTO: Samantha Hussey)

Before we decided to travel to Burma, several travellers told us stories of their trips to Mount Popa. Some advised us of how hot, dirty and smelly it would be; others warned us about getting your bag and possessions stolen by any of the hundreds of monkeys on the mountain. I’ll be honest, it didn’t sound too convincing.

It wasn’t until we reached the country and relayed our plans to our hosts and friends in Rangoon that their faces lit up when we mentioned our desire to visit the monastery at the top of Taung Kalat, near Mount Popa. It is, after all, one of the most famous pilgrimage sites for Buddhists and Burmese in the country, if not the world.

Young monkey at Taung Kalat. (PHOTO: Samantha Hussey)

Our friends began to tell us that Burmese and Buddhists believe the mountain to be home to the ‘Great Nats’, a diverse groups of spirits like guardian angels. It is an honour and privilege to visit the mount and pay tribute to them. Thousands of devotees make the journey to pray for good luck and fortune every year.

We told our friends how many people had told us about the gross factors, including the monkey poop and the rubbish, and asked them for their advice. My friend Tun Tun’s reply was priceless: “Like in the film with Morgan Freeman – sometimes you have to crawl through poop to come out clean on the other side.”

So with that in our minds we decided to take the trip anyway. Leaving Bagan sharply at 8am we set off on our journey to one of the most sacred mountains in all of the country.

I had always thought that such a large mount would be visible from a distance, but we really didn’t see it until we were almost at the entrance to the town. Our driver stopped at a small temple just on the outskirts of town where most tourists stop to take a picture of the mount from a distance. We were asked to pay a small fee for this privilege.

The town itself is small so it took us a while to navigate through the bustling market to the Taung Kalat entrance. We gritted our teeth as we looked above us and couldn’t see where the end would be. Taking our first steps we were curious and intrigued at what we would find as we walked the 777 steps to the top. Leaving our flip-flops behind in a locker, we were already surrounded by monkeys.

Stairway to Heaven (PHOTO: Samantha Hussey)

While our minds had conjured up walking through slushy amounts of monkey excrement, it seemed that luckily for us there wasn’t as much as we had imagined, and the large and wide steps made it fairly easy to avoid the parts that were covered. One thing that surprised me was that at staggered distances, some local ‘vendors’ were sitting on the stairs with a cloth and bucket. For a small donation they would clean a step for you to walk on.

Stalls selling t-shirts, wooden items and souvenirs line the stairwell, and I found it quite a relief not to be pushed or persuaded to buy anything, like we had experienced so often in Bagan. It was a very laid-back atmosphere, with pilgrims, monks and tourists alike walking at their own pace to the top of this very special mountain.

While the walk itself was not of any particular difficulty (provided you are relatively fit), we found it a great relief to finally reach the top. The sun shone through the temple and shielded our view of the outside, almost as if we had reached heaven itself.

Not only did I feel a few pounds lighter when I got to the top, I also felt enlightened. Not in a religious Buddhist way, and not even as a sense of achievement. I looked down at the floor to my feet. They were black with dust, monkey urine had made its way into the middle of my toes and dried up monkey poop encrusted my heels. I stepped outside and looked out over the vast green plain covered in haze and thought to myself how my dear friend Tun Tun was right.

Feeling on top of the world (PHOTO: Samantha Hussey)

It wasn’t even about the mountain, it wasn’t even about the monkey poop. What I realised was – sometimes in life you get dealt bad cards. Much like the monkey poop and urine on the floor. It isn’t pleasant to walk on, and if you’re not careful you’ll slip and land on your ass. But you’ve got to keep moving through it. Climb your 777 steps and sooner or later you’ll reach the top of your mountain and enjoy your own breath-taking views.

Going to Popa

While there are options to stay in Mount Popa, the easiest way to visit is a day trip from Bagan. There are a range of local operators who cater for day trips to Mount Popa. A pick up and return to Bagan costs roughly $30 – $40 depending on the group size. You can easily visit in a morning, or take a full day to explore Mount Popa’s spiritual history and local markets.

About the author

Samantha Hussey is a Freelance Travel Writer and Professional Travel Blogger at The Wandering Wanderluster. Based in Prague, Czech Republic, Samantha travels to off the beaten path worldwide destinations to visit incredible places and share inspiration stories.