Tourists revel in rich Khmer culture

14:17 | 03/02/2018
At first, I thought it would take only one day to sample the best of Tra Vinh, a coastal province in the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta, but I was quickly proven wrong.
tourists revel in rich khmer culture
Ancient: The tranquil beauty of Ang Pagoda. - File Photo

Hundreds of ancient trees and a fascinating Khmer culture with at least 140 Khmer pagodas as well as the Ao Ba Om (Ba Om Pond) relic site are just a few of the many highlights of the area.

Surrounded by the Tien (Front) and Hau (Rear) rivers, the province has a long coastline stretching 65km along the East Sea. To the north are Ben Tre and Vinh Long provinces and to the west is Soc Trang Province.

The main city, Tra Vinh, is known as “Green City” and is home to over 13,690 trees. Of these, about 800 are more than 100 years old, including tamarinds, the timber tree Dau (dipterocarpus alatus) and the timber and medicine tree hopea odorate.

Blessed with natural sights that can soothe the weary soul of an urban traveller, the area is perfect for boat tours along canals and rivers, swimming in the sea, ethnic culture tours, and extraordinary local food specialties.

If you visit in mid-November to mid-December, the Ok Om Bok Festival, also called the Festival of Worshipping the Moon, takes place at the Ba Om Pond relic site.

Kim Ngoc Thai, deputy chairman of the province’s People’s Committee, said that the Ok Om Bok is one of the main traditional Khmer festivals in the south besides the Sene Dolta and Chol Chnam Thmay festivals.

The joyful and festive Ok Om Bok event has been recognised as a National Intangible Cultural Heritage by the Vietnamese government.

The one-week festival includes cultural and sports events, trade fairs offering local specialties, traditional competitions such as tug-of-war and crossing of bamboo bridges, and a souvenir design contest.

But the standout activity is the exciting and colourful Ghe Ngo (Khmer boat) race on Ba Om Pond (which is actually as big as a lake)

Six rowing teams with nearly 400 athletes from different districts and cities in the province compete in a race that is seen as both a way to express solidarity and a traditional ritual to see off the God of Water to the ocean after the growing season.

The Khmer also view the race as a religious ritual in which they commemorate the Snake God, Naga, who turned into a lump of wood to help the Buddha cross the river, according to legend.

The Khmer believe the moon is a god who controls the weather and crops throughout the year. Every year, the festival takes place under a full moon in the 10th lunar month during the transition from the rainy to the dry season and from the growing to the harvest season.

The festival is also celebrated in villages throughout the province, mostly in gardens at local pagodas. On the occasion, the Khmer people provide offerings of farm products to thank the gods for favorable weather and bountiful harvests.

Ang Pagoda, also called Angkorajaborey Pagoda, is an ancient southern Khmer-style pagoda located 7km from the centre of Tra Vinh City. It covers a 4-ha area and is surrounded by old trees near the Ba Om Pond.

The pagoda has been recognised as a national relic by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.

For the Khmer, pagodas are spiritual and cultural spaces that express the life of the locals. They are typically built in an architectural style imbued with the cultural characteristics of Theravada. One of the three main traditions in Buddhist practice and philosophy. It is taught in the Pali language, the same language spoken by the Buddha.

The Khmer believe that the Buddha blesses and protects them, so followers donate time, money and effort to build pagodas in their hamlets.

More than one million Khmer live in southern Vietnam, which has a total of 600 Khmer pagodas. Some of them have existed for several centuries and have been recognised as national architectural relics, including the pagodas of Ang, Mẹt, Hang and Doi.

The pagodas are always built on large areas surrounded by Dau (Dipterocarpus alatus) trees, Palmyra palms or green cajuput forests.

A panoramic view of a typical Khmer pagoda includes a monastery, gate, fence, wall, main chamber, towers containing the ashes of dead monks, and the Sala, the place where monks and the Khmer gather to prepare for important ceremonies.

The main chamber of the Ang Pagoda, the most important part of the structure, is located in the centre and faces east. It is designed with a multi-layered roof decorated with four curved dragon’s tails on four of the roof’s corners.

Decorative reliefs on the pagoda’s walls include a fairy, statues of divine Krud birds, the ogress Yeak wearing armor, and the head of the Bayon with four faces, all expressing the spirit of the Khmer people.

The corridor outside the main chamber is decorated with Naga curving around the terrace that represent cruel forces subdued by the Buddha.

The Khmer, who account for 30 per cent of the province’s population, have enriched the local cuisine with traditional ingredients and distinctive flavours.

Bun Nuoc Leo (noodle soup) is one of the most well-known. It consists of snakehead fish, roast pork and shrimp, with the essential “mam bo hoc” (bo hoc sauce) to enrich the boldness and brackishness of the soup.

The noodles are made of rice flour to enhance sweetness, but to make the soup complete, you must add herbs such as boiled full-grown peas, chives and sliced banana leaves. A bowl of bun nuoc leo costs an affordable VND20,000-25,000 (US$0.8-1).

Other specialities include banh canh Ben Co (Ben Co soup noodles), Tra Cuon sticky rice cake, Dua sap Cau Ke (Cau Ke waxed coconut) and Xuan Thạnh Wine.

In the centre of Tra Vinh City are many hotels with prices ranging from VND300,000 to VND1 million a night ($13-$45).

Located about 200km away from HCM City and 100km from Can Tho City, Tra Vinh can be reached by bus for VND100,000-150,000 ($4.50-70) each way or by motorbike. It takes about three to four hours from HCM City and about two hours from Can Tho.

Within Tra Vinh City, visitors can rent a motorbike from their hotel for about VND150,000 ($7) a day or take a taxi to tour the city.


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