Mount Popa is a volcano 1518 metres (4981 feet) above sea level, and located in central Burma (Myanmar) about 50 km (31 mi) southeast of Bagan (Pagan) in the Pegu Range. It can be seen from the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River as far away as 60 km (37 mi) in clear weather. Mount Popa is perhaps best known as a pilgrimage site, with numerous Nat temples and relic sites atop the mountain.
The main edifice of the volcano is composed of basalt and basaltic andesite lava flows, along with pyroclastic deposits and scoriaceous material, originating from strombolian eruptions which are thought to have made up the later stages of the volcano's growth. The volcano also contains a 1.6 km (0.99 mi) wide and 0.85 km (0.53 mi) deep caldera that is breached to the northwest and is thought to have formed due to failure of the volcano's slopes. A 3 km3 (0.72 cu mi) debris avalanche can be found to the north of the caldera's breach. It covers an area of 27 km2 (10 sq mi).
Southwest of Mount Popa is Taung Kalat (pedestal hill), sheer-sided volcanic plug, which rises 737 metres (2,417 ft) above the sea level. A Buddhist monastery is located at the summit of Taung Kalat. At one time, the Buddhist hermit U Khandi maintained the stairway of 777 steps to the summit of Taung Kalat. The Taung Kalat pedestal hill is sometimes itself called Mount Popa and given that Mount Popa is the name of the actual volcano that caused the creation of the volcanic plug, to avoid confusion, the volcano (with its crater blown open on one side) is generally called Taung Ma-gyi (mother hill). The volcanic crater itself is a mile in diameter.
From the top of Taung Kalat one can enjoy a panoramic view. One can see the ancient city of Bagan; behind it to the north, the massive solitary conical peak of Taung Ma-gyi rises like Mount Fuji in Japan.
There is a big caldera, 610 metres (2,000 ft) wide and 914 metres (3,000 ft) in depth so that from different directions the mountain takes different forms with more than one peak. The surrounding areas are arid, but the Mt Popa area has over 200 springs and streams. It is therefore likened to an oasis in the desert-like dry central zone of Burma. This means the surrounding landscape is characterized by prickly bushes and stunted trees as opposed to the lush forests and rivers Burma is famous for. Plenty of trees, flowering plants and herbs grow due to the fertile soil from the volcanic ash. Prominent among the fauna are Macaque monkeys that have become a tourist attraction on Taung Kalat.
Many legends are associated with this mountain including its dubious creation from a great earthquake and the mountain erupted out of the ground in 442 B.C. It is possible that the legends about Nats represent a heritage of earlier animist religions in Burmese countryside, which were syncreticised with Buddhist religion in 11th century. There are legends that before the reign of Bagan king Anawrahta (1044 - 1077) hundreds of animals were sacrificed here as a part of nat worship rituals.
Mount Popa is considered the abode of Burma's most powerful Nats and as such is the most important nat worship center. It has therefore been called Burma's Mount Olympus.
One legend tells about brother and sister Mahagiri (Great Mountain) nats, from the kingdom of Tagaung at the upper reaches of the Irrawaddy, who sought refuge from King Thinligyaung of Bagan (344-387). Their wish was granted and they were enshrined on Mt Popa.
Another legend tells about Popa Medaw (Royal Mother of Popa), who according to legend was a flower-eating ogress called Me Wunna, she lived at Popa. She fell in love with Byatta, whose royal duty was to gather flowers from Popa for King Anawrahta of Bagan (1044–1077). Byatta was executed for disobeying the king who disapproved of the liaison, and their sons were later taken away to the palace. Me Wunna died of a broken heart and, like Byatta, became a nat. Their sons also became heroes in the king's service but were later executed for neglecting their duty during the construction of a pagoda at Taungbyone near Mandalay. They too became powerful nats but they remained in Taungbyone where a major festival is held annually in the month of Wagaung (August).
Although all 37 Nats of the official pantheon are represented at the shrine on Mt Popa, in fact only four of them - the Mahagiri nats, Byatta and Me Wunna - have their abode here.
Many Burmese pilgrims visit Mt Popa every year, especially at festival season on the full moon of Nayon (May/June) and the full moon of Nadaw (November/December). Local people from the foot of Mt Popa, at Kyaukpadaung (10-miles), go mass-hiking to the peak during December and also in April when the Myanmar new year called Thingyan festival is celebrated. Before King Anawrahta's time, hundreds of animals were sacrificed to the nats during festivals.
Burmese superstition says that on Mt Popa, one should not wear red or black or green or bring meat, especially pork, as it could offend the resident nats, although Byatta and his brother Byatwi were the only Muslims who had shipwrecked and landed in Burma.
It is now a designated nature reserve and national park. Nearby lies Kyetmauk Taung Reservoir that provides sufficient water for gardens and orchards producing jackfruit, banana, mango and papaya as well as flowering trees such as saga (Champac) and gant gaw (Mesua ferrea Linn). A pozzolan mill to supply material for the construction of Yeywa Dam on Myitnge River near Mandalay is in operation. There are many Burmese myths about the mountain, especially the one that said victory for any man who collected their army on the slopes of the mountain was guaranteed. The belief that victory can be guaranteed by visiting Mount Popa is interesting because it shows the cultural identification of life and prosperity with the mountain. The still current popularity of Mount Popa exemplifies the fact that Burmese people still rely heavily on ancient traditions in daily life. It is these ancient traditions that characterize the culture of the surrounding area and beyond. People travel great distances to assure their good luck into the coming years to Mount Popa, host to an immense annual festival which actually takes place in the temple atop the mountain.
The festival involves a transgender medium being possessed by a nat spirit which give him the ability to communicate between the nats and the people. It is these types of festivals, the type that are unique to the region but also incredibly important to the participants, that attracts tourists to Burma.