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Monday 28 Jan 2013
Bagan, Myanmar

Cheeky monkeys and seven hundred steps

Today should have been a free day for us and a day off for Joseph. Unfortunately, the timing of this day, being a Monday, meant the local things we wanted to do such as a visit to the Archaeological museum, were all closed and we were left with little choice but a trip to Mount Popa. The thought of the 6 hour bus ride exhausted us all, but Joseph suggested a few places to stop on the way to break up the journey. In the end he decided to come with us. He said he would be lonely otherwise, but I suspect he didn't want to lose us where we couldn't speak the language!

On the way, we stopped at a palm sugar still. They demonstrated how the sap of the palm flower was harvested by tapping the bottom of the bud and hanging collection bowls underneath it. The fresh juice was very sweet. Inside the shelter, they showed us the stills where they boiled the juice to make two kinds of liquor. One was cloudy and still quite sweet. The other one was distilled and tasted more like whisky - much too strong for me, but Fred and Ailsa knocked it back happily. Fred even bought a bottle to take away.  They also had an ox attached to an old fashioned millstone, grinding down the palm sugar dregs to make animal feed, so we had a few turns driving the ox round and feeding the sugar mix to the oxen.

Our next stop was at a viewpoint looking across the valley to Mount Popa - the 700 steps up looked pretty steep from here! We were mobbed by small children (as usual) asking for 'Lucky Money' and trying to sell us oranges, petrified wood pieces and 'shakey rocks'. Small oval rocks that rattled when shaken, presumably volcanic with some kind of crystalisation inside - Ailsa bought out of curiosity, intending to jump on it at the first opportunity to find out.

The steps up to Mount Popa started in the middle of a busy street full of temples, cafes and tourist stalls, so it would have been quite easy to miss them if it wasn't for all the monkeys. This was the only place in Myanmar that I saw any monkeys, but there were plenty of them here. The bottom section of steps was lined with tourist souvenir stalls selling everything from scarves, buddha statues and lacquerware, to plastic kids' toys and t-shirts. The only new thing we hadn't already seen at every other temple was jewellery and bags made out of what looked like dark brown sunflower seeds. They were sewn together to make flower shapes and chains. I was very tempted and would definitely have bought a bracelet if I hadn't had to get it through Australia in the near future - that place really curbs my souvenir habit!

We bought cold drinks and made our way slowly up the steps, most of us happily going at the pace of the slowest climber (Larence had shot off ahead as usual). I tucked the empty can in the side pocket of my rucksack and forgot about it. A little way further up, having watched one of the bigger monkeys take on Joseph in a (successful) bid to steal his orange, I suddenly felt myself pounced on from the side. A tiny monkey had made a grab for my drink can. I screamed like a girl and made a run for it, but not before he had managed to whip the empty can out of the pocket. Little monkey... (literally!)

Eventually we reached the temple at the top of the 700 steps and caught our breath back while admiring the views out across the valley. The main temple plains of Bagan were too far away to see, but we could still see several monasteries and other stupas dotted all around. Inside the temple were several shrines to various spirits (Nats). People had covered the statues in Kyat notes to bring them luck in business, love, life and even gambling (so much that you could say about that one!). There was even one smaller statue of a seated buddha that was fenced off in its own enclosure. The only opening in the grill was directly in front of the statue. The floor, pedestal and knees of the buddha were covered in folded Kyat notes, as people had tried desperately to flick their note so it would land in the bowl on the buddha's lap. This apparently brought very good fortune indeed, but seemed more like the type of fixed fairground games that are impossible to win, like tossing the rings that don't quite fit over the blocks that the iPod is resting on.

The walk back down was decidedly quicker than the walk up, with no monkey attacks to worry about. At the bottom we watched a man making very delicate lace with a simple technique using just his fingers and one reel of white cotton. The mats and scarves he was selling were beautiful, so most of us ended up buying a few to take home as presents. I also took a photo to show Mum who had made her Mothers' Day present. (I hope you like it, Mum!)

After our initial reservations, this turned out to be a good day, although most of us are feeling a little templed-out now...

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