THE SOUTHERN COAST || PHAN RANG AND THAP CHAM
Although PHAN RANG is an unlovely place, whose western limits have fused with the neighbouring town of THAP CHAM, the area is rich in historical attractions. The name of the latter, meaning “Cham Towers”, gives a clue to the primary reason for stopping here. This region of Vietnam once comprised the Cham kingdom of Panduranga, and the nearby remnants of Po Klong Garai are some of the best preserved in the country. The excellent Po Re Me towers – nearly as good – are also in the area. Tuan Tu, one of Vietnam’s most appealing Cham villages, lies near Phan Rang, as does Ninh Chu Beach, a glorious sweep of wide sand that is sometimes deliciously quiet on weekdays, but often overrun with Vietnamese at weekends.
Po Klong Garai
Elevated with fitting grandeur on a granite mound known as Trau Hill, the Po Klong Garai Cham towers are a cut above anything in the town centre. Dating back to around 1400 and the rule of King Jaya Simharvarman III, the complex comprises a kalan, or sanctuary, a smaller gate tower and a repository, under whose boat-shaped roof offerings would have been placed. It’s the 25m-high kalan, though, that’s of most interest. From a distance its stippled body impresses; up close, you see a bas-relief of six-armed Shiva cavorting above doorposts etched with Cham inscriptions and ringed by arches crackling with stonework flames, while other gods sit cross-legged in niches elsewhere around the exterior walls.
Push deeper into the kalan’s belly and there’s a mukha lingam fashioned in a likeness of the Cham king, Po Klong Garai, after whom the complex is named. In days gone by, the statue of Shiva’s bull (Nandi) that stands in the vestibule would have been “fed” by farmers wishing for good harvests; nowadays it gets a feed only at the annual Kate Festival (the Cham New Year), a great spectacle if you’re here around October. On the eve of the festival, there’s traditional Cham music and dance at the complex, followed, the next morning, by a lively procession bearing the king’s raiment to the tower.
Ninh Chu Beach
5km northest of Phan Rang is Ninh Chu beach, a more indolent alternative to trekking around Phan Rang’s Cham towers. The beach is a reasonably clean and wide crescent of sand – soft, if not exactly golden. Ninh Chu doesn’t have the same pulling power for foreigners as Mui Ne or Nha Trang, but its beach is popular for swimming, sunbathing, beach games and jogging too. With several resorts located here, it’s worth considering as a place to rest up, particularly midweek, when it can be very quiet. If you’re here at a weekend, be prepared for crowds of families and noisy teenagers.
The weathered but beguiling towers that punctuate the scenery upcountry from Phan Thiet to Da Nang are the only remaining legacy of Champa, an Indianized kingdom that ruled parts of central and southern Vietnam for over fourteen centuries. From murky beginnings in the late second century, Champa rose to unify an elongated strip from Phan Thiet to Dong Hoi, and by the end of the fourth century Champa comprised four provinces: Amaravati, around Hué and Da Nang; Vijaya, centred around Quy Nhon; Kauthara, in the Nha Trang region; and Panduranga, which corresponds to present-day Phan Thiet and up to Phan Rang. The unified kingdom’s first capital, established in the fourth century in Amaravati, was Simhapura (“Lion City”); nearby, just outside present-day Hoi An, My Son, Champa’s holiest site and spiritual heartland, was established.
To honour their gods, Cham kings sponsored the construction of the religious edifices that still stand today; the red-brick ruins of their towers and temples can be seen all along the coast of south-central Vietnam. While they never attained the magnificence of Angkor, their greatest legacy was a striking architectural style characterized by a wealth of exuberant sculpture. The typical Cham temple complex is centred around the kalan, or sanctuary, normally pyramidal inside, and containing a lingam, or phallic representation of Shiva, set on a dais that was grooved to channel off water used in purification rituals. Having first cleansed themselves and prayed in the mandapa, or meditation hall, worshippers would then have proceeded under a gate tower and below the kalan’s (normally) east-facing vestibule into the sanctuary. Any ritual objects pertaining to worship were kept in a nearby repository room, which normally sported a boat-shaped roof.
Cham towers crop up at regular intervals all the way up the coast from Phan Thiet to Da Nang, and many of them have been restored in recent years. A handful of sites representing the highlights of what remains of Champa civilization would include: Po Klong Garai towers; Thap Doi towers; Po Re Me Tower; My Son; Po Nagar towers.