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Uniquely Khmer

 

The Mekong Delta is home to an array of distinctive Khmer pagodas off the beaten track.

A trip through the region reveals a different side of Vietnam, one in which farmers wear traditional Khmer Kroma scarves and Khmer script can be seen on roadsides. 

Touring the delta's Khmer pagodas is not only a serene getaway, but also a fascinating way to glimpse Khmer Buddhist culture and architecture not usually associated with Vietnam.

The Mekong region's 500 Khmer pagodas vary in size and age but all host typical Khmer architectural traits.

At many of the pagodas, it's not hard to see the architectural relationship to the legendary Temples of Angkor.

Style

The main hall of a Khmer Pagoda is always at the center of the complex and spans from east to west as it is believed that the Great Buddha sits in the west and blesses his disciples in the east.

The length of the pagoda must be twice its width and equal to its height and the overreach of its roof must match the size of its outdoor floors.

In addition, the embellishments of the pagodas often take the shape of the 
isosceles triangle as the form is thought to symbolize perfection.

According to Khmer teachings, enlightenment is symbolized by fire, which often takes the representative form of the isosceles triangle.

The main hall of a Khmer Pagoda is always a long corridor with four main doors facing east and west and seven or nine other doors looking north and south.

Another common feature shared by Khmer pagodas is a multi-layered roof with a vibrantly-colored pointed top.

Unique

Although the pagodas bear much architectural resemblance, they each have distinctive decorative aspects.

One example is Chen Kieu (Bowls) Pagoda, also known as the Salon Pagoda, in Soc Trang Province's My Xuyen Commune.

The pagoda boasts ornate porcelain designs and glazed terra cotta bowls and plates on its roofs, pillars and walls.

Its inner sanctum has 16 pillars carved with images taken from Khmer legends while two walls are carved with pictures depicting the Buddha's path to enlightenment.

Chen Kieu Pagoda also has beautiful carvings of Hanuman, a monkey-god associated with Hinduism and Khmer Buddhism who saved Vishnu's wife from demons.

The pagoda also features representations of the goddess of hawks, one of Cambodia's most important deities.

The curvy design of the top roof layer symbolizes freedom while the lower layers resemble a vast colorful carpet.

Built in 1533, Kh'leang Pagoda is the oldest pagoda in Soc Trang and bears much architectural similarity to its Cambodian counterparts.

Two oval-shaped stupas housing honored monks' ashes sit near the pagoda gate.

Inside its sanctum are 16 huge gold-inlaid wooden pillars featuring pictures of the Buddha and Buddhist activities.

Its roof's elaborate carvings symbolize the harmony between the Buddha, humans and the Jade emperor in Khmer teachings.

The pagoda also boasts an assemblage of artifacts from ancient Khmer settlements.

Another famed Buddhist destination in the province is Doi (Bat) Pagoda, which is also known as Ma Toc or Mahatuc Pagoda.

The 400-year-old pagoda located at in Soc Trang Town is not only famous for being a sanctuary for thousands of bats but also for its striking architecture.

There are also clay statues of the tu linh (four sacred animals):, namely Long (dragon) which stands for power, Ly (Kirin) for peace, Quy (tortoise) for longevity and Phung (phoenix) for happiness.

Its pillars feature a beautiful nymph named Kemnar while its walls are covered in pictures gifted by Buddhists from around the country.

The roof tips are sculpted with images of Naga or Niek, the snake god of Khmer legends.

The Hang (Cavern) Pagoda, also known as Kam Pong Chray in the Khmer language, is another example of Khmer Buddhist architecture, this time in Tra Vinh Province's Chau Thanh Commune.

The 400-year-old pagoda is one of the more gorgeous structures less frequently mentioned in travel guides.

Its main hall is covered in elaborate carvings and the pagoda also boasts a 
lavishly decorated pointed top with bird-bodied, human-faced deity idols and intricately embossed sculpture.

Tra Vinh's Ong Met Pagoda, or Wat Kompong in the Khmer language, is a true architectural standout with elegant reliefs featuring the god Vishnu on the dome of its main hall.

Vishnu is one of three supreme gods in Hinduism, namely Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva which signify creation, protection and destruction respectively.

The province is also home to Xiem Can, a century-old pagoda where uniquely Khmer Buddhist festivals are held.

It has a stupa housing the ashes of revered monks and several small temples dot the grounds.

Xiem Can's architecture somewhat resembles Angkor Wat.

Inside the sanctum, statues of the Buddha in various poses and sizes represent the Buddha's reincarnation in several eras.

The walls of the pagoda's main hall are covered in pictures showing the Buddha's life from birth - as Prince Gautama, life in the palace, renunciation of his royal life, and becoming the Buddha.

Can Tho City, the largest municipality in the region, is home to the Munir Ansay Pagoda on Hoa Binh Street.

The pagoda was built in 1948 and modeled on the Tam Bao (Three Treasures) tower, which is part of Cambodia's famed Angkor Wat complex.

Munir Ansay is very popular due to its elaborate sculptures.

The province's largest pagoda, it hosts ethnic Khmer festivals each year like Ok Om Bok (The Moon Prayer Festival on April 13), Chol Chnam Thmay (Khmer Lunar New Year, April 12-15), and Don Ta ("Amnesty" Festival for the Dead, October 12-14).

Cultural hub

There are nearly one million Khmers in Vietnam, concentrated mostly in the Mekong Delta provinces of Soc Trang, Vinh Long, Tra Vinh, Kien Giang, An Giang and Can Tho City.

Khmer pagodas are both imposing and sacred, an indispensable part of preserving the traditional arts and culture of the Khmer people.

Between the ages of 11 - 15, most Khmer males set aside a few months or years to live in the pagodas as monks before adulthood.

Reported by Diem Thu

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