Situated on the west bank of the Mekong, the mellow town of Kompong Cham has little of the bustle that you’d expect of the biggest city in the northeast. Its small commercial port doesn’t exactly hum with activity, and the riverfront, in the shadow of the massive Kizuna Bridge – thrown across the river in 2001 courtesy of the Japanese, is pretty quiet too since road improvements have led to the demise of most river transport. The place has a distinct charm though, and enough low-key attractions to occupy a day or two. Its few Western cafés and bars are packed in the evenings with tourists who are stopping over in town, on a slow journey through the country.
A few hours can be happily passed exploring the streets of the colonial centre and visiting Wat Nokor, known locally as Nokor Bachey, just outside the town, a modern pagoda built within an eleventh-century temple. In half a day you can follow the Mekong north to Phnom Hann Chey, a quirky hill-top pagoda with fabulous views of the river and some old prasats, while a day-trip will get you to the pre-Angkorian site of Banteay Prei Nokor, surrounded by a massive earth embankment, where a few ruined towers still stand, with a visit to the rubber plantation at Chup on the side. Pleasant boat trips can also be made to villages up and down the Mekong.Read More
River trips around Kompong Cham
River trips around Kompong Cham
There are several interesting places within the vicinity of Kompong Cham that can be reached by boat and make for a rewarding day out if there are a few of you to share the cost. There’s the Maha Leap Temple, an old wooden building with gilded teak columns that was somehow spared by the Khmer Rouge; Prei Chung Kran, a village where silk is woven on traditional hand looms, located just upstream from Maha Leap Temple on the Tonle Tuok, about 20km south of Kompong Cham; and Wat Hann Chey, about 20km north of Kompong Cham, where there are fantastic river views from Chenla-era ruins and a modern temple. You can approach local boatmen directly to arrange these trips (expect to pay about $50 for a day’s boat hire), or ask at Lazy Mekong Daze. If you’re travelling alone, most of these sites can also be reached (more cheaply) by moto or tuk-tuk.
Originating from Champa, a kingdom which extended from Hue to Phan Thiet on the coast of present-day Vietnam, the Cham are the largest minority ethnic group in Cambodia, numbering around 700,000, and thus accounting for about a third of the non-Khmer population. They also represent the largest minority religion, being Sunni Muslims who converted from Hinduism some time after the fourteenth century.
Historically, the Cham were frequently at war both with the Khmer, who bordered their kingdom to the west and south, and the Vietnamese, who occupied the territory to the north. In 1177, the Cham successfully raided Angkor, only to be defeated by the intervention of Jayavarman VII in a ferocious battle on the Tonle Sap – an event depicted in the bas-reliefs at the Bayon temple. By the end of the seventeenth century, however, Champa had effectively ceased to exist, due to the gradual whittling away of their territory by the Vietnamese, and many Cham fled to Cambodia. The traditional Cham – who retain many of the old beliefs and rituals, but acknowledge non-Islamic gods – make up about two-thirds of Cambodia’s Cham population. They settled around the Tonle Sap, along the central rivers, and in what is now Kompong Cham province. The orthodox Cham, who are more similar to Muslims in other Islamic countries, settled around Oudong, Kampot and Takeo. Establishing their own villages, they took up fishing, breeding water buffalo, silver-smithery and weaving, activities that the vast majority still practise today. Their villages can easily be identified by the presence of a mosque and Islamic school, and by the absence of pigs.
The Cham were not spared by the Khmer Rouge: easily picked out because of their Islamic dress and distinctive features (they seldom married outsiders) they were either massacred or persecuted – often by being forced to eat pork – and their mosques were destroyed. However, this has been the only ill-treatment they have experienced in Cambodia, where in spite of speaking their own language (Cham) and maintaining separate traditions, there are no racial tensions – even after a raid in 2003 on an Islamic school to the north of Phnom Penh resulted in three foreign teachers being expelled from the country for their links to the Saudi-backed terrorist group Jemah Islamiyah.
There are ethnic minority groups throughout Cambodia, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and parts of southeastern China. In Cambodia they live primarily in remote highland villages and are usually known as the chunchiet (literally “nationality”) or the Khmer Loeu (“upland Khmer”). It is estimated that the chunchiet make up just one percent of Cambodia’s population, but in the provinces of Rattanakiri and Mondulkiri the chunchiet have always been the majority, though the balance is changing with an influx of Khmer from the rest of the country. Small communities of chunchiet also inhabit parts of Stung Treng and Kratie provinces, and a few live in the mountains of southwest Cambodia, near Koh Kong.
Darker-skinned than the Khmer and particularly small in stature, the chunchiet, along with the Khmer, are regarded as indigenous inhabitants of the country. There are more than thirty distinct chunchiet tribes, ranging from comparatively large groups like the Tampoun, Kreung-Brou, Jarai, Stieng and Phnong, all of which number in the thousands, to much smaller tribes, such as the Kavat, Lun, Peahr and Meul, which are believed to number fewer than a hundred each. Every group has its own distinct language, each with several dialects, which has historically made it hard for them to communicate with Khmers or even among themselves; additionally, none of the chunchiet tongues has a written form. Particular tribes can’t usually be distinguished by their clothing, as traditional garments are now used only on ceremonial occasions (the rest of the time the women wear blouses and sarongs, the men T-shirts and trousers), though for the observant they do have subtly different features.
Animism and ancestor worship are central to the chunchiet belief system, with rivers, lakes, rocks and trees regarded as sacred; the Jarai, for instance, place carved images near graves to protect the deceased and to keep them company. In general, however, little is known about chunchiet rituals and ceremonies, as even these days, strangers are normally excluded.
Repeated attempts have been made to bring the chunchiet round to the Khmer way of life and, unfortunately, their traditional way of life is nearly extinct. Since 2001 tribal lands have been sold, sometimes by village headmen, to savvy Khmer who have cleared the land for farms. The consequence for the chunchiet is that the forest on which they relied for their livelihood has been destroyed, making it impossible for them to continue with traditional ways of farming or foraging.
Learning Khmer in school has increased the number of chunchiet able to communicate outside their own communities, leading to a more materialistic “Khmer” way of life. In the long term it’s hard to see how they can survive as individual tribes.