There were hundreds of monkeys, all climbing, playing, and guarding the steps that led to the top of Mt. Popa. I had been surprised not to have seen monkeys anywhere in Myanmar. And now I knew why: they were all at Mount Popa, atop which sits one of the most sacred temples in Myanmar. Bare feet, a long and narrow staircase, and gangs of aggressive monkeys. I thought back to my travel nurse – “You have 24 hours” she had said again and again. 24 hours from contact, even a scratch, before rabies became incurable.
It was high-season for baby monkeys, and I’m pretty certain they were part of a larger Mount Popa matrix of maliciousness. Like street peddlers who send their children to distract you while they snatch your wallet, the six-inch toddler monkeys were sent in all their fearlessness to the front. Afraid to step on them or fall prey to their cuteness and pull out my camera (easy target), progress was slow. Hanging close to Buddhist monks proved an effective strategy at times, as the monkeys seemed drawn, like bulls in the ring, to the billowing red robes the monks wore. Buddhist monks, pledged to bring harm to no living thing, became repeat targets of curious monkeys. I possessed no qualms about harming animals, especially if it was driven by blind self-preservation. I pressed on, always on the lookout.
But monkeys were just one of the obstacles visitors find on the stairs to Mt. Popa. The temple atop Mt. Popa was undergoing repair, and these repairs demanded concrete. That meant that workers had to carry one hundred pound bags of concrete mix up the 777 stairs to the top. That’s no small feat. And these workers undertaking this backbreaking task made it through the first 200 or so steps pretty well. But around step 201, their legs tiring and the hundred degree temperatures bearing down on them, they began to waver and weave back-and-forth across the staircase. Was he going to make it? If this guy goes down, he’s going to take all us (and probably 10-15 monkeys) with him. And then there were the stair cleaners. Self-appointed and armed with a rag and a spray bottle, the stair cleaners of Mt. Popa were there in hopes of earning some kyat. An army of them wiped the stairs – back and forth, back and forth, as monks, monkeys, and concrete haulers maneuvered around them. I’m not sure which is worse – laminated stairs covered in monkey urine and poop or recently cleaned stairs, slick with soapy water – but all added to the challenge of the climb. In many areas, souvenir sellers lined the sides of the stairs, thereby narrowing access while providing an additional aggressive distraction. Monks, monkeys, monkey children, floorwashers, 100-pound concrete sack carriers, trinket peddlers, and 777 steps – the Mt. Popa Gauntlet. And don’t forget to take off your shoes.
It was about two-thirds of the way up that Jess, my wife, and I ran into trouble. I had been holding my water bottle tight against my body. Tucked like a football, my water would not fall prey to beasts of the mountain. In a moment of weakness, I loosened my grip. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him leap. Big, fuzzy, and possibly rabid, he made a bold move for my bottle and succeeded in dislodging it from my grip. It fell with a thud and started to roll right towards the feet of a concrete hauler, who now, by step 512, was increasingly unsteady. The monkey made a second move to grab the bottle but failed – it was too heavy for his dirty little monkey hands. The bottle continued to roll. I could see it now: down he would go, taking his 100 pound bag and the nearby floorwasher with him. Monks would fall like bowling pins, and followers of a once peaceful religion would be marshaled against me. The local population would be rallied against me, and off a remote cliff I would go. The monkeys would laugh and sip cool water from the bottle it took three of them to carry to the site of my demise. Thankfully, as things sometimes do, it worked out. The loud thud of the water bottle brought pause to the concrete hauler and attracted the attention of a nearby souvenir hawker who, possessing cat-like reflexes and a piercing voice, saved the bottle and terrified monkeys down at least 150 steps.
Jess’s water was not so lucky. Emboldened by the failed assault on my water bottle, another monkey made a leap for hers. Direct hit! The bottle broke lose and fell to the ground. He struggled with it. We pursued. And then, as if claiming the spoils of war, he sank his little teeth into the bottle. We heard them break the plastic. Water dripped from his monkey smile. Game over. We continued on.
From the top of Mt. Popa, you can see for miles in every direction. The meditating monks, prayer readings, and intense isolation all make it a truly magical experience. After catching our breath and appreciating the peace atop the mountain, we headed for the stairs and round two with the Mount Popa Gauntlet.