Monday, 11 February 2013

Mekong Delta (3) Chau Doc - Chasing Away Evil Spirits

Lowering the tone at the Victoria Hotel
After we arrived by bus at Chau Doc Bus Station, our onward mode of transport to the hotel was to be cyclo.  This contraption is a bicycle with a pram-like trailer attached where you place yourself and your heavy rucksack, and as you balance precariously you are then pedalled to your destination by a really skinny Vietnamese man who, despite appearances, seems to have the strength and stamina of 5 horses.

We (when I say “we” I mean Paul) felt a bit guilty as his cyclo had a bit of heavier load, but we later spied some cyclos squeeze 3 generations of one family onto their trailer and they still manage to get a bit of a wiggle on.

So we arrived at our hotel after 10 minutes hard slog (not on our part though but it was a bit tiring to witness) and the privilege of being conveyed in this manner cost us the measly sum of 80 cents (40 cents each but we paid a dollar – they both earned at least that!).

Floating villages
Our room was comfortable with much needed air conditioning, and the hotel receptionist was a really lovely young Vietnamese guy who spoke very good English but during our 3 day stay was a bit over attentive but also very helpful.

Chau Doc was a nice enough town.  It’s a border town so there are lots of tourists coming and going to and from Cambodia by boat.

We planned to travel by boat from to Phnom Penh so we booked the tickets and also booked a couple of tours for our last day through the hotel.

Untangling weed from the motor
For our first night in Chau Doc we ventured to the well-known Victoria Hotel where the posh people on luxury organised tours tend to stay.  It had a bar which was open to all (even ragamuffins like us) so in we trotted and paid $5 dollars each for a couple of big bottles of Tiger beer, just so we could see what the fuss was about. 

Apart from the astronomical cost of beer, it was quite a pleasant place, a little more upmarket than the establishments we normally frequent, but the waiters were very attentive, and the bar slowly filled up with western tourists putting in their orders for steak and chips and other such non-Vietnamese fare. 

Floating house...complete with satellite dish
We stretched to another 2 beers but decided that was enough splashing out for one night and headed back to the hotel for cheap beer.
The following day we just wandered about the town, along the river and through the local market where I did a spot of shopping (always a chore) and bought a couple of pairs of shorts.

Our last day in Vietnam was spent on the Mekong again when, in the morning, we took a boat trip passing through floating villages, fish farms, and the local floating market.  On our way back to the hotel we bought mangoes at the local market to the hotel at lunchtime and they whizzed them into a juice drink for us before we set out again at about 1.00pm on the back of a couple of motorbikes to visit the bird sanctuary, a Buddhist Monastery, a Buddhist temple (or two) before heading up to the top of the Sam Mountain to watch the sunset.

About to ride a boat across a meadow
It was a very hot day and very humid.  Our first stop on our afternoon tour was the Tra Su Bird Sanctuary, about 40 minutes from Chau Doc.  A visit here entails a couple of boat trips through the wetlands.  You begin with a trip across the main waterway which is covered with green weed and water lilies so it appears as if you are gliding through a watery meadow.  There are, as you would expect in a bird sanctuary, birds everywhere but I couldn’t tell you the different species we saw apart from egrets (there were lots) and a rather majestic heron.

The Wooky goes native
After about 20 minutes to you reach another part of the sanctuary where you transfer to another, smaller and more unstable, rowing boat in order to explore parts of the dense undergrowth.  This part of the tour takes you into mangrove forests in the river itself and paths have been forged in order to allow the smaller boats to pass under a canopy of the trees growing in the river itself. 

There is all manner of other wildlife lurking in the waters and in the undergrowth.  We spotted a rather large discarded snakeskin hanging in the trees, and we could hear the odd frog croaking as well as a plethora of insects which makes the whole place seem like it's pulsing with life but other than that it was eerily peaceful.

Sailing through the mangroves
After the trip into the undergrowth we climbed a lookout tower from where you have amazing views over the Mekong Delta basin, the trees which form part of the sanctuary and the rice paddies beyond.

And then there is the rather sad display of caged animals meant, which we understood was meant to demonstrate the variety of other wildlife found within the sanctuary (but hidden away in the bush).  There was a lone monkey which was very sad, lots of deer in a cage barely capable to holding them, a couple of snakes, as well as tortoises and turtles in plain boxes or cages.  It breaks your heart to see these creatures cooped up in enclosures obviously inadequate for their needs.  They looked healthy enough, but not happy.
Not a bird to be seen!
We headed back on the motor boat across the watery meadow, jumped back on the bikes and headed to the monastery.   By this time it was mid-afternoon and very hot and humid.  Travelling on the bikes was OK but the sun was fierce and as soon you stopped the heat hit you like you were stepping over the threshold of an oven.

The monastery was set in a small town and built into mountainside.  We had to walk up a lot of steps to get to the entrance which was a little arduous in the sticky heat.  It was a lovely view once we reached the top, and after catching our breath, we went inside to see the temples which are set in natural caves in the mountainside. 

The outside of the monastery
It was, well, another Buddhist temple and pretty much in the style of most other Buddhist temples we have visited so far in Asia.  Statues to Buddha abounded, along with various other gods, various shrines containing burning incense and the usual offerings of food and drink.

After checking out the temples we headed back down the steps and were led to yet another Buddhist temple.  Our guide explained that this temple was not home to any monks it seemed we were followed there and as usual, as often happens, one approached Paul and struck up a conversation with him.  Monks do seem to have a bit of a fascination with Paul and his tattoos!

Finally, we headed up to the top of Sam Mountain to a bar from where we would watch the sunset.  We gratefully supped a few cold beers and as we watched the sun dip down over the horizon we were rewarded with glorious golden skies as the sun set over Cambodia.  In an area dominated by the Mekong this is one of the highest points for miles around across rice paddies and to Cambodia, only a few kilometres away.

The sun setting over Cambodia
As the sun's rays were disappearing from the sky we headed back down the mountain before darkness fell and back to the hotel for something to eat and a bit of gecko bonding.  There was a tiny lizard which lived in the table outside the hotel and each evening we were there he ventured out to feast on insects.  He became braver every evening and wandered about the table quite freely only diving for cover if we made any sudden movements.

As it was Tet, many of the shops and business in Chau Doc had been closed and the town was slowly beginning to open up for business again.  This is when we were introduced to a particular custom which takes place in the days after Tet. 

Spot the gecko
We began to notice several different groups of boys and young men, dressed up in different colours (mainly red and yellow), and wearing dragon costumes (in the manner of a pantomime horse).  They were groups of about 10 or 12 and those who weren’t playing the part of the dragon were wielding drums and other percussion instruments (some identifiable, others not so, but all capable making a very loud noise when banged), and yelling a lot at the tops of their voices. 

We were to discover that before the shopkeeper opens for business again after the Lunar New Year, he pays a fee to one of these groups of men and boys (usually aged between about 5 and 18) for an extremely loud performance which is designed to make such an awful racket that it will scare away the evil spirits. Once this ritual has been carried out, the shopkeeper can open for business safe in the knowledge that all the evil spirits have scarpered somewhere a lot quieter.

Chasing away evil spirits
This rather quaint (but incredibly noisy) custom takes place over a number of days.  It starts at about 6.30am and goes on until lunchtime when, you’ve guessed it, everyone has a nap.  The yelling and drum beating and general pandemonium then starts again in the late afternoon for a couple of hours before the “evil spirit chasers” knock off for the day. 

And then it all starts again the next the morning.  Luckily we don’t sleep late and it lent a kind of carnival atmosphere to the town as various groups, all in their colourful costumes and dressed up as dragons, wandered around the streets touting for business, yelling and banging and generally creating deafening din until their next “gig”.  I doubt there was an evil spirit within 20 miles of Chau Doc by the time we left.

On our last morning, we checked out of the hotel and hopped onto a couple of a cyclos to be delivered to the dock where we would be catching the boat to Phnom Penh.  After 2 months it was time to say farewell to Vietnam, a beautiful and diverse country with a tragic war torn colonial history, lovely people and millions of motorbikes, and hello to Cambodia.

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