It rises up, Olympian like, from the central plains of Bagan, a monolithic outcrop of volcanic rock crowned with a series of Technicolor temples. This is the home of the 37 Mahagiri nat, spirits unique to believers in Burma, capricious little deities with a taste for underripe bananas, Johnny Walker red, and large piles of paper money. For the Burmese Buddhist, this is deeply spiritual ground, a slow, steady crawl towards enlightenment fringed with the faces of the sacred, if slightly boozy, protectors of their belief system. But for the Western traveler, uninitiated in the deeper contours of Burma’s spiritual eccentricities, Mount Popa really boils down to one thing: misbehaving monkeys.
From base to apex, the thousands of steps climbing up the spine of Mount Popa are dominated by pink-faced macaque monkeys, once inhabitants of the surrounding forests, now trouble-making freeloaders intent on relieving visitors and vendors alike of whatever edibles they may be packing. These monkeys specialize in a unique form of ire-inducing food extraction, one that begins innocently enough with, say, a few pieces of banana and a cute baby primate. Soon, wild calls go out to the clan-at-large, who rattle their way menacingly across tin roofs, descending upon you with enough force and intimidation for you to drop the whole vine and beg for the protection of the resident spirits. Considering the nat appetite for tropical fruit, and the Burmese appetite to satisfy the nat, things spiral out of control pretty quickly on the sacred mountaintop.
This, of course, puts the tourist, who quickly realizes that it’s for the monkeys he’s made the two-hour trek up the mountain from Bagan, in a precarious position. How much is that perfect monkey shot worth to you? A French guy I met on the road recounted the thrashing he received at the claws of a pack of Peruvian monkeys a year earlier, the result of protracted eye contact with the group’s dominant male. He paid for his bravado with ten days of intermittent anti-rabies injections, an experience he likened to be on the receiving end of sloppy dental work—over and over again.
My most aggressive attempt to snag some face time with one of the monkeys resulted in a dicey skirmish that relieved me of my water bottle and whatever wavering sense of pride I had lugged with me up the mountain. Surely the nat were amused, especially since I had come empty-handed to their altar.