• River Wetlands

Cham Muslims in Chhnok Tru Village

Updated: Dec 27, 2020

ABOUT | This article introduces some of the challenges that Cham people in Chhnok Tru have faced in earning a living on the water. While confronted with difficulties, they are adaptable to changing environments. Our short stay with one Cham family has got us ‘charmed’ with such resilience they have.

Team Members:Chor Pangara, Mech Sreytoch, Nur Farizan binte Abubakar, Nur Farzana binte Ibrahim


The Cham people are one of the ethnic minorities in Cambodia. They account for 1.2 % of the country’s population. Their community is expanding mostly due to the Muslim observance that a person must convert to Muslim in order to marry a Muslim. The majority of the Cham community in Chhnok Tru live in floating villages.

The cultural difference between the Cham people and their Khmer peers can be attributed to some of the Islamic customs that they follow. For example, although they mostly speak Khmer, they greet each other in Arabic – السلام عليكم (‘assalamu alaykum’) -instead of Khmer – ជំរាបសួរ (‘chum reap suor’) and សំពះ (‘sompes’). Also, they ward off bad luck from their houses with charms based on Islamic texts, instead of Buddhist charms. Moreover, the Cham cuisine uses more spices than the Khmer counterpart does.

This article features the Cham people and the lives they live on the water.

The Cham family we stayed with in Chhnok Tru: Mr. Pisai (the third person from the right) and Ms. Mayom with their baby, Ariffin (the third person from the left)

The Cham family we stayed with in Chhnok Tru: Mr. Pisai (the third person from the right) and Ms. Mayom with their baby, Ariffin (the third person from the left)


Living on water has been difficult for the Cham people and for some, the situation is worsened by their socio-economic conditions. During the Khmer Rouge; they were forced to move onto land. The demise of the Khmer Rouge regime allowed many of them to return to the lake. Fish was repopulated and most of the villagers either became fishermen or were engaged in some businesses associated with fishing.

A floating mosque and its adjacent madrasah, completed in 2016

Our host, Pisai, is casting his nets into the lake in the late afternoon

Over the past years, however, fishermen have been facing a decrease in fish catch due to the improvement in fishing techniques and the consequential increase in fish catch per fisherman. This translates into less revenue.  Meanwhile, there is a constant need to pay for a new fishing net due to wear and tear. Villagers have thus begun to seek additional livelihood sources to supplement their household income. Some sell other goods and others receive remittances from their family members working outside Chhnok Tru or abroad. The unstable income from fishing have led to some wanting to seek employment elsewhere, but family ties, a lack of education and insufficient financial capacity prevent them from leaving.

Vegetable sellers in the Cham community of Chhnok Tru

Having to raise children, especially when living on the water, is no easy feat. Parents have to bring their young children to work because they cannot be left unattended. Most of the floating houses are open, and there are no gates or barriers in place. The likelihood that children accidentally tumble off their houses is high. This is especially dangerous for an infant who is just learning to walk, and thus it is necessary to childproof the house to ensure the safety of their children.

Ariffin stops to look out through the safety net after roaming about the house

Having children in tow means that parents may need to prioritise their safety and health over livelihood activities. For example, if the weather suddenly turns bad, parents who are at work on water with their children have no choice but to stop their work and return home to avoid any physical risk. This may lead to a reduction in their income.

Due to the financial and physical challenges that confront the Cham people, most of the villagers interviewed prefer living on land. However, further obstacles are put in their way. First, their move to land is hindered by the high cost of land. Although the Cambodian government has promised to allocate them to houses on the land, no initiative has been made for the past three years. Literally, the villagers are left in limbo. Second, with most of them being fishermen, the nature of their work means it is more convenient to be living on the water.


The young ones in Chhnok Tru enjoy their time being on the water, but not all of them want to live in the floating village for the rest of their life. Some seek to move to neighbouring countries such as Malaysia and Thailand and others want to try out businesses other than fishing. While aspiring to pursue their ambitions, some of the children also wish to contribute to the improvement of socio, economic and environmental conditions of the Cham community.


In spite of the struggles that they have faced, the Cham people – both the young and the old – hold onto hope for a better future. As Mayom’s mother commented, it would “depend on the effort put in”. We feel that their adaptability to any changing environment reflects their resilience and strong will. A sense of community established among villagers as well as a bond built among family members seems to hold them together to overcome current and future challenges.