Cham of Cambodia

The Cham people of Cambodia live in 70 desolate villages along the banks of the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers. There are communities of Cham in the central part of Vietnam, also. A small and disenfranchised minority, the Cham are a hurting and very needy people.


The population of the Cham people is 288,400 (2000) living in Cambodia, 35,000 (1990) in Vietnam, 10,000 in Thailand and other significant communities in Malaysia.

The Cham people live in about 400 villages in Cambodia. Most of the villages are in the Kampong Cham and Kampong Chhnang provinces, just north of Phnom Penh.


The Cham people speak a language that belongs to the Austronesian family, of the Malayo-Polynesian family. The Cham language is related to, among many others in the Pacific, the languages of the Western Indonesian archipelago which includes the languages of Malaysia, Kalimantan, Sumatra, Java and Bali.


The Cham were originally a people of an ancient kingdom located along the central coast of Vietnam called Champa. Champa was a wealthy maritime nation in frequent contact with China. The ancient Cham civilization was divided geographically into four regions, one being Quang-nam, where Dong-doung is located was considered the Champa holy land. Other regions were Amaravati to the North, Vijaya (present day Bihn-dinh), and Pandurang in the South.


The Cham people are a socially important ethnic minority in Cambodia. They are mainly rice farmers (by means of wet and dry cultivation), but also tend toward a more diversified cultivation of other crops, such as cotton, maize, tobacco, castor-oil plants, manioc, peanuts, ferns, beans and vegetables. Part of their cycle of subsistence includes animal domestication, hunting and fishing. There are some fishermen in the villages along the banks of the Mekong, Bassac and Tonle rivers. Some of them are also cattle traders and butchers.


Cham religion has gone through several shifts over the centuries. Their most ancient beliefs were in a “Mother Goddess.” The “Earth Mother” image is an ancient one that ties the people to the soil, and is an agriculturally oriented icon in an agriculturally based society.

During the late third century and fourth century, through relationship with Indian traders, there was a conversion to Hinduism, mostly notably, the Hindu gods Shiva, Brahma, and Vishnu. Gradually there was also a rise of Mahayana Buddhism. Finally there was a gradual conversion to Islam over a period of several centuries. This likely began at about the time the first Cham immigrated to Cambodia to take sanctuary in the 15th century.The Cham of Vietnam, who are mainly Hindu, practice a form of Shaioita Brahmanism. Despite the strong, early influence of Hinduism, the lives of the common people of Champa centered around ancestor worship, fertility cults and hero worship.

Islam arrived in Cambodia via India and Malaysia. Those living in the rural areas mixed Islam with their indigenous culture and animistic elements, resulting in folk Islam. The spiritual center for the Cham Muslims of Cambodia is Chur-Changvra near Phnom Penh.

In Cambodia, there are a few Islamic groups such as Chang Veng, Imam San, Da’wa and Wahhaiyya. The Chang Veng group of villages tend to mix more Malay words with their vocabulary than those from the Imam San group of villages. This is because of their strong connections with, and support received from, Muslims in Malaysia.

The Imam San group has fewer connections with outside Muslims world because of their stance on animistic traditions that are unacceptable to fundamental Muslims.

The Da’wa is a missionary movement from a variety of Islamic countries outside Cambodia. Visiting groups of Da’wa missionaries can be seen in Cham villages of Cambodia today. They travel from village to village spreading their beliefs and normally preach in village mosques where they also live during their stay.

The Wahhabiyya is also a missionary movement similar to the Da’wa in that they also preach a more fundamentalist type of Islam.


Only a few dozen Cham have been reached with the gospel. There are no known churches and there is no Bible in Cham language.