About an hour's drive away from the flat landscape of Bagan lies Mount Popa, a volcanic plug 2418ft from sea level. From the base to the top where the Taung Kalat Monastery lies, there are precisely 777 steps to climb. Taung Kalat is home to the "37 great nats", spiritual deities who loom large in Burmese folk religion. For those not squeamish about climbing barefoot alongside the many macaque monkeys who roam freely along the stairway (believed to be guarding the spirits), stunning views and fascinating insights into the world of Burmese nat worship illuminate the steep ascent.
Arriving at the base, it is abuzz with vendors and markets selling fruit for offerings as well as trinkets and refreshments for the climb. All footwear must be taken off and either stored (for a small tip) or carried. There are many stops along the way to discover the history behind the "37 nat" and observe locals paying homage to these canonized spirits, as Taung Kalat is a significant pilgrimage for many Burmese.
At a moderate pace, the climb is between 30-45 minutes, and there is no need to rush. There are plenty of lookout points to stop and admire the panoramic views or simply catch your breath and take in the significance of this site, also known to many as Burma's 'Mount Olympus'.
We were fortunate to visit on a clear day, when the views close to the stop stretched as far as the eye can see. Facing north in the image below, the massive peak of Taung Ma-gyi, a former volcano, rises up from the fertile soil as a result of volcanic ash. At the very top, you are face to face with the gleaming gold details of the monastery which shimmers from a distance atop this historic landmark.
A car hire from Bagan for a half day can be arranged through any hotel or restaurant in Bagan. Be sure to stop at the palm farms along the way and taste some handmade palm sugar treats with Burmese tea in support of the local palm farmers.