The hidden treasures
Located in a barren no-man's land below the tourist paradise of Nha Trang, the town of Phan Rang may seem an unpromising destination to most. The French called this region the "Iron Coast" because its harsh, rocky landscape stands out in stark contrast to the bright green rice fields just to its north. Its cluster of seaside "resort" hotels seems primitive compared to the bamboo villages of Phan Thiet, another two hours further south. People in neighboring provinces indulge in a little wordplay on the climate, saying that "in Phan Rang, the wind will beat [phan] you, and the sun will fry [ran] you."
When you look a little deeper, though, the cultural landscape of Phan Rang is just as unique as its challenging environment. For starters, the name is not Vietnamese at all - it is derived from "Panduranga",the name of the Cham kingdom that survived here as a semi-autonomous realm until the 19th century.
If you've visited the temples to Siva and Po Nagar at the My Son World Heritage Site, or the temple to Po Nagar at Nha Trang, you already know that the Hindu culture of the Cham people was quite different than that of northern Vietnam and left many great works of sculpture and architecture late into the 14th century. Phan Rang boasts two of the best-preserved Cham temples: Po Klaung Gerai, on a hill next to the town, and Po Ro Me, on a more remote hill about 10 miles to the south.
The temples are in relatively good shape because they are still used by the remaining Cham people for their religious ceremonies. I had a chance to see this up close when I attended the "Kate" festival in October 2006.
The day before the festival, the mountain people who safeguard the ceremonial items bring them down to the Cham village of Huu Duc. The procession from the village doesn't begin until after noon, at which time the sun and the wind are definitely beating and frying you. Surprisingly, the fields around the village are bright green with young rice plants, somehow flourishing in a quasi-desert environment that is also used to grow grapes and raise goats.
The stifling heat suddenly explodes with the sound of a drum and gong, and a phalanx of Cham elders turns out into the main street, their white robes shining with the brightness of a prophesied apocalypse. Kids, locals, and yours truly scramble along behind the party, hard-pressed to maintain the brisk pace. About half a kilometer out of town, the elders encounter the Raglai tribesmen, whose immaculate black garments suggest that they have been pressed into service as reenactors.
Under waving banners and parasols, the elders roll out bamboo mats, and sit down to a tea service and a modest banquet of bananas and hard-boiled eggs. I notice that the Raglai youths are not quite participants in this part of the event; they sit cross-legged just beyond the circle of elders. After about 15 minutes, the elders scramble to their feet, the mats are rolled, and everyone follows the bright red palanquin with the ceremonial items back to the village.
The next day, I found the stately hilltop temple of Po Klaung Gerai mobbed with celebrants, many of them Vietnamese drawn here as domestic tourists. The Cham elders conducted the statue-bathing ceremony in the inner chamber of the main pagoda. As the sole westerner on the mountain, I was pushed forward through the crowd in the hopes that I would be able to film some of these activities, but unfortunately, I could not see much of what was happening inside. Instead, I became part of the attraction, as several people asked me to pose with them for photographs.
I had been in contact with the Japanese anthropologist Rie Nakamura in the days leading up to the festival, and we learned by cell phone that she had made her way over to Po Ro Me, where a somewhat more private observance was being conducted. Indeed, when we got there, we found it to be a more sedate gathering, with Cham families picnicking in the outer yard of the temple, and some groups springing to their feet in spontaneous dance. I could see Rie standing on the ledge around the base of the temple, looking very Arabic with a scarf wrapped around her head, but all we could do was wave to each other.
The French scholars dismiss the architecture of Po Ro Me as evidence of the decline of Cham civilization, but I've grown to like it over the years. On this occasion, filled with people, it seemed especially charming. Given a little more time to appreciate the gentle curve of the roofed portico, and the elegant lotus-flame shape of the corner-towers, I decide that the French were mistaken. They were trying to digest 1,000 years of Cham history too quickly, and ended up assuming a premature imperial decline and artistic decadence along European lines.
I'm always anxious to gather souvenirs from my forays into the remote corners of the Viet kingdom, and aside from the bronze drums of Dong Son, the sculptures of the Cham are the oldest artifacts of the realm. I had seen some attractive modern copies of Cham works on display during the festival, but didn't locate their source until a couple of years later.
To my surprise, I realized that I must have passed the Cham pottery village of Bau Truc on many occasions; it lies just a few hundred feet from Highway 1. Unlike many of the other villages along the highway, the village has clean, well-laid out streets, generously shaded with trees. The Cham are considered one of the most impoverished minority groups in Vietnam, but it looks like the pottery business has done very well for Bau Truc.
The people at the main pottery depot were glad to see us, but clearly quite accustomed to foreign guests. The woman in charge proudly showed us pictures of her trip to Japan to participate in a cultural exhibition.
Of course, for me, the highlight of the visit was selecting from the wide array of model temples and replicas of famous sculptures. It's possible (with some help) to walk away with a four-foot high version of the main tower of Po Klaung Gerai; you can also get models of the distinctive side-towers to complete your collection. There are many versions of the siva-linga, including modern interpretations that combine an elliptical phallus with the breast-motif as a circular border. Traditional Cham versions of the elephant-god Ganesh and the goddess Laksimi are fair copies of the originals in the Cham Museum in Da Nang. The modern-day potters have their own ideas, as well, as reflected in playful fish pencilholders, jack-o-lanterns, and an array of jars and pots that make the interior of the shed look like Ali Baba's treasure-horde.
Our driver was somewhat bemused as I quickly pointed out my favorites, right and left, and the selections quickly vanished into cardboard boxes for transport. But I didn't waste a second thinking about the cost, or how I'd get my collection back across the ocean to the States. Once you've made the journey to Panduranga, I mean, Phan Rang, you need to have something to touch and to hold that reminds you that you that you were really there.