The hike to the summit of Mount Popa, or Taung Ma-gyi as it is now officially known, is one of Myanmar’s best half-day excursions. Yet, it’s a trek that you’ve probably never heard of. Here are all the details and why you should do it!
What is Taung Ma-gyi?
Taung Ma-gyi, or Mother Mountain, is a 4980ft (1517m) high extinct volcano that last erupted around 250,000 years ago. Covered in lush, dripping forests that are protected within the Popa Mountain Park and home to the exclusive Popa Mountain Resort, Taung Ma-gyi is little known outside of local circles.
Where is it located?
Taung Ma-gyi is located about 50km from Nyaung U; expect the journey to the start of the trailhead to take around 75 minutes. The hike to the summit can easily be done on a half-day trip from Bagan, a truly rewarding and refreshing way to break up temple sightseeing.
To read more about Our Time in Bagan check out our post!
Why Summit Taung Ma-gyi?
On a clear day the views from atop Taung Ma-gyi are out of this world! 360-degree vistas stretch as far as the eye can see, a sea of fluffy white clouds floating fairytale-like below.
Hiking up, the air is fresh and cool; the dust of the Bagan plains feels a million miles away. At the summit, gazing out at the vast expanse of land below us, we couldn’t help but feel invigorated, our spirits high on the ecstasy of nature’s bounty.
The Hike to the Summit
We arranged for a car and driver to pick us up from our hotel in Nyaung U at 5am, leaving 15 minutes later as the first hints of sunrise began to appear on the horizon. The roads were peacefully empty as we drove towards Mount Popa, our driver stopping a couple of times to pick up petrol and breakfast for himself.
The trailhead to the summit of Taung Ma-gyi lies partway up the mountain at the end of the tarmac road; from here a right turn leads exclusively to the upmarket Popa Mountain Resort. Our driver parked up on the roadside, where he patiently waited for us to hike up and back.
The route to the top is very straight-forward; don’t listen to anyone that tells you a guide is needed. If you’d feel more comfortable with one, however, Popa Mountain Resort charges $24 per group of up to four people.
Around 10 minutes from the start of the trail, the path forks. There’s a green sign with an arrow pointing to the left, along with some Burmese writing. Don’t worry about what the sign says; just take a left here! After that, there are no more bifurcations. With one meandering trail all the way to the summit, you really can’t get lost!
The roughly 7.5km hike to the summit took us just over 2.5 hours; the trail is solid all the way with a number of viewpoints that offer some stunning panoramas. As you gain elevation, you’ll notice how the vegetation changes. From the thickly forested lower slopes, where moisture hangs heavy in the air, to the middle section, with sweet-smelling pine trees, the profusion of nature and flowering plants is abundant in its diversity.
Emerging from the pines, the path begins to open up and you’ll get your first glimpse of Popa Taung Kalat; the view from above is far superior to that from ground level. You can even see the temples atop the rocky crag.
The remainder of the trail is lined with grasses, spiny plants and brush; a few thin trees and pretty wild flowers dot the scene. From every vantage point, a sea of velvet green swims before the eyes, stretching into an eternity of brilliant patchwork.
When you reach a TV tower with a small golden pagoda, you are officially at the FIRST summit, but not the true top! Find the steps behind the pagoda and continue on, along the rim of the volcano crater, where you can look down into the bowl-shaped valley and imagine the violent events that led to its formation.
The ridgetop trail descends slightly before rising again to a second summit, where there is another, smaller pagoda. Break here to take in the spectacular views of where you’ve just come from; you’ll see the TV tower in the distance and the crater walls dropping down sharply in front of you. From here it’s just another 5 minutes to the true summit!
You’ve made it, you’re at the top of Taung Ma-gyi, Myanmar’s extinct volcano! A third and final golden pagoda marks the end of the path and there’s a flat concrete platform where you can rest and take some more awesome shots. Gaze down upon a sea of clouds and take in the epic landscape that stretches to a distant horizon.
The entire hike, up and down with around 20 minutes at the top, took us 5 hours. We set off at 6:30am and arrived back at the car at 11:30am. The descent is, of course, much easier but remember to watch your footing as some parts can be slippery coming down.
Also be careful when traversing the section near the TV tower; the steps leading up to it are very steep with sheer drops on all sides. The wind can really get up around there too.
- Bring plenty of water and snacks with you as there’s nowhere to buy anything on the mountain.
- Start the hike as early as possible! We met groups of locals ascending when we were almost back; by that time the temperature had risen and the clouds were starting to descend. The earlier you start, the cooler and therefore easier it will be hiking up and the greater the chance of clear skies and awesome views!
Popa Taung Kalat
The famous Popa Taung Kalat, now officially known as Mount Popa, is a place of pilgrimage for those who worship the ‘nat’ (spirit beings). This towering 2418ft (737m) volcanic plug is crowned with a gilded Buddhist temple that is accessed by 777 steps on the mountain’s lower flank.
On the drive down from Taung Ma-gyi to Popa Taung Kalat, get your driver to pull over at the viewpoint that overlooks the rocky crag. It’s the best spot to photograph Taung Kalat from all-but ground-level; village buildings and part of the covered stairway combine to make this a photo-worthy spot.
The climb to the top of Popa Taung Kalat takes around 20 minutes, ascending the many steps under a series of covered walkways, past rows of trinket and souvenir vendors. The summit is crowned with an atmospheric complex of monasteries, stupas and shrines that includes the most revered of them all, Popa Taung Kalat Temple. Views from up here are impressive, though pale in comparison to those atop Taung Ma-gyi.
Also pay a visit to the Mother Spirit of Popa Nat Shrine that lies in the village at the foot of the mountain, across from the steps that lead up Popa Taung Kalat. Inside you’ll find a host of mannequin-like figures that represent some of the 37 official nat. Hindu deities and other nat not counted among the official 37 can additionally be seen.
Having hiked up Taung Ma-gyi, experienced the peace and tranquillity of the mountain and witnessed the mesmerising views its heights offer, we were rather disappointed with Popa Taung Kalat. With screeching monkeys strewn across the stairways and within the temple complex, hordes of people and lines of insistent sellers, we found the whole experience both tacky and overwhelming.
We would suggest coming to Mount Popa for the hike up Taung Ma-gyi and visiting Popa Taung Kalat whilst you’re in the area! Popa Taung Kalat is certainly more impressive from a distance!
Getting to Mount Popa
Although it’s possible to join a group tour to Mount Popa, these trips only include a visit to Popa Taung Kalat. To hike up Taung Ma-gyi and then visit Taung Kalat afterwards, you’ll need to hire a private car and driver. Expect to pay 45,000ks including waiting time; it’s the best price around and can be split between a number of travellers if you can get a group together.
Have you been to Taung Ma-gyi or Popa Taung Kalat? We’d love to hear about your experience!
Are you road tripping around Myanmar? Check out our Top 12 Travel Experiences to truly experience the best of what the country has to offer!