Soc Trang the home of pagodas and seductive Khmer culture
Cultural immersion: Doi Pagoda welcomes thousands of tourists each year to admire its rich Khmer aspects and witness the flying foxes in the pagoda's surroundings. — File Photos
Life in art: Visitors can find art- works made of clay in Buu Son Pagoda which is itself a clay construction, built by a poor man in 42 years.
When I was first invited to visit Soc Trang, I wondered whether there was anything special in the area, as I'd never considered travelling there before, says Nguyen Viet Minh, a tourist from Ha Noi.
"But after I decided to make the journey, I was pleasantly surprised to find a land of pagodas and vibrant Khmer culture."
Minh, who has been an avid traveller since he was a student, says his recent visit to Soc Trang turned out to be one of his most enjoyable holidays.
The Doi (Bat) Pagoda, also known as Mahatup or the Ma Toc Pagoda, was the first destination on his tour.
Home to a large but transient bat community, the pagoda is well-known not only because of its nocturnal residents but also due to the beauty of the building and its design. The Doi Pagoda was built more than 400 years ago and is the fourth oldest pagoda in the southern province of Soc Trang.
The colloquial name of the pagoda, Doi, came about when residents noticed that bats had decided to use the pagoda for shelter. Whenever visitors approach the pagoda now, they can hear the sound of the bats: shrieks, chatter and the rustle of wings.
The flying foxes are now used to humans, and hang about the place like over-ripe fruit, caring for their babies or snapping at each other.
According to the monks, the flying foxes first appeared at the pagoda 200 years ago. They hang off the branches near the pagoda all day and later fly away to find food at dusk and return home early the next morning. Surprisingly, they never eat the fruit at the pagoda.
"Our pagoda suffered serious damage in 2007 during a large fire. It took us more than a year to rebuild it. Fortunately, we received many donations to help us build the new pagoda, which is as beautiful as the old one," said monk Kim Ren.
Revelation: Kh'leang is the oldest pagoda in Soc Trang Province.
"The fire however did not affect our bats who still find a peaceful place here to get some shelter. They are an attraction that helps to bring more visitors to the pagoda," said the monk, who has been living there for more than 40 years.
"At present, a big road which is twice as wide as the old one, is under construction. It will bring more convenient conditions to tourists who we hope to see more of in the future."
The next place Minh visited was the Kh'leang Pagoda, the oldest temple in Soc Trang.
"Its architecture reminded me of the Grand Palace in Bangkok or some of the temples in Cambodia and Laos, but in some ways, I found it more beautiful," says Minh.
Kh'leang Pagoda was built in 1533 on a 3ha site. It was the first timber pagoda in the area with a leaf roof, and has received several upgrades over the years.
Its most attractive feature is the sanctuary with a three-tiered roof covered with green, yellow and red tiles. The roof is decorated with sculptures in the shape of birds and other animals. The whole architectural design reflects concepts on the relation between Buddhism, human beings and the heaven in Khmer culture.
As is the case at the Bat Pagoda and many other pagoda of the Khmer, the high altar at the centre of the sanctuary is devoted to Buddha statues. There are 16 big black wooden poles on which the Buddha's life is described while the surrounding walls and the ceiling show pictures of genies, Buddhist festivals and ritual ceremonies.
The pagoda's decoration also highlights a typical aspect of Khmer art: patterns of flowers and leaves, especially vines, rendered in skilful detail.
The pagoda also has a corner displaying ancient Khmer artefacts as a way to introduce and preserve their culture and customs
The last and most special destination during Minh's tour was the Buu Son Pagoda, which was built by a Vietnamese architect. It is also known as the Dat Set (Clay) Pagoda because much of it is made of clay that has been painted over and decorated with golden powder.
The pagoda's construction began in 1928 by Ngo Kim Tong, who initially intended to make it his family's shrine.
At the age of 20, Tong had a dream about the pagoda but was too poor to build it. He decided to make it of clay, which was dried first then crushed into a fine powder. The material was purified before being mixed with a special substance to make a fragrant and plastic substance used to build the pagoda.
Tong, who did not train to be a sculptor, carved many Buddha statues for his pagoda, which took 42 years to complete. Tong suffered a serious disease after his project was completed and he died at the age of 62 in 1970.
Despite the ravages of time and war, all of his works, including nearly 2,000 of statues, remain in good condition today.
"These works are beautiful and lively," says Marie-Thu Van Johnson, an American who was on Minh's tour. "I would have believed that it's all made of clay if I wasn't there to touch it. How can one man do so much? It's not only a great construction but also a wonderful art work."
Another American tourist, Yin Yu, says she was impressed by the six huge candles which are 2.6m in height and weigh 200kg. They can burn continuously for up to 100 years.
Apart from that, the pagoda is also home to three giant incense sticks that weigh 50kg each and are 1.5m tall. It's estimated they can burn for years.
"Dat Set must be the most special pagoda in Viet Nam," says Minh. "It shows the rich imagination and dedication of the local people." — VNS