Over sixty million people rely on the Mekong River to eat, work and live. Between its source high on the Tibetan Plateau and where the Mekong flows into the South China Sea from the flood plains of Vietnam, the cultural and religious diversity of this region in Southeast Asia is staggering. Nearly 100 different ethnic groups live just in the lower Mekong basin. In this region where the Aqua Mekong cruises between modern day Cambodia and Vietnam, Khmer, Lao, Thai and Vietnamese people have depended upon the Mekong’s resources for thousands of years. The Mekong still forms an integral part of each distinct culture and they all rely upon its fish to eat and its waters to travel and trade.
Geography offers one explanation for this rich cultural diversity that will be apparent to guests who travel with us aboard the Aqua Mekong. Except in the Mekong River Delta, which was part of Cambodia for most of history, towering limestone mountains separate Vietnam from Cambodia to the west, providing a natural boundary as well as the physical barrier that naturally split the two powerful outside influences on ancient Southeast Asia, namely India (Hinduism) from the west and China (Buddhism) from the north.
In Cambodia, the temples of Angkor Wat provide the most vivid physical evidence of this land’s religious history, though the lessons can seem impossibly convoluted on first, or even fiftieth glance. Evidence of Hinduism in Cambodia dates back to the first century of the common era and it was the state religion of the Khmer Empire at Angkor until the 13th century with most Angkorian temples dedicated to the gods Vishnu (the Preserver) and Shiva (the Destroyer). By the 14th century however, a strand of Buddhism known as Theravada Buddhism had been elevated to the state religion, a position it has held in Khmer culture ever since. This is markedly apparent in the prevalence of Buddhist carvings that appear on later temples throughout the Angkor Wat temple complex.
Meanwhile, Chinese monks proselytized the more esoteric Mahayana Buddhism along ancient trade routes across the area we now know as Vietnam even before the first Buddhist temple was erected here during the 6th century AD. As successive Chinese dynasties controlled the Red River Delta for almost a thousand years from 111 BC until 938 AD, Chinese Mahayana Buddhism asserted the single largest outside influence on Vietnamese religious life. Even today modern Vietnamese life feels strongly connected with Chinese culture, its pragmatism and strong work ethics.
The clearest visual distinction to watch for along the Mekong River is this: Theravada Buddhism’s slender, austere and always calm Buddha versus the big-bellied Laughing Buddha common in temples of Mahayana Buddhism along Vietnam’s stretch of the Mekong River.