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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Little Cambodia and the Mighty Mekong in Soc Trang


Breakfast taken care of in the lovely cafe in Ben Tre, Nam and I set off on our next leg, a ride of about 120 km to Soc Trang. Like most mornings, it was bright and clear at 8 AM. However, as we had learned earlier, the sun at 8 AM is probably no indication of the weather rest of the day. 


The Mekong River splits into nine arms in the Delta, each of them massive. We crossed one of the giant parts over a bridge that had been opened very recently, two months earlier, in May 2015. 


The shadows of clouds ran around on the surface of the water. The last time I had experienced such scenes (with Junior) was when we had witnessed the sun and clouds play games over the plains of the Masai Mara in Kenya and the Serengeti ("Endless Plains") in Tanzania, in 2013 and 2014.  Maybe the giant Mekong River system could be called the "Endless Waters"? 


A selfie worked out quite well, with the river in the background. 


Being on a motorbike trip has several advantages. We decide when and where to stop. Like at this little rope making workshop, where ropes are made of coconut fibre. 


Or, at this little home-cafe-workshop where several parts of the coconut tree are used to make parts of thatched roofing. Coconut leaves are wrapped around slender poles, and then stitched so that they form a continuous surface. No part of the coconut tree is wasted, much like in South India.   


Tra Vinh turned out to be a sleepy little town. Like in several other towns we passed, there was a memorial built in honour of the armed forces that have fought for the country in several wars. Google translate tells me that "To Quoc Ghi Cong" means "State recognition".


The Tra Vinh area is dotted with Khmer (Cambodian) temples, many of which were built over 500 years ago and have been preserved rather well. 





The walls of the temple are lined with stories from the "Jatakas", relating incidents from the life of the Buddha.


The little Khmer girl outside seemed to make the gesture to click her picture.


The Khmer script is seen extensively in the region, not only at temple sites, but also in stores and in this fuel station.


Time to pause at a cafe by the highway, opposite the fuel station, for a cup of black, drip Vietnamese coffee. 


A pleasant way of waiting for the coffee to arrive is to do what locals do, settle down in a hammock.


We passed by several Khmer temples, too many to count, and stopped at a couple. 


The old and the new, quite a significant amount of effort seems to be put into renovating 500 year old temples.

Those who have traveled to Cambodia would be familiar with the face of the 'Bayon Buddha', the four faced columns with the enigmatic smile.


The 'Naga' or snake is an important part of Khmer mythology, commonly found at the entrance of temples, the figure usually being depicted with an odd number of heads, protecting the Buddha. The 'Garuda' (bird) is shown holding up the world, and seems to be dominating the 'Naga'.    


Entrances of temples show rich carvings, with the name of the temple written in the Khmer script.




Nam had indicated that wherever we see tall trees from a distance, we are likely to find a Khmer temple there. 


Turned out his statement was quite correct. Tall trees = Temple.



More trees, another temple... 


The gates at the entrance to this temple was full of carvings. 


The inside of this gate depicted the 'Apsara' or the 'heavenly dancers' so commonly seen in temple ruins all over Cambodia. 


We rode on south towards Soc Trang. While the sky had been predominantly blue in the morning with some clouds floating by, the scene changed dramatically around noon. A huge downpour resulted in people running for cover, us included.


We stopped at a tiny restaurant for lunch. Our order consisted of Rice with BBQ chicken, with the usual Chilly dips and Soup on the side. 


The rain lasted for perhaps an hour that afternoon, and did not quite stop. People and traffic emerged once again. Cyclists wearing ponchos or carrying umbrellas were the most common sight. 


Paying a fee at a booth, we rode into the waiting area along with other bike riders, and the lottery ticket sales lady, perhaps the most common sight in Vietnam. Lottery ticket sellers appear almost anywhere, including inside restaurants. 


We had to wait about 15 minutes for the ferry to arrive, and for the passengers and vehicles to leave. It was then our turn to board. I walked across while Nam rode the bike. The ferry turned out to be a gigantic one, with three levels. Several large trucks and buses, including smaller vans and SUVs drove in. 


This arm of the Mekong was a mammoth one. it took us perhaps 20 to 30 minutes to cross. The sky had cleared up a little by then. However, from experience, a bit of blue sky at some point in time is no guarantee of continued sunshine half an hour later. 


There was time to wander around on the upper decks and absorb the view. It was certainly a thrill, crossing the giant river on a huge ferry. 


The ferry docked and we were on the road again. We rode a couple of kilometres, and found ourselves at another ferry boarding point. This ferry was smaller than the previous one.  The heavy vehicles board first, followed by two-wheelers, followed by pedestrians and photographers, usually the last to board. 


The third river of the day was equally broad, and I clambered up to the top deck, up to the cabin of the captain. A fellow passenger came along, a young working professional who spoke no English. My guess was that he was not connected with the tourism industry, so had not picked up any English. 


As I was climbing up, I was thinking - should I, should I not? Would the captain agree? Well, I made friends with the Captain in sign language, and asked whether I could sit on his chair. He smilingly agreed and helped me get comfortable. The console of the electronic steering wheel had green and red indicators for port and starboard directions. So, I got to steer the big ferry across the Mekong for about five minutes. 


As anticipated, the blue skies did not last too long. Large rain drops started falling and we dived for cover, this time we stopped at the entrance of a Khmer village, under the gate. The residents were excited, came running, and started jabbering with Nam in Khmer, asking whether I am 'An Do'. They had guessed right. Further, they assumed I speak Khmer, probably because of the ancient connections between Cambodia and India. The elder villagers spoke only Khmer, whom Nam could not communicate with, while the younger lot spoke both Khmer and Vietnamese. 


After several rain delays, we reached Soc Trang. Nam had arranged for our stay at a little home stay, however, it turned out they did not have a license for non-Vietnamese guests, so Nam took us to a little hotel in the city. Dinner that evening was in the local market opposite the hotel.


Thick, spicy, brown vegetable soup (for a change) with bread and greens. 


The hotel we stayed in turned out to be yet another family run establishment. I had got used to that concept by now. The family, including children generally hang around in the lobby most day, watching TV, playing, studying, cutting vegetables and eating, while their living area is further inside on the ground level. 


Guest rooms are on the upper floors. 


My room was quite comfortable, with a fridge, TV and air-conditioning. I did not switch on the TV. The last time I had watched TV was the finals of the Wimbledon championships several days ago in My Tho. It seemed like a long while in the past. 

The bathroom had a little hot water system, which again seemed to be a common fitting in the area. 
 


Tomorrow we would be setting off to Can Tho, the capital of the Mekong Delta.

Previous: Local flavours of Ben Tre

Next: From Soc Trang to the Floating Markets of CanTho (coming up)

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