Author: Huynh Phuong
Photos: Thu Phan, Duong Vinh Tuyen

Join us in discovering some of the many stunning Khmer pagodas in Tra Vinh province

Vietnam’s Tra Vinh province, dubbed “the land of Buddha”, is famous for its ancient Khmer pagodas, mendicant monks wearing kashāyas, and vibrant festivals rich in Khmer culture.

Khmer pagodas in Vietnam’s South are devoted to Theravada Buddhism. Tra Vinh province alone is home to over 140 Khmer pagodas, which vary in scale, but are all works of art.

Monks walk out of Hang Pagoda in

The “Cave” Pagoda

Hang Pagoda, the name of which means “Cave”, was built in 1637. In Sanskrit, it is called Kampongnigrodha. This pagoda stands in Sub-village 4, Chau Thanh town, about 8 km from Tra Vinh city.  Strangely, visitors will find no cave here as the pagoda’s name comes from its three-sided entrance gate, the center of which is shaped like a dome. Flanking the main gate are two statues of Chan (Yeak). The main hall stands in the middle of a green garden, its roof supported by circular pillars topped with statues of the fairy goddess Kayno.

Hang Pagoda’s sacred grounds host a variety of towering trees, including Hopeas, resin trees, royal poincianas, and tamarinds, and are home to a flock of storks. The serene surroundings and sounds of chirping birds bring peace to visitors’ souls. To one side of the main hall stands a large house that serves as a woodworking workshop for Khmer artisans and monks. For over three decades, the artisans have worked here to create sophisticated and soulful sculptures inspired by Buddism, local farmers, buffalos, and birds.

Pisésaram Pagoda seen from above

Majestic Pisésaram Pagoda

Pisésaram Pagoda in Binh Phu commune, Cang Long district, lies about 25km from Tra Vinh city. This temple’s architecture stands out thanks to the harmonious interconnected layout of its main gate, main hall,  monastery, a synagogue-like structure, and a central tower. Having stood for over 500 years, this pagoda proudly takes its place on the list of the oldest Khmer temples in Tra Vinh province.

Following major renovations, Pisésaram Pagoda, as seen from above, is so splendid that visitors feel lost inside a palace. Freshly repainted, the main hall’s interior mixes ancient Khmer and modern architectural touches. Pisésaram Pagoda is also a treasure trove of sculptures, including statues of Chan, the goddess Kayno, and the bird god Krud. The highlight of the pagoda’s grounds is the lake on its right. Two statues of Naga snakes guard the rectangular concrete floor, spreading their five heads and long bodies on both sides and reminding us of the legendary Nagas that stretched out their heads to protect the Buddha as He meditated.

The main gate of Vam Ray Pagoda

The largest golden pagoda in Tra Vinh

The splendid Vam Ray Pagoda lies about 40 km from Tra Vinh city in Vam Ray Hamlet, Ham Tan Commune, Tra Cu District. This pagoda was inaugurated in May 2010 on the foundations of a 600-year-old temple. Bearing the architectural style of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, it is one of the largest and most beautiful Khmer temples in Vietnam.

The temple’s gate is painted gold, while the main hall is a glittering golden palace, surrounded by Yeak statues. In the middle of the yard lies a soaring pillar supported by other columns shaped like five-headed holy Naga snakes. Another highlight is a 54m-long statue of Gautama Buddha entering Nirvana, placed on a pedestal as tall as a two-story house. The entire statue and pedestal are painted gold.

Khmer people dressed up for the Ka hina Cībar Dān

The vibrant Kaṭhina Cībar Dān

Along with amazing pagodas, Tra Vinh boasts festivals and holy days that reflect the spiritual lives of local Khmer people, including vibrant New Year celebrations, and ceremonies to worship the moon and the ancestors. Perhaps the most unique ritual is the Kaṭhina Cībar Dān (Holy Robe Offering Ceremony), which takes place every year from September to October of the lunar calendar. During this festival, people offer sacred robes and other items like bowls, household goods, medicine, and food to mendicant monks. A joyful quintet plays, creating a festive atmosphere during the ceremony. Khmer girls wearing their prettiest traditional clothing and brightest smiles offer lotus flowers and silver cotton plants to the gods. Joining the crowd is a lineup of well-dressed young men who perform the Yak Rom accompanied by Sam Dang drums, while young women perform graceful Apsara dances. While the scale of each Kaṭhina Cībar Dān depends on the wealth of the local community, everyone hopes to offer a holy robe at least once in their lifetime to express their devotion and gratitude to the monks who have left home to join the monkhood.