Mesmerising Myanmar

Mesmerising Myanmar

Cruising the Irrawaddy River provides an opportunity to visit a remarkable shrine. Fairfax Traveller writer Julie Miller reveals her recent spiritual experience in Myanmar.

I'm making a silent contract with an ogre queen in a shrine on Mount Popa, Myanmar. If the goddess grants my wish – to find my soulmate – I promise to help clean up her beloved countryside, whether by donation or physical action. I think it's a fair deal – after all, we could both do with a little help.

According to Tu Tu, our Scenic Tour Director, on this Scenic Freechoice excursion from a Scenic cruise along the Irrawaddy River, I'm in with a shot. Several years ago, Tu Tu made a deal with the goddess Mae Wunna and met her future husband two weeks later.

Mount Popa, meaning ‘flower’ in Sanskrit, is an extinct volcano rising 1,518 meters above sea level. The centerpiece is a dramatic basalt plug topped with a gilded temple and monastery, looming above the jungle like a fairytale castle.

It’s said to be home to the most powerful ‘nats’, the spirits of heroic ancestors. Today, Buddhists such as Tu Tu flock to the shrine, handing promises and money to the 37 nats represented in the pantheon.

Mount Popa
Mae Wunna had her own love story, albeit a Romeo and Juliet tragedy. According to legend, she was a flower-eating ogress who lived a solitary life on the volcano. One day, she fell in love with an Indian Muslim servant, Byatta, sent by King Anawrahta – founder of the Bagan empire in the 11th century – to fetch flowers.

When the king heard of their forbidden union, he had Byatta executed, and Mae Wunna died of a broken heart.

Fortunately, the lovers – and their sons, who were also executed – were resurrected as nats, and now dwell on top of the mountain. The repentant king ended up worshipping them, marking the start of the relationship between Buddhists and animism.

My contract with the Queen of the Mountain locked in, we begin our ascent up the 777 stairs to the peak. The passageway is fetid with the sweat of pilgrims squeezing past vendors selling toys, souvenirs, noodles and bottled yellow blossoms, called champac, which are given as an offering to the nats.
Scenic Aura
After 200 steps, we must remove our shoes and climb barefoot, dodging poo and lentils dropped by mangy macaques that threaten to steal sunglasses and hats from passersby; fortunately, most of the cheeky primates are having a siesta.

Finally, we emerge sweating on the pagoda’s scalding tiles, hip-hopping to a shady patch to photograph the astounding 360-degree views of the valley, shimmering Irrawaddy and spires of distant Bagan, where our cruise ship, Scenic Aura, is docked.

Later, over a Burmese-style feast at Mount Popa Resort, we gaze back at the gilded monastery, chuffed and a little astounded by our climb to the top.

As we depart the resort, I bend down to pick up a plastic water bottle, discarding it in one of the few bins I've seen in Myanmar.

After all, I have a promise to uphold, and this is evidence of my commitment. Watch this space to see if Mae Wunna rewards my diligence.