Mekong river Chams community around Phnom Penh

Cambodia on film 2022

One of the most fascinating communities for me around Phnom Penh is the “Chams” and over the years I was able to visit them several times during my Phnom Penh photo tours.

This community has to deal with the daily challenges of life on the river. Here you find the dynamics of the old and new world colliding. Meeting locals who live a traditional lifestyle while Phnom Penh is rapidly expanding into a 21st-century metropolis. Read more about the Cham here:

The origin of the Chams in Cambodia

Their nomadic ways of life date back to the times of “Champa” once an empire located in what is now Vietnam. Through religious prosecutions and the Indochina wars, they migrated from the Mekong Delta into Cambodia over time.

During the 1974-’79 Khmer Rouge era, they had a hard time and lost many people through religious and communist cleansing. Now they have a peaceful life and deal with day to day issues like urbanization and the decline of the recourses from the Mekong River and Tonle Sap.

Hard life on the Mekong and Tonle Sap river

Life on the Mekong and Tonle Sap river in Cambodia is hard, and getting more difficult every year. This is due to range of issues, like climate change, pollution and the decrease of fish in the Cambodian rivers. This in its turn is caused by the degradation of biodiversity in the rivers and the hydro dam constructions in the upper parts of the Mekong river.

The Cham people are mostly depending on fisheries, agriculture, and trade, and do so with excellence. Their slim long boats with their bright colors are their homes and workstations. Some equipped with solar panels can be seen every day on the river from the ever-expanding city and high-rise buildings encroaching.

The minimalistic huts and settlements they occupy on the mainland and banks of the rivers are there only temporarily. During the rainy seasons, the river level raises and they have to look for higher ground.

Cham families gather on the borders of the rivers to maintain their equipment, nets, and boats and pray in a makeshift tent mosque.

On that small strip of land, they live and raise some ducks or chicken and let their children go to local schools. They live peacefully with their religion and culture as descendants of the once-great kingdom of Champa.

This is a small selection of my photographs from 2015-2019 taken with the full consent of the Cham people. They are proud people and have a hard life but always welcome with me with a friendly “As-salāmu ʿalaykum” as a greeting in Arabic that means “Peace be upon you”.

©Photos and text by Michael Klinkhamer.

Join me next time in Cambodia.

For this photo essay I used my Nikon D610 and a range of lenses by Nikon, Sigma and Zeiss.

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