Mang Po To was eaten by a tiger, Mintha Maung Shin fell to his death from a swing, and instead of putting down a rebellion, She Sit Thin squandered his time cockfighting and was subsequently buried alive by his furious father. Even more peculiar was the passing of King Mingaun, who succumbed to a combination of dysentery and “the strong smell of onions.”
|Herbalists in the towns at the foot of Myanmar’s Mount Popa offer all the ingredients needed to placate or fend off angry nats.|
All the above individuals are unquestionably dead, but live on as nats — powerful and potentially malevolent Burmese goblins or spirits.
Although Myanmar (as Burma is now known) is devoutly Buddhist, bristles with pagodas and boasts at least half a million registered monks, the 37 major nats (not to mention countless thousands of minor nats) still exert a potent grip on the popular imagination.
To stay on the right side of a nat, make an offering. Myanmar has countless little shrines for just that purpose. Nats (some of them) will accept almost anything: alcoholic palm toddy, hard currency, cheroots, fruit.
Pork and beef are not offered, though, for fear of offending certain Muslim and Hindu nats. The crocodile nat is a harpist and a determined vegetarian. Woe betide you if a shred of meat gets into his fried vegetables.
Offending nats is a no-no. Cholera, fire or crocodile attack are typical nat-ish tricks. So are car crashes, which is why people drive carefully around a certain nat-haunted banyan tree on the Yangon airport road.
Nats can be encountered anywhere in the country, but the spiritual heart of the nat-worshipping cult is Mount Popa, Myanmar’s Mount Olympus, an extinct volcano that thrusts very abruptly from the central lowland plains. It is a botanist’s paradise and a wildlife refuge.
|The temple of Taling Kalat helps keep Mount Popa’s nats contained.|
Some nats were allegedly born on Popa, emerging from a cave in a nearby volcanic plug. Other nats, no doubt attracted by the cool, refreshing temperatures, were drawn to Popa from the simmering heat of the plains.
Where nats are, so too are nat appeasers. The valleys below Mount Popa are scattered with shrines and temples to appease nats and pre-empt calamities. The most spectacularly ornate temple clings to the top of the 737-meter Taling Kalat volcanic plug like a gilded barnacle.
If you enjoy being kept awake by gongs and chants to appease nats, there are several guesthouses in the raucous village of magicians and medicinal-plant salesmen that sits at the foot of the Taling Kalat plug. Alternatively, you can sleep easy at the Mount Popa resort, an ecotouristic spread of cabins and boardwalks set in thick forest on the higher slopes of Mount Popa.
The ambience is spectacular. Myanmar stretches away muffled in subtle and smoky mists; sunlight gleams on the golden spires of the Taling Kalat Temple; vividly colored birds flute from the balcony; and the nat-appeasing chants, while audible, are a distant, exotic murmur.
During the heat of the day, when the lowlands are obscured by a smoky, yellow haze, the mountain seems to be floating in a dreamlike sea. It’s tempting to do nothing at all but eat, drink and enjoy the views.
The resort’s kitchen offers Thai food (but no pork — the nats will not tolerate pork on their mountain). Swimming in the resort’s pool was forbidden after monks from Taling Kalat objected that it was disrespectful for people to frolic about at an elevation superior to the Taling Kalat Temple. After being invited to free feasts at the resort, the monks changed their position. Swimming is now OK.
If one feels duty-bound to do something at the resort, you could visit the Department of Forestry’s nearby museum. It is not that interesting. Just outside, though, is a series of gardens filled with medicinal plants found on Mount Popa. There are literally hundreds of them, and sick people from all over the country flock to Popa’s herbalists.
Climbing the Taling Kalat Temple plug is less terrifying than it appears from a distance. Twenty minutes’ climb up mainly covered staircases should get you to the top comfortably. Climbing Mount Popa (1,518 meters) is equally stimulating. The Forestry Department has declared 130 sq. km of Popa and 100 sq. km of its surrounding environs a special reserve, and has cut various trails and a circular 32-km track that girdles the lower slopes of Popa.
Popa is biologically diverse. Besides the wild medicinal plants, it has orchids and five types of forest that culminate in pine stands on the crater rim. Natural inhabitants also include wild boar, jungle cats (Felis chaus), deer, several types of monkey and 140 species of birds.