Sunday, October 31, 2010

First day in the Mekong Delta

2 of my new friends at the Tay An pagoda, near Chau Doc
Time to catch up on my Mekong Delta adventures as promised. After the Blue Cruiser boat took us from Phnom Penh to Chau Doc in some style, we settled into the very plush Victoria Chau Doc Hotel, graciously given a room each for Tim and myself by the management team and for our evening meal we wandered around town a little, eventually finding our target restaurant, Bay Bong. Pretty standard fare in my view but popular with the backpacking crowd that are making their way to Cambodia through the Delta. After a blissful night's sleep, with my window on the activity taking place on the Bassac River below, and a sumptuous buffet breakfast, we hired a couple of motos and their drivers, Yom and Mai, and headed west for our first foray into the Delta countryside. The memorial at Ba Chuc was our initial target, along a busy road past the foot of Sam Mountain and through the small town of Nha Ban. After thirty minutes we stopped at our first Khmer pagoda of the day, Wat Jin Jom and some banter with a group of young boys as the monks were seemingly absent. Turning right off the main road, we passed through tiny villages and gloriously green ricefields, stopping at a couple of pagodas, shouting hellos to schoolkids in their dozens, all riding bicycles and wearing identical school uniforms, before arriving at Ba Chuc village in just under two hours. The village of Ba Chuc was effectively wiped out in April 1978 when its population of 3,159 were murdered by invading Khmer Rouge insurgents, with only two survivors living to tell the tale. The village lies close to the border with Cambodia and suffered this terrible tragedy, which is remembered today with a memorial park. There were a couple of local tourist buses pulling in as we arrived, but they didn't stay long, walking around the memorial, saying silent prayers, lighting incense sticks, buying some of the food on offer and then back on the bus and away to their next stop. Tim and I took a bit longer, meeting one of the many Ho Chi Minh impersonators we would encounter on our trip - it's a popular look for older Vietnamese men; bald or thinning hair on top, with long wispy white beard - and also visited the room next door which acts as a museum with photos of the aftermath of the atrocity, murder weapons and wall maps. A sobering start to our exploration.

At the disused wooden pagoda at Wat Thlung we had our first of what would become numerous sit-down and chat sessions with all of the 30-odd monks that reside at the Khmer pagoda. Our few words of Khmer went a long way and finding one of the monks who spoke reasonable English was a big help. They were a fun bunch and their humour infectious. We were now heading back towards Chau Doc, stopping at other pagodas, a war memorial with what seemed like thousands of war graves, arriving once more at the foot of Sam Mountain, where we pulled in for lunch opposite one of the tombs that dot the hillside. All very local, identified by pointing at what looked like chicken and pork in the kitchen area, that doubled up as the owner's living room. After a bite to eat, we paid our respects at the tomb of Thoai Ngoc Hau, a 19th century official who built the main Vinh Te canal in the area, before moving onto the temple of Lady Chua Xu, which was awash with pilgrims, and finished at the Tay An pagoda. All of them were a mix of Chinese, Buddhist and Vietnamese influences and difficult to appreciate the various statues and guardians without a knowledgeable guide, which we didn't have. Nevertheless, everyone seemed keen to welcome us at what is the most obvious spot for visitors, as its only a few kilometres from Chau Doc town. We took a couple of different motos to the top of the mountain - I think its a moto-mafia deal though my driver indicated his moto wouldn't make it up the steep track - for a great view of the surrounding countryside and also called into a hilltop estate of bungalows that are owned by the Victoria Hotel group but have yet to be tidied up and opened to the public. An interesting garden of stone sculptures caught our eye on the way back into town, arriving back at 4pm in time to test out the hotel's riverview swimming pool and then out to dinner at the Mekong restaurant, which turned out to be very Fawlty Towers-like in their level of service, ending with a torrential rainstorm to wrap up our first full day in the Mekong Delta.
Our 1st pagoda stop of the day at Wat Jim Jom
One of the traditional Buddhist wall paintings at the pagoda of Wat Soai Chek
Wat Soai Chek, another Khmer pagoda about 15kms from Ba Chuc
The lush green ricefields of the province of Tri Ton
The war graves in a military cemetery en route to Chau Doc
A bust of Thoai Ngoc Hau, a revered local official, inside the temple that bears his name on Sam Mountain
The Chinese-influenced pagoda at Tay An on Sam Mountain
The flooded delta area surrounding Sam Mountain
Green fields and water as we peer towards Cambodia from the top of Sam Mountain
My motodop Yom after our day out in the countrysideTim gets friendly with the monks at Wat Thlung near Ba Chuc

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