Mount Popa, sanskrit for flower, is an extinct volcano in the Bagan region of Myanamar. Mount Popa’s Popa Taungkalat monastery is situated atop the nearby volcano plug, jutting 737 m out of the ground. The impressive monastery is home to the nats spirits, a belief dating back to the 9th century and predating Burmese Buddhism, which has since melded with the religion. In addition to the monastery being home to resident spirits, nearly 2000 Rhesus macaques have also taken up residency there. In Burmese culture there is a recognized pantheon of 37 nats and when travelers and pilgrims visit the monastery it is considered bad luck to wear red, black, or green, colors which offend the nats (though the monkeys likely won’t mind). The nats are spirits of those who died tragically and remain unsettled, roaming the earth. Pilgrims scale 777 steps on their way up the mountain to the monastery to pay tribute to these spirits with offerings of incense and flowers. Seeing as the monkeys need to be placated as well, offerings of food are made to them. Since Myanamar, formerly Burma, opened its borders to tourists, visits to the monastery by tourists have certainly increased the amount of offerings to the monkeys specifically and have served as the economic backing for the town at the base of Popa Taungkalat. With the local currency, the kyat, translating 1000:1 to the USD, daily sales averaging between $5-10 USD per vendor represent a substantial amount of money within the community surrounding the monastery.
Upon arriving at the base of Popa Taungkalat a handful of monkeys were already making their rounds through town, nicking goodies where they were accessible and enjoying their spoils on the tops of parked cars. As is often the case, I had been warned of the monkeys mischief ahead of time, and the monkeys did not disappoint. Does this monkey mischief lead to the usual human-wildlife conflict? Of course! But as is often the case, conflict is all about perception. In the case of Popa Taungkalat, the conflict seems largely to be perceived as greater by pilgrims focused on their religious pilgrimage and tourists who perhaps expected the monkeys to be tamer, than by residents. This is quite the opposite of my research site in Singapore, where the primary conflict arises between residents and monkeys. The residents of Popa Taungkalat make a living from tourists eager to feed monkeys, thereby making them more tolerant of what is otherwise very heavy interface with the monkeys, involving the monkeys frequently snatching food from vendors (in addition to from the tourists and pilgrims ascending the 777 steps).
In my first photo, you can see the winding marble staircase and it’s tin roof covering that is laced with barbed razor wire (presumably) in an effort to keep the stairs monkey free. As you can see above, the monkeys pay no mind to this razor wire and effortlessly weave in and out of it, easily navigating it as part of their landscape. This means that as one ascends the steps to the monastery, you do so with the company of several hundred Rhesus macaques at any given time. On my way up, the interactions I witnessed were mostly tame, and in fact, the monkeys seemed quite shy – though I’m sure this differs according to time of day and how hungry they are at any given moment.
Staircases are often a prime space highlighted as conflict zones in regions with human-monkey conflict. The fact is, confined spaces (temple stairways or bridges and canopy walks at nature reserves) + humans + monkeys is a recipe for high tension interactions when not every human is comfortable around the animals and where the animals feel their territory is being encroached on. When you add a mutually desired resource (how about that can of soda or the bag of sweets) into the mix, the monkeys often are very effective at coming out on top, much to the chagrin of humans. It also helps add to the byproduct of monkey poop prevalent on the steps of the monastery. Granted, a litany of cleaners make their living diligently cleaning up after the monkeys, the fact remains that pilgrims and visitors alike climb the stairs barefoot. This makes numerous blogs posts and mixed feedback from visitors to Popa Taungkalat completely understandable.
Still, it is important to emphasize that even with thousands of resident monkeys and hundreds-thousands of visitors a day, the vast majority of interactions between the two are neutral or positive. The monkey above is enjoying the ‘monkey joints’ given to him. It illustrates a positive, though problematic interaction common with temple monkeys across the globe. A vendor has profited monetarily, a tourist has presumably had a positive experience feeding the monkey, and the monkey is enjoying a snack (though perhaps the monkey snatched the joints, thus making the interaction negative for all but the monkey). This is problematic because hand feeding wild monkeys increases their boldness and aggressive interactions with humans as they come to expect to be fed by all those who pass by them. By marking humans as a reliable food source, it often leads to the monkeys trying to intimidate any passerby holding food. In this sense, it is important that where monkey tourism exists, it move away from hand feeding to promote safer, more sustainable interactions.
Just minutes before snapping this shot, this particular monkey had given me a clear warning to stay away from his space. The monkey is raising his eyebrows as a warning to the child whose parents have posed him next to the monkey. It is interactions such as these that can escalate quickly and become very problematic. While I’m glad to say that nothing happened to this boy and the monkey went back to enjoying his ‘joints’, it still highlights the need to enact proactive measures to reduce conflict, especially a location like Popa Taungkalat where tourism is a relatively new emerging industry.
I’ll leave you all with this lovely snap of a juvenile Rhesus macaque overlooking the expansive Irrawaddy river valley below Mount Popa. It is a truly inspiring scene, with the impressive golden stupas of the monastery above you, macaques on every side, and the lush river valley below. As I made my descent down the same 777 steps, the monkeys descended with me. It seems sunset brings the macaques down from the monastery, creating a cacophony of tin noise as they bound over the stairway roof and down into town. While very peaceful during the ascent, I saw tensions heighten as I went down, with monkeys making some last ditch efforts to land some goodies at the end of the day (I can’t blame them for trying). By the time I reached the bottom, it was a full blown monkey party in town. I very much hope I will find my way back to Myanmar in the coming years and will be keen to see how the region has developed, in particular Popa Taungkalat.
Remember, Keep Calm And Love Macaques,