Day 5 began with our search for transportation to Mount Popa. We had declined the offer to hire a private van for $90 USD, mainly because of the finite amount of cash in our pockets. In Myanmar there is no option to get more cash if you run out (zero ATMs) and no option to use a credit card. Forecasting your trip and your expenses becomes a daily, sometimes hourly, thing you have to do. So, by Day 5 (of eight) we had a comfortable amount of kyats but we had spent quite a bit of our US cash, which made our search for cheap transportation that much more important.

We arrived at the bus station early in the morning, prepared to take the local bus to Mount Popa. We had inquired the day before and the price was 3,000 kyats per person, each way (about $15 USD total). However, we soon realized the local bus wasn’t really a bus — it was a small pickup truck with a covered bed, in which about 15 to 20 people would “fit”. It also didn’t go directly to Mount Popa — there would be several stops and the 55 km journey would probably take 3-4 hours. Not ideal, but we were up for the adventure.

The locals, however, saw an opportunity to negotiate a deal for us. Carpe diem! We were offered a private, covered, padded pickup truck for 20,000 kyats which would take us directly to Mount Popa. Funny how things like this just appear out of nowhere when you’re a tourist. But we weren’t complaining! We had sort of envisioned our mode of transport being somewhere between private luxury and local discomfort, so the cushy bed of a pickup truck was just perfect.

Our driver stopped for petrol and then we were off down the road to Mount Popa, with the wind blowing in our hair. Of our whole trip, I think this might be my favorite memory — riding together in the morning sun and the warm air, with nearly everyone smiling and waving at us as we passed them on the road. Our driver made one stop along the way, and I initially bemoaned the thought of an obligatory tour of his friend’s palm sugar establishment. But I got over it after realizing this was a real hut, owned by a nice family just trying to make a living.

The hut was immaculate — a perfectly swept sandy floor, some tidy chairs and tables and palm sap at various stages of refinement inside the hut. It turns out the trees I saw from the airplane that delineate Bagan’s residential plots of land are, in many cases, black or “toddy” palms.

The palms are tapped and then the sap that comes out is caught for fermentation and refinement. Fermented palm sap becomes palm wine and palm whiskey (we tasted both – not bad!). Boiled palm sap becomes crystallized sugar and candy, which is sometimes mixed with coconut.

The process of heating the palm sap into sugar takes place over a hot fire with four woks at different temperatures and an air vent that leads to the brick chimney at the side of the hut. The lady of the house was busy heating, stirring and slinging the mixtures from one wok to another.

The resulting palm sugar is is taken off the heat to cool and crystallize, and then it’s shaped into bite-size palm sugar candies.

At the back of the hut, palm whiskey slowly ferments and drips into a bottle with the help of a little heat from below.

Also in the hut, we finally saw the tool used to create the “makeup” Burmese women (and sometimes men) wear on their faces. A small section of a Thanaka tree, native to Myanmar, is ground on a stone slab with a little bit of water. The resulting paste is painted on the cheeks in various designs — for cosmetic purposes and sun protection.

Outside the hut, an ox was treading a circular path turning a huge mortar and pestle — grinding nuts in the center and dripping the oil in a bucket below. The family gave us a little bundle of candies and we gave them a little bundle of kyats for the palm sap lesson and amazing photo opps. We hopped back in the truck and were back on the road to Mount Popa.

Here we are, stopped at the bend in the road when the Taungkalat monastery on Mount Popa comes fully into view. It’s an incredulous feat of construction, at the top of a volcanic plug (apparently when magma hardens on a volcanic vent, it creates a “plug” like this).

Over 700 steps lead to the top and there are monkeys galore along the way. If you go, DO NOT feed them or set down any food for them to grab. (On the way down, one of them jumped on me and hung from my arm in an attempt to take my soda — freaky and aggressive, so be cautious!)

The monastery offers panoramic views of Bagan and the surrounding hills. It’s in fair condition compared to many of the other pagodas in the country, but worth a visit if you’re into making the journey. For a donation you can bang a gong that can be heard near and far. If you look closely in the photo below, you can see the dark swath cut away on the hillside where Popa Mountain Resort is located.

We descended the staircases back to the pickup truck, and negotiated a ride to the resort — three kilometers further up the hill, rewarded with a handful of decrepit one dollar bills. In Myanmar, these one dollar bills were useless to us — we had received them as change from other transactions and they were creased, marked and totally unusable for exchange, by Myanmar standards. However, money is money, so gifting  “bad” one dollar bills back to a local (our driver) as payment was an acceptable thing to do. It was just up to him and his resourcefulness to find a way to exchange them into local currency. We were sure he’d be much more adept at doing that than we would ever be. He accepted the challenge.

The marquis at the hotel welcomed me/us, along with Myanmar Voyages who stopped for lunch. We were the only people staying overnight.

They showed us to our villa — down a stone path with a perfectly framed view of Mount Popa in the distance. Not bad for $120 USD per night, including breakfast.

The villa was awesome — there’s just something about southeast Asian hospitality (elaborate beds, crisp sheets, beautiful silks, exotic fruits, old wood floors, ceiling fans and gorgeous bathrooms) that I will never tire of.

Here’s our villa, tucked into the hillside in the middle of the jungle.

Popa Mountain Resort has its own garden, a conference center, a peaceful pool and lots of lovely little details that made me smile.

Here’s the pool — this made both of us smile. Finding a little piece of paradise like this… being the only two people on the planet enjoying this view… far away from everything and everyone… it’s very cool to know these places still exist in a world full of people.

We walked down the main path, past the restaurant and out to the terrace overlooking Mount Popa and the plains below.

We ordered a couple afternoon coffees and savored the view of Mount Popa as the sunset morphed and moved, and worked its magic. Buddhist chants were broadcast from the monastery out over the landscape, into the night. We watched, we listened, the power went out and we were reminded of our solitary perch on the hill. Our perseverance and the pickup truck had clearly paid off. ♥


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