The Ultimate Family Endurance Test: Climb Mount Popa with the Kids

A bad-luck streak in Burma becomes a lesson in family solidarity. By Karryn Miller.

Oct 12, 2020

Mist obscures the view of the Burmese countryside that we had heard about from friends who had recently summited Mount Popa. We do get the odd glimpse—a rolling hill, some lush foliage—but in all honesty, that was never the driving motivation for this climb. What matters is we made it to the top: me with a baby strapped to my chest and my husband with a preschooler oscillating between tantrums and joyful bounding. We have greeted the first day of the year from the top of the mountain’s steep, slippery stairs with a sense of accomplishment as a family.

Photos by Karryn Miller.

Our trip to Myanmar had already been a rollercoaster. The day prior, my husband and I were standing in the Rangoon airport check-in line watching our daughter hold her stomach, as the color of her face lightened several shades. We knew what was going to happen next, but were powerless to stop her body’s rejection of whatever it was that was not sitting well. I could only hold out my hands in a feeble attempt to catch some of it before it splashed on the tile floor. The check-in the clerk leaned slightly out of his chair, moderately curious, then settled back in unfazed. Others in line leaped sideways. We managed to get through security and sit patiently, plastic bag at the ready, as we waited with equal parts excitement and dread for our prop plane north to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Bagan.

The airplane to Bagan. Photo by Karryn Miller.

Even before this we had mixed emotions about a family trip to Myanmar. There were health issues to consider, especially since we were traveling with two young children, one aged four, the other nine months. The escalating human-rights crisis facing the area’s Rohingya also weighed heavily; ultimately we hoped our tourist dollars would support local small businesses and workers.

I’d had the chance to visit Burma back in 2011 with my husband, when there was an infectious buzz of optimism about a country in transition, but I felt guilty about taking time off work and so he went without me. For seven years I’d regretted that decision whenever anyone mentioned Burma, and had vowed to say “yes” to travel more often.

Now, with two curious little ones in tow who wanted to touch everything (and get the stomach bugs to prove it), I was again having doubts about the wisdom of booking a trip here. In fact, technically we didn’t even book Popa.

Earlier in the day that Ella had decided to publicly part ways with her breakfast, we’d called to reconfirm our hotel in Bagan and they couldn’t find our reservation. After a little digging we realized we’d booked for December 31 the next year, and the property, along with most other nearby accommodations, was obviously all full. Our kind driver in Rangoon had refused to drive away from the airport until we’d confirmed with him we had a place to stay in our next destination. After a few frantic phone calls we managed to find another place to stay, and off we went.

We woke before sunrise on New Year’s Day and headed to Taung Kalat—Mount Popa, one of Burma’s most sacred pilgrimage sites, a 90-minute drive south of Old Bagan. The terrain was cloaked in early morning drizzle. Our guide told us that it very rarely rained at that time of year. And yet… Of course. Just our luck!

Macaque families survey the scene. Photos by Karryn Miller.

As we got closer to the mountain we parked and made our way on foot to the bustling community that skirts its base. Curious monkeys appeared alongside the road. We watched whole families of Rhesus macaques go about their daily routine, cleaning each other while perched on the spires of gate posts and balconies. Makeshift shops with corrugated iron roofs and full of trinkets led the path to the bottom of the staircase, where two elephant statues stood to attention.

Mount Popa is an extinct volcano that shoots up 450 meters above sea level and is crowned by a monastery that looks like a fairytale castle, making it both a pilgrimage site and a popular tourist attraction. It is home to the 37 nats (spirits) that are at the core of Burmese spirituality, and many locals make their way to this deeply sacred location to give offerings and pray.

The monastery is reached by 777 steps that wrap up the mountainside. We took off our shoes and joined the masses visiting on the first day of the year. We made our way up the sheltered staircase, stopping along the way to snap photos of the primates that switched between lazing about in the rafters and trying their luck at lifting lunch from the pilgrims. The climb up took place in stops and starts, as most travel does with kids, until eventually we reached the final wet staircase—which seemed to be virtually vertical—and carefully carried up our tuckered-out kiddos to this cloud-washed summit. Before us was a gilded monastery with towering stupas and statues. We paused to take it all in. To take in the fact that we’d made it.

Now, with travel mostly restricted to armchairs or short local trips, I’m reminded of this journey. Not because it seems so exotic and far away from my living room/office/crèche, but because it was a turning point for our family. It taught us how resilient and adaptable our children are. It showed us how the warmth and generosity of a people is not dictated nor hampered by who is in power. And that even when the view seems bleak, there are glimpses of gold to be found. That the mist will lift, eventually.

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