Myanmar Buddhism has an odd little quirk of retaining a kind of faith in 37 animistic spirits, called Nats, that predated Buddhist beliefs in the country. In a way, the Nats are like saints — there’s a peacemaking nat, and one you pray to to help you in school examinations, and one who seems to look a lot like the Hindu goddess Kali, and one that is supposed to protect you when you’re drunk.
(Note the actual bottles of whisky on drinky nat).
One of the most important Nat shrines is at Mt Popa, about an hour by car from Bagan. There is a little thumb of volcanic rock about 1300 metres up, and a pagoda, monastery and numerous shrines perch on top.
Mt Popa is one of those places I didn’t enjoy but I’m glad I experienced. I find this in general with the things that fall into the category of “spectacle,” but as with many of the spectacles in Myanmar, the places that attract tourists are actually places that the Myanmar people flock to, usually for some kind of spiritual reason.
Like every spiritual site in Myanmar, you take your shoes off at the bottom of the Mt Popa shrine, and walk up stairs in your bare feet. Unlike most places, Mt. Popa is not just haunted by spirit nats, but by hundreds of very much alive macaques.
In the car en route to Mt. Popa, my guide told me he was afraid of “the monkeys.” I had a vision of a forest with darling little capuchins darting around, and I gave Zaw a bit of a lecture on how trouble only comes when you try to interact with wild animals, how he should dissuade his clients from trying to feed wild creatures, that if you leave them alone to be monkeys they won’t hurt you. They might throw a mango at you.
I was thinking of the monkeys I’ve met in Brazil, Uganda and Tanzania.
Not these macaques.
These macaques infest the Mt Popa site, breeding and grooming and nursing and defecating everywhere.
Everywhere on those 777 steps.
That you walk up in your bare feet.
It does not smell good.
I tried to share a moment of contemplation with one of them at the top, but mostly, as with may of the Myanmar spiritual sites, I was struck at Mt Popa by the juxtaposition of spiritual aspiration, gaudy grandeur, and fraying at the edges — mismatched steps to the top, peeling linoleum in the rooms with the nat shrines, bouquets of cash in the nats’ hands.
One of the things I’d been curious about before coming to Myanmar was where I might find anything that felt spiritual or sacred to me… without inappropriately appropriating some other culture’s belief system.
I respect Myanmar Buddhism, and I’m touched by the deeply personal connection people seem to have — the personal possessive they use around images of Buddha — “this is my Buddha” — and the festive forms of community so many of the temples and pagodas bring to life. By the everyday depth of generosity, and the way beliefs are woven into momentary choices. There is not much, though, in Nat reverence or glittering pagodas that touches me in any kind of universal way. And I can’t get inside understanding the offerings of food people regularly make at sacred sites.
I understand a little better small, local rituals. On my trek in the hills around Nyuang Shwe, my guide took me to a cave beside a small monastery where the local villagers worship on festivals for the full moon and other local holidays. We went inside the cave and turned off our torches, and he told me that the villagers fill the cave, holding candles and meditating. I tried to imagine this, and could put myself inside that, a little bit better. Centuries, quiet, connection. Then outside, I encountered a grumpy middle aged monk chasing a dog off with rocks shot from a slingshot, who scowled when he saw my small camera and waved his hands no.
My trip to Mt. Popa was strictly a tourist jaunt, and as this type of thing so often does for me, it left me dissatisfied. And it happened in a day that also included a brilliant greeting of the sun, a sunrise conversation on top of a quiet temple with a young woman selling laquerware about her hopes for her life, and my visit to the fishing village with a fistful of kids’ notebooks. My sacred moments, it seems, are quiet in the sunrise on a silent pagoda in a field full of ruins in Bagan, connection to a small girl, trying hard to hear a deep need.