The temperature that morning must have felt like 40 degrees Celsius when our group boarded two vehicles heading to Mount Popa. The plains of Bagan was unforgiving during that time of the year where the sun seems to be closer than any place on Earth. The thought of a side trip to a place thousands of feet above sea level seems like finding an oasis. As I sat at the backseat of the car, as it roll over burning-like asphalt road, flowing fire disguised as wind blows across my face. My eyes were almost tearing because of the scorching heat. I listened to the small talk between Chef Jana who was seated beside me and Melo who was at the front passenger seat, for a time before the two of them fell asleep and I was left to watch the passing dried farmlands, trees and twigs at the side of the road.
Once in a while we would pass by small pockets of town and then a long stretch of highway again, then I would see one or two people walking by the side of the road. With the intense heat, I wondered silently how they'd survive being out for long in that heat. After an hour and a half of that repetitive scenery, our car finally rolled into the slowly elevating zig-zag road leading to the center of Mount Popa. I rolled down the window of the car and soon, I felt the breeze becoming cooler.
Another half an hour later our driver parked at the side of the road and ordered us to get out and pointed to us the Taung Kalat Buddhist Monastery. From where we were standing, I saw the stunning structure as it sit immovable atop a hill of the same name which was formed out of a lava neck, also called as volcanic plug.
Rising a total of 2,417 feet above sea level and reachable by climbing its 777 steps, Taung Kalat Temple provides an amazing panoramic view of the whole Bagan plains. Tourists and worshipers of the Buddhist faith flock to this temple all year-round. After a few minutes we went back to the car and headed to the foot of the Taung Kalat pedestal hill.
During the middle part of the trip I've already felt some unusual rumbling in my stomach. I resisted the urge of farting and even making sudden movements as I'm pretty sure, the dam will broke wide open if I did. So, I was really hoping we'd reach the place fast and hope that there are public restrooms located there. I'm proud to say, I was able to hold the fort until we arrived.
I went out of the car first and told Melo and Chef Jana I would just meet them at the top. The other van which were transporting Gaye, Monette, Dong, Jerome, Ron, Reuben and Baby Luna has yet to arrive. We later found out that they stopped by the market and bought thanaka and had it applied on their faces.
Climbing barefoot I encountered Mount Popa's famous residents, some of the 20,000 monkeys known to be living in the mountain and mostly concentrated at the Taung Kalat hill. They bother the visitors for peanuts, and sometimes would pick up bottles of water or anything they could get their hands on. After a dozen steps I saw a sign pointing to a public comfort room. I wasted no time and headed straight there. The toilet was surprisingly clean, almost spotless which gave me a comfortable time depositing my loose load for that day. I gave the caretaker 1,000 Kyat afterward.
Feeling like a rejuvenated soul, I found the rest of our party huddled together by the steps all set out to climb the rest of the 777 steps. After 15 minutes I reached the top of the hill and the temple itself with Monette. The temple looks simple and a bit detached from the impressive view as seen from afar. Still, the feeling of stepping foot on a place once resided by the hermit U Khandi provides a natural high-higher than the 777 steps we just climbed that day.
The view from the Taung Kalat Temple shows the volcanic peak of Mount Popa which towers 4,981 feet above sea level and the surrounding plains of Bagan. I stood for a few moments, while I gather my breathe and at the same time enjoyed the cool wind. Resting, I transfixed my eyes towards the majestic 360 degree surrounding. I took a few photographs of some monks, relaxing and surveying the scenery as well before I roamed around the remaining part of the temple.
Going down, I once again encountered a number of monkeys. These funky playful creatures have become one of the attractions of Mount Popa. I took one last dump at the toilet, feeling fine I joined the rest and prepared to be extracted back to our hotel in Bagan. That moment, I felt a twinge of bittersweet feeling. Our Bagan trip was about to end and I'm just starting to savor the great experiences I had in such a short time I was there. On the way back I fell asleep on the car and had a dream about being a monk living at Taung Kalat Temple, for some reason I found it one of the best dreams I've ever had.