Monday, January 14, 2013


A humble Buddhist temple in the Mekong Delta
It’s a peaceful evening, and I'm in one of those places I never expected to find myself. I’m up on a high hill, relaxing in a hammock, in a Buddhist temple complex.

I’m in the Mekong Delta border town of Chau Doc, and my friend Nga has brought me to this Buddhist temple, the smallest I’ve ever visited. It almost looks like more of a shrine. Although it has several altars, the whole temple is only as big as a two room house.

The temple is located high on a hill, in the border town of Chau Doc
Built in 1932, this minimalist temple is owned by a local Vietnamese family. Portrait photos of the owners in their senior years adorn the wall behind a shrine. Coming from a family of property, the father wears a bright blue, traditional silk outfit. He also has a big smile, which reveals he’s missing a few teeth. The mother on the other hand, looks stoic in her photo. She also has a shaved head. Perhaps she became a Buddhist nun later in life.

Years before, this married couple were both in the Viet Cong during the war, and this temple was a VC shelter. The family used to hide VC soldiers here. This was revealed to me by one of their sons, who was also a VC back then.

Behind a shrine are portraits of the owners, who are former Viet Cong
Looking at the temple, and at their families Buddhist beliefs, I’m reminded that not all Viet Cong were communists and atheists. Unlike the communist revolutionaries in China and Russia, many Viet Cong continued to practice their religion both during the war, and afterward. I’m also surprised that they would use a place of religious worship for a military purpose. Well, the VC family owned it, and still do.

“He my good friend,” Nga tells me of one of the Buddhist monks living up here now. She has known him for years, and wanted to come up for a  visit, so I tagged along. As I relax in the hammock, she chats away with her old friend, as he cooks us dinner in a cook shack adjacent to the temple.

Soon we’re enjoying a tasty dinner of fried rice. I’m aware that everything the monks need to live up here, including this rice, had to be carried up the mountain. Up here the temple sits alone, the rest of the high hillside is bare. There is no road reaching up to this temple, adding to the monks’ isolation. To be sure, the monastic life is not an easy one.

Our Buddhist monk hosts cook us a tasty fried rice dinner
As trying as life is up here, it used to be even more difficult for the monks. Nga relates one of the health hardships the monks faced in this temple. “For many years, everyone who tried to live up here,” she said, “they always get very sick.”

A series of monks lived at the temple, and for some reason they always became ill. One after another, they each had to leave the temple, descending into Chau Doc for treatment. The source of their illness was never understood.

Then one day a new monk moved in. “He saw big white snake,” Nga tells me. The monk saw the mysterious snake around the temple on a number of occasions, and took it for a sign.

Finally one day, the monk decided to speak to the snake. “He ask the snake if he could stay here,” Nga relays to me. The snake departed, and was never seen again. Since then, that monk has lived in this temple in good health, and still lives here to this day.

With our dinner over, and darkness surrounding the mountain, we say goodbye to our hospitable monk, and start our descent back into town. We make our way carefully down the steep path. With neither moonlight nor hand railings, it would be easy to fall in the dark. Fortunately I have a flashlight to show us the way. As we descend, I look down over Chau Doc. Few of the streets are lighted, and most of the town is enveloped in darkness. As I look beyond the town, there are even fewer lights. This darkened horizon to the west, is the land of Cambodia.

Night view of Chau Doc from the temple
For many that travel to Chau Doc, this town is their last stop on their way to the neighboring country. In fact, this border town is home to many ethnic Cambodians (Khmers). The next day as we drive out of town, I see many Khmers, easy to pick out with their red and white headscarves.

There was a time years ago, when Chau Doc and the entire Mekong Delta were part of the kingdom of Cambodia. There continues to be conflict and territorial disputes between Cambodia and Vietnam, as I’m about to see for myself. (Check this website soon for my next post...)

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