Long stalks of flowers and twisted plumes of incense burning. Nodding, bowing, chanting with their eyes closed. Trays of food—peeled fruit, shrink-wrapped cookie packages, an entire plucked chicken—held atop people’s heads as they murmur. Candles and coconuts, red glowing altars (to what, to what?).
Children and hunched-up old people, a constant bumping, bustling, brushing against—the Asian conception of personal space, or lack thereof, exemplified. Announcements on a loudspeaker (what, what?).
Smoking a cigarette while he prays. Sweeping rubbish out from under the feet of the worshippers—playing cards with footprints on the floor.
Photocopied money in buckets being carried, to be burned—tossed into a pit outside that shoots scraps of burnt paper all over, raining ash in the night wind. Smoke rising (to where, to where?). Calling to children—“Em oi! Em oi!” Some kind of urgency, some kind of plead—nothing Christian about this piety. Nothing solemn; everything sacred.
Security guard siddles up to me, glances at the furious scribbling in my notebook (for what, for what?).
A Buddha-looking diety looking down on it all—a halo of neon, flashing in technicolor.
This was perhaps one of the biggest What The Fuck moments of my travels. I had no idea where I was, what was going on, what any of it was for—just that I was suddenly immersed in it, plunged into a cloud of incense smoke and chanting and riotous fervor. These were the notes I made in the middle of the madness.
The motorbike driver didn’t speak any English. We were coming back from another site outside of Chau Doc, a town along the Cambodian border in the Mekong Delta. The roads became cluttered, lined with food stalls and carts and bodies, bodies. They filled like a clogged pipe until they choked and he had to pedal the bike through the crowd.
It was a funny thing, to be wrapped up in the zeal and fervor of it all without having the slightest clue what any of it was—an entirely sensory experience, a ritual out of context, a girl out of context, cultured-shocked.
When I got back to the hotel, I asked the English-speaking desk clerk, “I just went to some temple, up the road and—”
“You saw thousands of people,” she finished me, nodding.
“Yeah! What was that?”
She told me that they’re city-folk; they come to Lady Temple after the new year to ask for good luck. On weekends in February, March, even up through April, the otherwise sleepy town of Chau Doc swells with these Vietnamese travelers.
“Pilgrims, pilgrims,” the other clerk told me the next day. He’s younger than the girl, I thought, but he only seems it—he later told me that he’s almost 40. I wondered where the years went, behind his boyish smile.
“Other times, not so many people in Chau Doc. It very good for the business.” He looked out the glass lobby windows onto the town’s main market, overflowing into the street with tourists—not so many of them Western.