Tel: 079 , Pop 110,900
Soc Trang is the capital of Soc Trang province. Khmer people make up about 28% population. The town itself isn’t much, but the Khmers have built some very impressive temples in the area. Furthermore, there is a very colourful annual festival ( usually in December), and if you’re in the vicinity at the right time. it’s very much worth your while to catch it.
Soc Trang tourist (tel: 821498 Tel; 822015, fax 821993, 131 Nguyen Chi Thanh str) is adjacent to the Phong Lan 2 Hotel. The staff are friendly enough, but speak little English and are not all that accustomed to walk in tourist.
This stunning pagoda (Chua Kh’leng) looks like it’s been transported straight from Cambodia. Originally built from bammboo in 1533, it had a complete rebuild in 1905. There are seven religious festivals held here every year that are worth seeing – people come from outlying areas of the province for these events. Even at out-dide of festival times, Khmer people drop in regularly to bring donations and pray.
At the time of writing, 10monks were residing in the pagoda. This place also serves as a base for over 150 student monks who come from around the MekongDelta to stady at Soc Trang’s College of Buddhist Education across the street. The monks are friendly and happy to show you around the pagoda and discuss Buddhism.
This museum is dedicated to the history and culture of Vietnam’s Khmer minority. Indeed, it serves as a sort of cultural centre, and traditional dance and music shows are periodically staged here. You’ll have to make inquiries about performances because there is no regular schedule; however, there’s no doubt that something could be arranged for a group provided a little advance notice is given.
The Khmer Museum, opposite Kh’leng Pagoda, is officially closed on weekends, but even during the week you may have to roust someone to let you in.
Buu Son Tu ( Precious Moutain Temple) was founded over 200 years ago by a Chinese family named Ngo. Today the temple is better known as Chua Dat Set or Clay Podada.
Unessuming from the outside, this pagoda is highly unuasual in that nearly everything inside is made entirely of clay. These objects were hand – sculpted by the monk Ngo Kim Tong, From age 20 until his death at 62, Tong, a genius artisan, dedicated his life to decorating the pagoda. He made the hundreds of statues and sculptures that adorn the interior today.
Entering the Pagoda, visitors are greeted by one of Ngo’s greatest creations – a sixtusked clay elephant. Behind this is the centre altar, which alone was built from over five tonnes of Clay. In the altar are a thousand Buddhas seated on lotus petals. Other highlights include a 13 storey Chineses-style tower over 4m tall. The tower features 208 Cubby holes, each with a miniBuddha figure inside, and is decorated with 156 dragons.
Two giant candles have been burning here unceasingly since the clay artist died in 1970. To get an idea of how big these were to begin with ( 200kg and 260cm tall), there is another pair wating to be lit when the current ones are spent.
Though some of the stuff here is bordering on kitsch, the Pagoda was not intended to be a Dalatesque tacky tourist theme park. It is an active place of worship, and totally different from the Khmer and Vietnamese Buddhist pagodas found elsewhere in Soc Trang. The resident monk, Ngo Kim Giang, is the younger brother of the artst and a delightfu old man to chat with about the pagoda. He speaks excellent French, but unfortunately very little English.
The Clay pagoda is within walking distance of the town centre. Needless to say, the Clay objects in the pagoda are highly fragile- do not touch.
Im Som Rong Pagoda.
This large, beautiful Khmer pagoda was built in 1961 and is noteable for its well kept gardens. A plaque on the grounds honours the man who donated the funds to build the pagoda. There are many monks in residence here, most of whom are very friendly and happy to chat.
Im Som Rong Pagoda is over 1km east of Soc Trang on the road to My Phuoc Island. When you reach the main gate it’s a 300m walk along a dirt track to the pagoda itself.
Oc Bom Boc Festival
This is a Khmer name so don’t bother trying to look it up in your Vietnamese dictionary. Once a year, the Khmer community turns out for long boat races on the Soc Trang River, an event that attracts visitors from all over Vietnam and even Cambodia. First prize is over US$1000, so it’s not difficult to see why competition is so fierce.
The races are held according to the lunar celendar on the 15th day of the 10th moon, which roughly means December. The races start at noon. but things get jumping in Soc Trang the evening before. Not surprisingly, hotel space is at a premium during the festival,, and travellers without a prepaid hotel reservation will probably have to sleep in a car or minibus.
Place to Stay
Phong Lan 2 Hotel: ( Tel 821757, 133 Nguyen Chi Thanh, double with fan US$8, With air-con US$15-20) though run down, is still an OK place to stay and notable for its massage and sauna sevices.
Khanh Hung Hotel ( Tel 821027 Fax, 820099; 15 Tran Hung Dao; Fan rooms US$10, Air-con rooms US$ 15-25) Boasts a large indoor outdoor Cafe. There is satellite TV, but it only shows Indian soap operas and movies.
Cong Doan Hotel ( Tel: 825614, 4 Tran Van Sac). Nearly opposite the Khanh Hung, is a state-run hotel that was under reconstruction at the time of writing.
Phong Lan Hotel (Tel; 821619, 124 Dong KHoi, fan rooms US$20, air-con rooms US$25-30), near the river is a bit privey by local standards. If your’re with a group, the hotel can arrange a traditional Khmer music and dance show.
Place to Eat
Most restaurant in Soc Trang do not have English menus, nor are meal prces written anywhere, so you will have to work it out in this town llike the Vietnamese do.
Hung ( Tel: 822268, 74-6 Mau Than 68) is one of the best places in Town. It’s Open from breakfast until late into the evening and always seems to be busy
Hang ( Tel: 822416, No 2-Le Lai str) and Hiep Loi ( Tel: 821301, No 11 CMT8 Str) are twi ither popular local spots worth trying for Vietnamese food.
AROUND SOC TRANG
This is one of the Mekong Delta’s most unusual sights, and it has now become a favourite stopoff for both foreign and domestic tourists. The Bat Pagoda (Chua Doi) is a large monastery compound. You enter through an archway and almost immediately hear the eerie screeching of the large colony of fruit bats that resides here. There are literally thousands of tese Creatures bat weigh about 1kg and have a wing span of about 1.5m
Fruit bats make plenty of noise – in the morning the din is incredible , and likewise the smell, The bats are not toilet trained, so watch out when standing under a tree or bring an umbrella. In the evening, the bats spread their wings and fly out to invade orchards all over the Mekong Delta, Much to the consternation of farmers, who are known to trap the bats and eat them. Inside the monastery the creatures are protected, and the bats seem to know this – no doubt this is why they stay.
Locals tend to show excessive zeal in shaking the trees to make the bats fly around so that tourists can take photos but it’s better to leave the poor things in peace. you can easily get a photo of the bats hanging off a branch if you have a good telephoto lens. The best times for visiting are early morning and at leat an hour before sunset, when the bats are most active. Around dusk, hundreds of bats swoop out of the trees to go hunting.
The monks are very friendly and don’t ask for money, though it doesn’t hurt to leave a donation. The pagoda is decorated with gilt Buddhas, and murals paid for by overseas-Vietnamese contributors. In one room there’s a life – size statue of the monk who was the former head of the complex. There is also a beautifully painted Khmer longboat here of the type used at the Oc Bom Boc Festival.
Behind the pagoda is a bizarre tomb painted with the image of a pig. It was erected in memory of a pig with five toenails. It died in 1996, but two other rare pigs with five toenails have servived and are being raised by the monks. There pigs are not for eating – they are pets.
Little kids hang around the front gate and beg from the toursits, but they aren’t allowed inside the monastery grounds, we didn’t give money but handed over a packet of discuits – the kids devoured them as if they hadn’t eaten in over a week. Perhaps they hadn’t.
THere is a restaurant just opposite the Bat Pagoda, but it does not serve bat meat.
The Bat pagoda is about 4km west of Soc Trang. You can catch a motorbike taxi here, or easily walk there in under an hour About 3km ot of town towards the pagoda the road splits into two – take the right fork and continue for 1 km.
Xa Lon ( Sa Lon) Pagoda.
This magneficant, classic Khmer pagoda is 12km from Soc Trang, towards Camau, on National Hwy 1. The original structure was built over 200 years ago from wooden materials. In 1923 it was completely rebuilt, but proved to be too small. From 1969 to 1985, the present-day large pagoda was slowly built as funds trickled in from donations. The ceramic tiles on the xterior of the pagoda are particularly stunning.
As at other pagodas, the monks lead an austere life. They eat breakfast at 6am and beg for contributions untill 11am, when they hold a one hour worship. They eat again at noon and study in the afternoon-they do not eat dinner.
At present, around 25 monks reside here, The pagoda also opetates a school for the study of Buddhism and Sanskrit. The reason for studying Sanskrit, as the monks explained, is that all ariginal books about Buddhism were written in this ancient language.
My Phuoc Island
A 15km jourey east of Soc Trang brings you to the Hau River. From there it’s a short boat ride to My Phuoc Island. it;s an isolated spot very suitable for growing fruit. The local goverment tourist agency likes to bring foreigners here for tours of the orchards. You can do it yourself. though this is a little complicated since you’ll need a motorbike to get to the river.