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The roots of Mount Popa

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The word “popa” is widely believed to be derived from the Pali word for flower, and even the folklore surrounding the mountain acknowledges its fame as a place where many blossoms grow: One story that continues to resonate with spirit worshippers to this day involved a servant who was sent each day by King Anawrahta of Bagan to collect flowers from the forests growing on the volcanic slopes. These forests also support an incredible array of plants that are believed to have medicinal properties. Local villagers collect some of them for direct use, while others are harvested to be made into pills and tablets for commercial sale. Some medicinal roots are even sold by vendors at the base of the stairway leading to the top of nearby Taung Kalat. In any case, officials at Popa Mountain Park distribute only a limited number of permits for plant collection, and 30 rangers patrol the park to keep an eye out for poachers not only of medicinal plants, but also of orchids and firewood.



While it is possible to spot some of these medicinal plants while hiking with a local guide, the best way to understand the sheer diversity is to visit the Popa Mountain Park Forest Department’s Environmental Education Center, which opened in 1993 and is located only 2.5km from Popa Mountain Resort.

Inside the centre are displays of dried, pressed and framed plants, as well as many of the butterflies and birds that populate the park. Outside, the Forest Department maintains a sizable Medicinal Plantation with demonstration plots that are signed for easy identification. Knowledgeable park officials – such as the impressively erudite Khin Myo Htwe, who has participated in exchange programs with botany specialists in Japan and South Korea – clue visitors into the properties of each species of plant, and how to prepare it for maximum effect.




Suffering from lucomederma (white spots on the epidermis)? Pluck a Plumba ginaceae plant from the ground, grind its roots into powder, mix it with the water used to wash rice, and apply the paste to the skin. Flatulence and hypertension got you down? Crush some Tinospora cordifolia into powder and mix it with honey. Gentiana kurroo root for toothaches, powdered Withania somnifera bark mixed with alcohol for menstrual cramps, sap from Tradescentia spathacea leaves for burns and scalds, lime-scented Glycosmic pentaphylla for soothing muscle pain: The list goes on and on.


Another attraction near the resort – just 3km away, and often reached by foot or horseback down a narrow dirt road – is an unusual sandalwood forest. According to Khin Myo Htwe, sandalwood trees are not native to Myanmar, but in 1957 a retired forester brought seeds from India and planted them in the Popa region.

“The trees require 20 years to mature, and unfortunately as soon as the grove reached the two-decade mark, poachers moved in and cut down all the trees,” she explained. The trees were targeted for harvesting and sale because of their many applications: the pith is use for medicine for runny noses and itchy skin, while the large roots systems (which penetrate 50 feet into the ground) are carved into Buddha images for homes and pagodas. Women also use sandalwood as a skin conditioner and perfume, and wood is also quite well known as a form of incense.

But the poaching incident did not mean the end of sandalwood in Myanmar. Miraculously, birds carried leftover seeds from the decimated trees to a nearby area, and around 20 years later another sandalwood grove took root on the slopes of Mount Popa. This is the forest that can be seen today, and its 60 acres are protected inside a walled compound, which is also home to two sambar deer and four golden deer that are allowed to roam free. The golden deer had to be reintroduced from other regions; native to Popa, they had previously been hunted into extinction in the area.

Khin Myo Htwe said that according to a December 2010 census, there are 574 sandalwood trees in the compound. She added, “Because sandalwood is not native to Myanmar, but because the seeds that created this particular grove were carried here by birds, it’s sort of an ‘unnaturally’ natural forest.”

Naturally occurring or not, the trees are thriving in the climate of Mount Popa, and the forest is popular side trip for visitors.


Popa Mountain Resort has also taken advantage of the local climate by establishing its own garden, which, since it was planted in 2009, has supplied most of the fruits and vegetables used in the resort’s restaurant. Hotel operations manager Myint Lwin explained that the area where the garden is located was once full of thick undergrowth and was initially cleared to keep snakes away from the guest rooms.

“But the soil and weather at Popa are particularly good for plant growth, so we had the idea to make a garden in the cleared area,” he said. “In the past we bought our fruits and vegetables from Popa village at the foot of the mountain, but with our garden we now grow most of what we need for the restaurant. We still buy some produce we don’t grow, and we also need to buy extra produce when there are many people visiting the restaurant. But during the low season when we don’t have as many guests, we even sell some of our produce to the village.”


The list of fruits and vegetables grown at the resort is impressive: cauliflower, capsicum, celery leaf, chili, coriander, citron, eggplant, kalian, lemongrass, lime, lemon, mint, green mustard, pennywort, radish, roselle, tomato, jackfruit, papaya, strawberry, banana, lettuce, broccoli and Thai ginger.

The staff also grow both white and red dragon fruit (the latter variety is more tasty and more expensive), with each plant bearing fruit five to nine times a year. When the dragon fruit nears ripeness, it must be covered with plastic to protect it from thieving squirrels (guava gets the same treatment). Rainy season, according to Myint Lwin, is best for growing fruit, while the dry, cool season favours vegetables and flowers.

“We strive to grow our produce as organically as possible. The soil is so rich that we don’t need to add chemical fertiliser unless absolutely necessary, and even then we use only a very minimal amount,” he said. Indeed, the nutrient-rich dirt literally clings to the shoes of anyone who walks around the garden, and when it’s damp, more than a little scraping is required to remove it from the treads of footwear. Because of this, Myint Lwin said the resort plans to establish paved footpaths between the planted plots for the convenience of guests who want to see where the restaurant’s fruits and vegetables are grown.


It’s fascinating to compare the growth of fruits and vegetables on the mountain to the farming traditions on the plains below. Between Popa and Bagan, in Kyaukpadaung township, many locals earn their living farming crops that are more suitable to dry soil, including maize, peanuts, sesame and other beans. Many of these same farms also have their own palm trees, from which sap, or toddy, is harvested by brave individuals who scale rickety bamboo ladders to collect sap-filled ceramic pots. The sweet toddy can be consumed directly, or it can be converted into a bitter juice popular with locals. It is also made into sweet jaggery candy, and some is set aside for fermentation to brew alcoholic toddy wine.

One farm located about halfway between Mount Popa and Bagan has about 80 palm trees, which are harvested twice a day by U Pho Thein. For him, this means an incredible 160 death-defying trips up and down the ladders every day.


While U Pho Thein demonstrated his work by effortlessly scrambling to the top of an 18m palm tree, another farmer, U Chit Oo Maung, explained the process: “The sap is collected twice a day, from 5am to 10am, and again from 2:30pm to 7pm. The harvesting season is from January until the end of September.”

The climber ascends the tree carrying minimal equipment: a knife in a wooden scabbard tucked into his waistband, and two or three small, empty ceramic pots dangling from rope also tied around his waist. When he reaches the top he removes the toddy-filled pots that had been put in place during the previous ascent, and replaces them with the empty pots.

He then uses the knife to slice about 1 inch from a part of the male trees called the htan-nou (toddy udder), a stem enclosing the palm tree’s flower cluster from which the sap drips when freshly cut. Each stem can produce toddy for about three months before being depleted, with the daily yield decreasing over time. A new stem will fill one pot in about 10 hours, while older stems will only partly fill the pot during that time.

The sap is sweet when initially collected and can be consumed in that state. Popular with locals is bitter toddy, which is made by mixing sticky rice power with the sweet sap and then allowing it to sit for one day. Although this drink is non-alcoholic, it is sometimes amusingly referred to as “sky beer”. The truly alcoholic variety is brewed by boiling jaggery candy and water in a pot, mixing in sticky rice powder, allowing the concoction to ferment for two days, and then dripping the liquid into glass bottles.


To make jaggery candy, fresh sweet juice is boiled in a large pan over an open wood fire until it becomes a thick paste. After it cools it is rolled into balls and allowed to dry in the sun. According to U Chit Oo Maung, a farm with 80 trees can produce about 25kg of jaggery each day, and this is usually purchased by brokers who then resell it to hotels, restaurants and other shops.

“But we don’t made much money from jaggery, even though it requires a lot of work to collect the sap and produce the candy,” he said. “That’s why a lot of palm tree climbers would rather find work doing other jobs in cities or even overseas, where they can earn more money.”

The palm trees of the Kyaukpadaung region can be used for much more than collecting toddy, and in fact no part of the tree goes to waste. The fruit of the female tree can be eaten directly, and the juice can be mixed with rice to make a custard-like snack called htan thee moun. The husks of the ripe fruit are usually fed to cows and oxen. The large fronds from the trees are used as roofing material for houses, and the tough frond stalks can be made into everything from baskets and hats, to furniture and yokes for oxen.

The tree trunks, meanwhile, are made into posts for houses, as well as tables and chairs, and the lower portions are even carved out to create big flower pots. The roots are used for firewood, and some portions of the root can even be roasted and eaten. The tree’s seeds are pressed to produce an oil that is used to make soap.

The list goes on, and as long as the diverse plants of Mount Popa and the Bagan region continue to thrive, the locals will be able to benefit from their bounty.