MACAU IN 48 HOURS
Another Side To The Las Vegas Of The East
villagers were brutally slaughtered. Their dried blood still stains the walls to this day. The all-to-graphic black and white photos in the memorial are immensely disturbing, and certainly not for the faint of heart.
With the shadows beginning to draw long over the paddies and dykes and the golden hour fast approaching, we leave death and its attendant horrors behind and strike out for the water world of Tra Su bird sanctuary. The drive is an idyllic one, trailing the banks of ancient canals still bearing Cambodian names, and under copses of trees, which arch over the road. We pass stilt houses, Khmer temples, and canals trafficked with colorful barges with painted eyes. It’s a backwater wonderland of networked waterways, playing Cham children, and basking water buffalo: a world bursting with green and life on the tail end of rainy season. If anywhere carries the soul of the Mekong Delta region in all its startling vibrancy and diversity, then surely it’s here.
The road becomes increasingly greener as we turn off for the bird sanctuary, with clouds of birdlife coming back to roost as evening draws close. Tra Su started off as a rubber plantation, its trees planted in rows with clear paths cut between, though now the whole forest is flooded and transformed into a magical floating paradise and sanctuary for the region’s endangered herons and other birdlife. Formations of them come gliding in V formations, and the whole forest is clamoring with bird life. It’s a truly ethereal place, and there is no better way to see it than by boat, and no time more magical than the day’s end with the sun melting into the paddies.
We nab tickets onto the last boat of the day and clamber aboard at the tiny landing. The pilot fires up the outboard motor and within moments we’re skimming across a carpet of green algae and water lilies and into the flooded forest, transported into a world of green. Though it’s only a short distance in before we’re switched over along with another small group of stragglers into rowboats, and silently float our way into the intimate heart of the sanctuary. It’s surely one of the most otherworldly
experiences Vietnam has to offer, like a scene from Apocalypse Now, floating silently past nesting herons barely an arm’s reach away down the tunnels created by the over-arching trees.
But there’s one final surprise in store for us yet. The next morning we set off in search of the relatively unknown Cham villages, crossing the lethargic Bassac River by ferry. The Chams were a maritime civilization who once thrived along the coasts of Central Vietnam, nemesis of the Angkorians, and architects of the temples of My Son and other relics, a Hindu culture now all but extinct save but a few villages, a large concentration of which are located around Chau Doc. Those which remain have converted to Islam, and what a surreal experience it is to see teal-blue mosques and village girls in hijab, and hear the call to prayer in the midst of the Mekong. The minorities of ethnic Chams and Khmers living in this border region give it a uniquely exotic taste, and its thrilling to get lost in it on the back of a scooter. Cham ladies, skillful artisans, sit in front of their stilt houses weaving scarves, sarongs, and shawls as they have for generations. Some of their looms have been in continuous use for over a century. Their villages have become renowned for this craft of late and, as a result, a trickle of muchneeded tourism has started to flow, most of whom take boat tours out from Chau Doc, where the villages are able to share some of their unique culture.
It’s an area bursting with variation and vibrancy, and little-visited beyond those crossing into or out of Cambodia. If there’s any one place in the Delta which serves as a microcosm for the whole, surely this is that place.