Khmer temple Trà Vinh, VietnamOn Thursday, I got to Tra Vinh province after a 4-hr bus from Dong Thap, only to find out that I wouldn’t be able to go ahead with work. Already there, and not wanting to spend another 4 hours on bus to get back to SaiGon, I decided to stay for a day.

Next day, on a rental Honda (scooters here are simply referred as Honda), I rode along the major roads and just stopped at whatever that caught my eyes and piqued my interest. 60% of the population here is Khmer and the most visual indication is all the Khmer temples dotting around.

At the third temple that I stumbled upon, the monks were friendly, and spoke Vietnamese well enough, that they invited me to stay for a drink, and then for lunch. Our conversation ranged from the differences between the Southern school of Buddhism (Theravada, found here and similar to what you’d see in Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar) and the Northern school (Mahayana with heavy Chinese influence), to how this land once was all Khmer land. On the latter, the monks were being quite circumspect, sandwiching their nostalgia with assurance that they weren’t at all interested in politics: “Those who lost in history lost their land and country. But what could you do? The past is the past, some of us monks still know a little about history, but that’s about it. We don’t do anything; we let the government take care of it. We’re monks already, we’ve given up on desire. All we want is a fair life for the people.”

One of my favorite Vietnamese poets is Chế Lan Viên. The poetry collection that debuted and cemented his name in Vietnamese literature was published in the 1937 when he was 17. Điêu tàn (Ruins) shocked me, like other readers, but I came to love his lines of corpses and blood, ghosts and tombs. It was my first introduction to the history of Cham people and the pain and yearning of a people whose glorious past was no more. (Once thriving in central Vietnam, they’re now reduced to one of the country’s 53 minor ethnicities.) Since then, whenever I think about the history of Vietnam under Chinese dominance, I also think about the people whose land my people usurped and whose culture my culture relegated to the margin as something lowly and/or fit for exhibition only. The Cham, the Khmer, the Montagnard. Politico-cultural colonization is certainly not unique to the history of Vietnam. Mexico, Peru, Hawaii, I’ve met enough people who fought and are still fighting hard to keep the fire alive in their way of life in small and big ways. But this is more personal. I wanted to simply ask What does it feel like? but didn’t dare to push that question to the monks.

(Here’s a report by Human Rights Watch that I found on lowland Khmer. Lots of information that i’d never heard of, e.g. monk-led protests in 2007, pressure on and suppression of Buddhist activists.)

Selatro Temple (Điệp Thạch – Underground Rock)

The main temple was closed. I asked a guy why. Turned out he’s a college student who’s boarding at the temple. He went and got a monk to open it for me.

Khmer temple Trà Vinh, Vietnam
Khmer temple Trà Vinh, Vietnam
Khmer temple Trà Vinh, Vietnam