Travel on the Mekong River
Whether exploring Vietnam or exploring Cambodia, the Mekong River is the link that brings these two distinctly different cultures and countries together and a Mekong River cruise is a fantastic way to observe and understand the deep-rooted differences in these cultures. Most people who come to cruise the lower Mekong River do not anticipate the very marked and tangible differences between Vietnam and Cambodia, expecting instead to see a continuous “Southeast Asian” culture with local variations. But Vietnam and Cambodia couldn’t be more different, and represent the two opposite sides of historic, cultural, and religious development of Southeast Asia.
If exploring Vietnam from north to south, you finally reach the Mekong delta, which for most of history belonged to Cambodia, and you certainly see the similarities in the river cultures that depend on the Mekong for its fisheries and rice paddies. But as soon as you cross the border into Cambodia, you see that you are in a much more peaceful, resigned, and relaxed culture, where undeveloped riverbanks are punctuated by gleaming Buddhist Temples rising above the grasses, where water buffalo lazily work the rice paddies in the languid afternoon heat, and people on the river banks sit and watch you cruise Cambodia slowly by. Gone is the hustle and bustle of the industrious Vietnamese with their fish farms, active markets, and transfer boats carrying out the trade to unseen ports far beyond the horizon, never missing an opportunity to “earn a little more money” here or there.
Exploring Cambodia on the Mekong River, you are lulled into a blissful tranquility, enchanted by the gentleness and relaxed submissiveness of the people. Cross into Vietnam and while the people are very friendly, there is action everywhere, and everyone has something to do, somewhere to go. It is shockingly evident in the river delta, where fish farms stretch for miles, sampans paddle or motor by in every direction loaded with fruits or vegetables or fish or water hyacinth or palm leaves, en route to drop them off at a bigger boat destined for a bigger market. Vietnam is a country on the move.
These differences are not at all by accident. Excepting the Mekong River delta, which again was part of Cambodia for most of history, the border between the two countries is a long curving range of steeply uplifted limestone mountains that run south from China and separate Vietnam from Cambodia to the west. This rugged mountain range also marks the border between the two great historic influences on Southeast Asia: India from the west and China from the north.
When exploring Cambodia you are very aware of the Hindu influences in all of the history and archaeology, and the dominant “old school” or orthodox Theravada Buddhism (which stemmed from Hinduism), clearly shapes the philosophical nature of the people. Vietnam, on the other hand, was occupied for 1,000 years by China, and defines itself against its ever-present northern neighbors. The Vietnamese culture is entwined with the Chinese, evident in the priority of hard work for prosperity, the pragmatic and much more diverse approach to religion, and the more liberal Mahayana Buddhism being the greater vehicle to prosperity. Indeed, contrast the orthodox Theravada Buddhism, or “the way of the elders” with its single, austere, slender and calm Buddha showing his restraint of desire, longing and expectation, with the jovial, fat and happy, big-bellied “Laughing Buddha” so common in the Vietnamese (and Chinese) temples of Mahayana Buddhism, or “The Greater Vehicle”. Mahayana Buddhism is a much more accessible form of Buddhism where you too can reach nirvana in a single lifetime, and find happiness through prosperity and wealth rather than through the suffering and restraint of the way of the elders.
These two very different approaches to Buddhism shape the people and these two countries today, and manifest the very different historic influences on the people. So whether exploring Vietnam or exploring Cambodia, it is well worth cruising the Mekong River to get a clear and firsthand understanding of the marked differences between these two closely related countries.
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