We’re on our way to the hills, passing through more prosperous looking farm land.
Everywhere there are palm trees bordering the fields and clustered around the houses. These are the Sugar Palms, not to be confused with the Palm trees grown for cheap palm oil which encroach on vast areas of rain forest in places like Indonesia and Malaysia. The male and female fruit are tapped for the sweet syrup they contain.
We stop to look around a Palm sugar ‘factory’ where an elderly man climbs up one of the trees to collect clay pots which hang under the fruit. We are shown the process of reducing this liquid to a sticky syrup and eventually crystals.
Large woks sit in a row on a clay oven and the liquid is moved from the cooler end to the hot end.
There is also a fermentation process, which produces a spirit from crude stills.
At the end (shop) are some delicious snacks to be purchased. Palm sugar lumps with plum, grated coconut or tamarind. We stock up for our journey, finding that palm sugar is not sickly sweet like cane sugar – ideal.
On the journey to Kalaw, we pass Mount Poppa, home of The Nats. These are ancient deities who pre-date Buddha.
The Bagan ruler who brought Buddhism from South India, cleverly found a place for them in the new religious hierarchy. The Nats, number 37, and although only four are special to the Mount Popa region, all can be worshiped, usually by the offering of fruit or money.
They originate from people who suffered particularly violent deaths- usually at the hand of some despotic ruler. Mount Poppa is a volcanic plug, formed when a volcanic core cools very fast and is much harder than the surrounding ash. Erosion revealed the mountain, so there’s a climb of 777 steps to the Monastery perched on top. Richard C has warned us about the monkeys – we must leave any food on the bus to avoid invasion. They are abundant, being fed by the faithful and tourists who purchase newspaper cones of small nuts from the sellers. When the cones are thrown, there’s a monkey fight and the successful ones scamper to a safe place to tear open the paper, discarding it after eating the contents.
The monkeys can also be observed opening plastic water bottles to drink and one nursing mother grabs a can of sugary fizzy drink, removes the straw (that’s too sophisticated) and drinks the dregs. Sticky drops fall on the baby, who promptly moves from underneath Mum to her back. The consequence of all this is rubbish, which, with an abundance of monkey shit, has to be cleaned off the steps so that we can climb bare-footed. Volunteer cleaners station themselves all the way up with brooms and mops. Their buckets contain black water, so I can’t help thinking that the monkey shit is just getting moved around and our feet are covered in it.
Each cleaner asks politely for a ‘donation for the cleaning’. It’s advisable, for the sake of your conscience to have lots of small notes about you. I gave my last 200kt (less than 20cents) to the first cleaner at the bottom and had to shake my head and apologise to the rest. I’m thinking that the solution to the monkey shit might be to stop feeding them, then; they would go away and live in the forest. On reflection this would mean that the nut sellers would loose their living and so would the ‘volunteer’ cleaners. In terms of ecological economics, it’s best to put up with the shit and being a farm boy, I’m used to it. Along with the usual families and a few western tourists risking the monsoon threat, there’s a school party visiting today, so there’s lots of teenage drama, especially from the girls who are protesting about the climb.
There are displays of The Nats at the bottom and the top – they are astonishing. Their representation by 21st C manikins and dressed in clothing of mixed vintage means I now have to invent a new category – Buddha Kitch – wondrous.
There’s a great view from the top but the main attraction is us. The school kids are fascinated; they try out a few words of English and cuddle up to us for selfies on their mobile phones.
Nev and Peter manage to get surrounded. Nev’s boys are all style conscious like many young men here – vain about their looks – a streak of bleached red hair and trendy camouflage trousers. These boys in their school uniforms, are not quite at that stage, but one of them is wearing a red scarf with confidence and doesn’t seem to know that red is an unlucky colour to wear up on this mountain.
Garry has had to change his top, so we try to tease the boy about it. Not sure if he got it though.
seem to attract the girls who boldly ask to be photographed with me, one at a giggling time. There’s no opportunity to wash feet before putting on my sandals and getting on the bus. Hopefully, nothing nasty has stuck.