Friday, August 03, 2007

Popa and Out

Mt Popa
Raining so we postpone our trip to Popa till 9am because at 7am it’s raining. At 9am it’s still raining. This is the low season, remember? Setting off anyway, for some reason we get a hotel member of staff along with us for the ride too. We’re in the back.

Plenty of room

We pass through lots of small villages, receiving big smiles and waves. The Burmese are a very friendly people, and are so happy when this is reciprocated.

So, Mt Popa (Popa Daung Kalat in Burmese) is a Buddhist temple on top of a small almost-cylinder-like lump of rock, apparently the core of an extinct volcano dating 250,000 years.

Mt Popa

The peak rises some 737m up from the surrounding Myingyan Plain. Naturally, we walk up, barefooted.

Route up

Popa comes from the Sanskrit for flower, and the place is the most important nat worship site in country. Superstition says one shouldn’t wear red or black on the mountain, nor should you say bad things about other people (how am I going to do this?!), curse or bring any meat (especially pork), any of which might offend the resident nat. You don’t want to do that!

Also known for these critters, all over the mountain

As usual the steps up, where one has to remove shoes because it’s holy, are lined with tacky shops, and the floor reaches new levels of disgusting dirtyness – this time there’s monkey excrement all over the place too!

Seriously you guys??

The top at last

The view from up here is marvellous, and the floor is much cleaner than the way up because it’s exposed to rain and therefore washed. I feel happier now, so we potter about the various parts of the temple sprawled across the hilltop.

Base of stupa

Bell and bell-whacking log

Rather amateur yet pretty glass patterns

Monument to those travelling the world presumably

Finally time to descend, and again it’s horrible!

Down we go

We get to the bottom, and spot a tap with running water. Oh no, says a woman, we can’t use that for washing feet, as feet are a dirty part of your body. And why is that, I am ready to thunder?!

In the evening we wander down to the river. Sithu, the restaurant we had a beer at last time, is open, and this chap asks us if we want to eat. No no, we want the other one this time. He looks disappointed but tells us where it is. We head round there, in the pitch black – no street lights anywhere here – stepping into mud on occasion, only to find Green Elephant, River View closed. I fear the worst. Back to Sithu and the chap apologises but explains that in the two minutes we’ve been away, they have also closed. Spite? You decide!

So we have to find another place. I’m hungry and will settle for anything! We eventually find a pleasant but touristy restaurant on the main street which seems to be the only one still open. Thuzar massively over-orders.

Mingalabar Myanmar!

As we have an early flight, which I’m hoping will be early, the staff get up specially to serve us a 6am breakfast. Very eerie, having four members of staff watching us (usually just two). Breakfast isn’t bad – toast, fried eggs, tea and coffee, and fruit – pineapple and banana. We say our goodbyes, then find we have two members of staff along with us in addition to the driver, for no obvious reason. This is inconvenient, as it means we get one in the back with us, so can’t lounge about.

At the airport – check in is smooth, no nonsense about liquids here in Myanmar! Thuzar notices a famous Burmese celebrity sitting in total anonymity in amongst the mostly western crowd waiting for the plain. She doesn’t like him, but gets the photo to make her friends who do jealous.

No fixed seats today as we’re not at starting place – the plane is doing a Yangon – Bagan – Mandalay – Heho – Yangon loop.

We walk out to plane, an ATR turboprop, on time. All is well. I’m watching the clock as I’m connecting with an international flight at Yangon, with about 45 minutes slack time before I’m supposed to check in. We tried confirming our domestic plane in Bagan, and after first denying we had a ticket, they then said everything was fine, confirmed, and then rang back half an hour later to check that we were flying to Mandalay, yes? No!! Hence my worries.

It is a mad route – but they all seem to do Yangon – Bagan (Nyaung U) – Mandalay – Heho (Inle Lake) – Yangon loops in either direction. Generally the Yangon to either Bagain or Mandalay leg is packed and it’s fairly empty otherwise.

They hand out newspapers, to my delight! I love the New Light’s daily dose of government propaganda!


At Heho we have to disembark. I’m suspicious there’s a delay but turns out we’re a bit early. Hmmmm.. I watch the clock nervously! When we reboard, the plane packs out with a happy Spanish group at the end of their tour. I’d think they were drunk but for it being about 9 in the morning.

Arriving in Yangon, only slightly late, it’s absolute mayhem in the domestic (old international) building. I’d read about this. About 50 people all vying for tips snatching bags and bringing them into a packed small waiting area. We somehow escape with our bags, seemingly against the odds!

It’s much worse than this photo suggests!

We walk round in the roasting heat to the international terminal. In most countries, you’d think they’d make this a straightforward affair – people must connect all the time, and the buildings are adjacent, almost adjoining. Not here! Out the main gates, on to the main road, along the road, then back in through the next gates. Then, to my surprise, Thuzar has to pay 300 kyat just to go into the building to send me off! Including providing information about which flight I am on etc. Police state indeed!

Slip a dollar or two under the table

I pay the departure tax, make the token gesture of refusing a couple of the dollar notes they give me because they’re worn (they’re forever doing this to us, I have to get revenge somehow), then queue for check-in, and my bags are theoretically going straight through to Shenzhen with a hand-written baggage tag!

Not coming?

Bye Thuzarrrrrrr

Passport control is again easy, but the airport is totally spartan. There’s absolutely nothing here. I go to the “lounge” and there’s not a single shop, café, anything after, or come to think of it, before immigration. The whole airport! I’m feeling a bit peckish to be honest! Tough!

The “lounge”

A final touch as I leave Myanmar –as our bus to the plane pulls away from the terminal, the uniformed security man standing by the gate grins a big smile and waves goodbye.

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