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Building of The Month: Thap Banh It

Central Vietnam has scores of Cham Temples. Here’s one of them

 

I’ve never been to My Son. Built by the Cham over a period of a thousand years, it’s a Hindu temple complex close to the former citadel of Simhapura (Tra Kieu). To you and me that means 25km southwest of modern-day Hoi An.

 

One reason is the lack of opportunity. The other is tourism. I hate going to sites crawling with tourists, and as one of the foremost Hindu temple complexes in Southeast Asia, My Son is that type of place. Angkor Wat without the monumental size.

 

Unfortunately for My Son, the Americans decided to make the modern-day complex even smaller than it is today. During one week of strategically inspired lunacy, they carpet-bombed this historically significant place with B-52s; cultural destruction which, for better or worse, the modern-day American military does its laser-guided best to avoid.

 

Which is why when I want to get my dose of Cham history, I prefer to go south to Binh Dinh. It’s one of those ‘in between’ kind of places that was once on the edge of the Cham city-state of Vijaya, the former capital of Champa. Until 1471, that is, when after a series of wars the Vietnamese finally defeated the Cham and dismantled their empire. No politics here, then.

 

 

A number of temples can be found in the area including Duong Long, Thap Doi, Binh Lam and Canh Tien. The place I’ve been to most is the collection of four towers known as Banh It.

 

I like Banh It. Not because it has the same name as a banana leaf-wrapped sweet made from baby rice flour and green beans. And not because the towers are shaped like elongated pyramids, somewhat like the cake, which is made in a rather more compact pyramidal shape.

 

I like Banh It because it should be a prime tourist destination, but each time I go there, there are only a couple of other people in the vicinity. Which makes every visit feel a bit special.

 

 

I also like the place because of the bats — one of the towers with a shrine to Shiva has made a home for them. On my latest visit I got the guano treatment, right on my head. They say it’s lucky.

 

But climb the 200 or so steps to the top of the hill, and it’s not just a 360-degree panorama you have in front of you, there’s also the history. You feel it in every brick. Something about this collection of towers makes you feel every bit of its past, of its pain, its worship, its one-time splendour and glory.

 

Despite my reservations, I will probably make it to My Son one day. I know it won’t provide the same sensations as the likes of Banh It, but it will be a step back in time nonetheless. — Nick Ross

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