The golden monastery perching on a pillar of rock

On any approach, Taung Kalat in Myanmar looks stunning. A monastery glowing with white and gold stupas, perched hundreds of metres above the ground on an astonishing column of sheer rock, is hard to miss.

The rock is an ancient volcanic plug, originally created by the huge volcano it sits next to, Mt Popa. There are reputedly 777 steps from the base of Taung Kalat to the monastery (which is still a working monastery) – the steps are mainly restored and in good condition, with a roof to protect from the sun, although at one point we go from steps to rusty vertical ladders bolted to the cliff face. The climb did not seem as strenuous as it sounds, probably due to the number of view stops on the switchback stairs on the way up, as well as shrines to the 37 Nats to visit, and stalls to buy offerings (and tourist tat). Nats are spirits or demi-gods dating from before the introduction of buddhism, but in Myanmar the two appear to happily co-exist, with shrines to Nats housed within buddhist temples and monasteries. The Nats all seem to have intriguing back stories – most became Nats after a gruesome and bloody death, and there’s usually a royal connection to the story as well, with the royals frequently being the dispenser of the gruesome and bloody death. The Nats, and worshipping on the top of Taung Kalat, have been part of Burmese life from before 1100AD.

I liked the description of one of the Nats, U Min Kyawzwa, who had died a bloody death, and was known for drinking, cock fighting and being a good horse rider – I could always spot him at the shrines because his image always carried a rooster (and usually alcohol as well) This lady sold flowers to leave on the shrine while asking for the protection of a Nat.

The steps to the top are also infested with Macaque monkeys, who are well skilled in grabbing things from tourists. The stalls at the bottom sell food to feed them with, but I am firmly in the club that sees them as potential rabies carriers, not cute little animals, so I’m definitely not going to invite them in for a feed. At certain points on the stairs, there are locals armed with slingshots, shooting stones at any that look like they are about to pounce on tourists.  I wanted to feel sorry for them but I was actually quite grateful to the slingshot men.

Staying overnight at the Mt Popa resort was a perfect way to see Taung Kalat silhouetted against the sunset at night, and turning slowly from gold to bright white in the sunrise the next morning. I’ve seen some bad reviews for this place but I liked my little teak bungalow with it’s big balcony, part way up the side of Mt Popa, and with views for miles over the valleys. The pool is not much use in December though as the water is ice cold, and although the days are sunny and warm, the nights are pleasantly chilly at this higher altitude – no need for aircon at this time of the year.