LOCATION: Cambodia; Vietnam

POPULATION: About 400,000–1 million

LANGUAGE: Cham; Cambodian

RELIGION: Islam; orthodox Cham; Hinduism


The Cham live in Vietnam and Cambodia. They are descendants of refugees from the ancient kingdom of Champa who fled central Vietnam 500 years ago.

The ancient Cham were heavily influenced by India, as can be seen in their religion and art. Cham were fishermen, rice cultivators, and masters at temple construction. The remains of their religious monuments dot the landscape of Vietnam and Cambodia today.

From the sixteenth century on, the great Champa kingdom was gone. The Cham people were being persecuted and murdered by the Vietnamese. Numerous Cham fled central Vietnam for Cambodia, including a number of nobles and other dignitaries. Sometime in the seventeenth century the Cham were converted to Islam. The last royal Cham descendent died in the early 1900s.

In the twentieth century, the Cham were again the victims of massacre by the majority population, this time in Cambodia. From 1975 to 1979, Cambodia was ruled by the Khmer Rouge, communist extremists determined to erase all non-Khmer characteristics from the population. The Cham are believed to have been special targets of the Khmer Rouge.

The Cham were forced to adopt Cambodian language and customs and to abandon their own. Fishermen were forced to grow rice and dig canals, and religious leaders were stripped of their authority. Many were killed. In just two districts in Cambodia where Cham lived, over 40,000 Cham were killed by Khmer Rouge soldiers in the late 1970s. The Cham claim that over one hundred of their mosques were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge period.

In Vietnam, the Cham have fared better, but have also been subject to discrimination and ridicule, and to pressure to assimilate to Vietnamese society.


By the late 1800s, there were only small numbers of Cham—maybe as few as 15,000—living in both Vietnam and Cambodia. Their numbers increased rapidly, however. By 1975 there were between 150,000 and 200,000 Cham in Cambodia the about 150,000 in Vietnam. Currently there are between 400,000 and 1 million Cham in both countries.

In Vietnam, most Cham continue to live in the south central area of the country. In Cambodia, the Cham have settled along the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers and in western, southern, and central Cambodia.

Cham villages are usually comprised of only Cham. Most are small, with between 200 and 300 people, and are located near a river or lake.


Cham is related to languages spread over much of Asia and the Pacific. Most Cham in Cambodia are bilingual, speaking both Cham and Cambodian. Cambodian Cham speak a dialect called Western Cham. Cham in coastal central Vietnam speak Eastern Cham. Words in the Cham language contain up to three syllables.

The Cham language has its own writing system. Western Cham speakers use Arabic script rather than the traditional Cham script. Eastern Cham speakers in Vietnam use the traditional Cham script.


Many ancient Cham are remembered as great men. A king named Che Bong Nga ascended the Cham throne of central Vietnam in 1360. He led his armies against the Vietnamese and reoccupied Cham land to the north. His victories were temporary because the Vietnamese soon conquered the Cham empire, but Che Bong Nga's triumphs are remembered and retold.

The most renowned king of all, Po Rome, ruled Champa from 1627 to 1651. His rule is remembered as glorious by present-day Cham. When Po Rome was killed by his Vietnamese enemies, his Vietnamese wife threw herself on his burning funeral pyre in grief.


The Cham who fled the Champa kingdom of central Vietnam in the fifteenth century converted to Islam sometime before the seventeenth century. Cambodian Cham are Muslims (adherents of Islam). Cham decidation to their religion has helped them survive as an ethnic group.

The Cham worship in their own mosques. Their holy book is called the Quran (also spelled Koran). Each Cham community has a leader called the hakem. The bilal calls the faithful to prayer, and the imam leads them in prayer.

The spiritual center for Cham within Cambodia is Chrouy Changvar Peninsula, near Phnom Penh. Cham travel there to consult the high Muslim officials and to celebrate special occasions. Young Cham men may travel to Malaysia or Mecca (the holy city in Saudia Arabia) to study the Quran. Like Muslims worldwide, every Cambodian Cham hopes to make a pilgrimage (religious journey) to Mecca.

Most Cham in Vietnam are Hindus. Important Hindu officials are priests who are chosen for life. Some of these priests learned religious rituals when they were only ten or eleven years old.


Both Hindu and Muslim Cham observe a number of religious and magic ceremonies. Most religious and magical ceremonies contain rituals that originate in Islam, Hinduism, and traditional religions of the area.

The two most important festivals of the Hindu Cham, both honoring spirits of the dead, are the Bon Kate and Bon Cabur. (Both Hindu and Muslim holidays are set by the lunar calenday, so they fall on different days in the Western calendar each year.) Bon Kate is celebrated over five days in late September or early October. Hindu Cham make religious offerings to the statue of their god. These offerings include a goat, two cups and one box of cooked rice, a tray of ground rice cakes, five cups of sticky rice, lemon juice, and ten pieces of betel (a pepper plant).

Bon Cabur is held over five days during late January or early February. Cham gather to share celebrations and an elaborate feast.


The birth of a Cham child is greeted by the family and community with great joy. Babies are nursed by their mothers until two to four years of age. At age four, children are expected to feed, bathe, and control themselves, and shortly thereafter, to care for their younger siblings.

Most parents exercise almost complete control over their children until they are married. Even after marriage, the influence of parents is strong. Children are expected to show respect to their parents and elders, and are severely punished for any lapse. Cham express pride in the fact that their children have been less rebellious and their families have had less conflict than many other Cambodian families.

The Cham keep all a deceased person's rings before holding the funeral and burial. In the year following the funeral, several more ceremonies are held to honor the deceased person. At the end of the year, the bones of the deceased are exhumed (dug up). The bones are carried to the final permanent cemetery and are buried, with the person's rings, in one final ceremony.


The Cham often exchange the traditional Muslim greeting. One person begins by saying "Salamu alaikum," to which another responds "Alaikum salam."

Cham in Cambodia also greet each other with the sampeah (traditional Khmer greeting). The sampeah involves joining the palms together, with fingers pointing up or slightly tilted toward the other person, then bringing their hands up to their chest or forehead.

The Cham place great importance on hierarchy and proper behavior. Women must respect men, children must respect their elders. Everyone must respect their superiors, which includes anyone with higher status, greater wealth, or a more important job. Inferiors greet their superiors with a deeper bow. All visitors are treated to the best the household has to offer.

Few young people date, and virginity remains highly valued for brides. Girls and boys have the opportunity to talk and flirt only on special occasions, surrounded by relatives and neighbors.

Most men marry between nineteen and twenty-five years of age; women are slightly younger, usually between sixteen and twenty-two. It is common for a young man to ask his parents' permission and assistance in finding a wife than to do so on his own. His parents or a matchmaker approach the young woman's family to see if they are interested in a match. If the response is positive, the families negotiate the terms and time of the marriage.

After an exchange of gifts, the young couple marries. It is still common for many young couples to spend the first year of marriage in the home of the woman's parents. After the parents are assured of their son-in-law's stability, or after the birth of the first child, the young couple moves into a new house built for them by their families.


Cham homes are made of split bamboo and thatch. Most houses are built on stilts 4 to 12 feet (1.3 to 4 meters) off the groung to protect them from seasonal flooding. Chickens, ducks, and oxen are kept in the area beneath the house. Family members often gather beneath the house during the heat of the day to do chores, look after the children at play, and visit with neighbors and passersby. In the evening, most Cham retreat upstairs to their homes, where they eat, chat, and rest.

The upstairs portion of the house may be an open room or may be divided into several rooms: a private room for keeping possessions and a public room for entertaining guests, eating, and visiting. A lean-to kitchen may be attached to the house, also on stilts.

Cham do not have electricity, running water, sewage systems, or appliances. Houses usually contain little furniture, decoration, or utensils. A few books, a pad of paper, and a pencil or two may be wrapped in plastic and placed in the rafters for safekeeping. People sleep on mats, which are rolled up and leaned against the wall or stored overhead during the day. Some Cham, especially in Cambodia, have low platform beds.

Cham cook over an earthenware stand placed over a fire. Because most Cham do not have refrigeration, they use preserved, salted, or fresh food. Kitchen utensils include pots, bowls, cooking ladles, and spoons made of coconut shells.


Cham observe a fairly strict division of labor, with women caring for children and the household. Men are responsible for rice cultivation and the chores of construction, tool craft, and repair.

Women do most of the textile manufacture, such as carding, spinning, and weaving cotton. They are also responsible for the family vegetable and fruit gardens and for threshing, husking, and milling the grain. Women carry the family's water from the nearest lake, river, or pond.

The vast majority of Cham marry within their group and religion. When a girl and her parents (or a boy and his parents) agree on a selection, the parents approach the other's parents.

Cham marriages are simple, involving little expense or ceremony. In the presence of an imam (spiritual leader) who acts as the witness, the parents of the young woman ask the groom if he will accept their daughter as his bride. After he agrees, the marriage is concluded and is then celebrated with a feast. Polygynous marriages are allowed (up to four wives), although the first wife must approve the selection of any subsequent wives. Divorce is also permitted. Most polygamy and divorce occurs in families with more resources.

Cham trace their descent and pass inheritance through the maternal line. Residence is also matrilocal, so that young couples go to live with the wife's family.


The Cham wear distinctive clothing. Both men and women wear a batik, a garment much like a sarong, which is worn knotted around the waist. Men wear a shirt over their batik, while women wear close-fitting blouses with tight sleeves over theirs. Men and women usually cover their heads with turbans or scarves.

On religious days, leaders dress completely in white and shave their heads and beards. Children usually wear shorts and go barefoot or wear rubber thongs.

12 • FOOD

Cham of Cambodia and Vietnam eat much as their fellow countrymen. Rice is eaten at almost every meal. Fish is almost as important and is eaten fresh, dried, and salted.

A traditional meal is a bowl of steamed rice eaten with a sauce containing bits of fish, fowl, or meat, eggs, vegetables, and spices such as onions, chilies, garlic, mint, ginger, or lemon grass. Pork and alcohol, consumed by many Cambodians, are forbidden to Muslim Cham.

Cham usually eat an early meal of leftover rice, cakes, or fruit either at home or in the field. The big meal of the day is lunch around midday, followed by supper at twilight.

Cham men usually eat together, women and children later. Each has a bowl of rice, and all take bites of food from several dishes sitting in the middle of the group. Cham may eat sitting in a squatting position, with their feet flat on the ground and their knees bent sharply. In Vietnam, most Cham use chopsticks to eat, while in Cambodia, most use spoons.


Literacy (the ability to read and write) is greatly valued and parents and religious leaders go to great lengths to teach reading and writing to their children. Cham children attend their own schools, where they learn Cham language and writing, Cham history and traditions, and receive religious instruction. Some children also attend Cambodian or Vietnamese public schools.


Literature and religion are both important to the Cham. They highly value their books and religious texts.


Most Cham are involved in subsistence agriculture (growing enough to meet the family's needs, with little left over). Some are engaged in raising livestock (such as buffalo, goats, dogs, and fowl), hunting, and fishing. Hunting is done with guns, nets, dogs, and traps. Fishing is done with nets. They use animals not only for food but for making tools and in religious ceremonies.

Cham grow rice, maize (corn), manioc, peanuts, ferns, and vegetables. Nonfood plants grown by the Cham include cotton, tobacco, and plants that yield castor oil. Women may make extra money by weaving.


Most Cham do not engage in organized sports. Children do not have free time, since they must help their families make a living. Even the smallest children help their parents fish, cook, gather firewood, and do a variety of chores. Children are often responsible for caring for the animals. Boys herd the water buffalo and oxen when they are not being used for plowing, and girls feed the pigs and chickens. Boys climb up sugar palm or coconut trees seeking syrup or coconuts.

Children find time during their daily activities for play. A popular game is played with rubber thongs. The boys draw a line in the dirt, then stand back and throw their sandals at the line. The boy who gets the closest is the winner. Girls and smaller children play a similar game with rubber bands, and the winner wears his captured bands around his wrist. Girls also play hopscotch.


In Cham villages, local festivals remain the most common and popular leisure activity. Visiting and gossiping are everyday pleasures. Modern leisure activities, such as television, movies, and videos, are rare in Cham villages and homes.


Cham enjoy music, and use musical instruments that are similar to those in Cambodia and Vietnam. They range from guitars to gongs, drums, and xylophones.


The Cham are proud of never having completely assimilated to either Cambodian or Vietnamese culture. Some Cham hope that Champa, their ancient nation, will be reestablished. But most Cham are content to raise their families and practice their religion. Most of all the Cham hope for peace.


Hickey, Gerald C. "Cham" In Ethnic Groups of Mainland Southeast Asia, Frank M. LeBar, G. Hickey, and J. K. Musgrave, eds. New Haven, Conn.: Human Relations Area Files Press, 1964.


Embassy of Vietnam, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available , 1998.

Interknowledge Corp. [Online] Available , 1998.

World Travel Guide. Vietnam. [Online] Available http:/ , 1998.

Also read article about Cham from Wikipedia

User Contributions:

This was a very interesting topic. I enjoyed it and I've learned a

lot from this about the Cham culture. They're all like human being,

just like everybody.

Thank you God bless you all
Thank you for taking the time to write about Cham. My mother was Cham from Cambodia. Although, I prefer Buddhism over Islam, I still respect her culture just the same. I feel more complete now that I understand where she came from. Are there any sites to learn to speak Cham?
malays are living in malaysia.are malays of cham decendants?
wow this is one very interesting topic. I really appreciate the people who actually take their times and write about the Cham people. I am an Eastern Cham currently in the United States and it's great to know the culture of Cham.
I am writing a novel, and need a few ancient Cham names--first names only. Could someone please email some names to me at shors(at) Thanks!!!
I'm really happy i read this topic. but now I need to know about how cham wedding and cham wedding traditional. My you help me now ? you know I choose cham wedding traditional to do my assignment. I hope that I can know more about cham wedding traditional from you.

Best reguard

it is very emotional.i cried for Champa and cham people.I am a Vietnamese learning about Islam . i knew champa king and his people followed Islam when Muslim sailors came to far east. Ahumduilla
I am Dinjud, a mid-age man and friend of Cham people. I thank this website, as I am lucky to find it after many searches. I share the feelings of many who are putting nice comments here. Could anyone please tell me if there is any website for Cham friendship or matching? I will be vey happy if Cham people make me friend. Here is my address:
I enjoyed this article very much. I didn't know much about The Cham people untill now. I'm Originally Somali, but I enjoy reading about other cultures. I found this article very educational.
what's the main religion of cham in vietnam? what's kind of spirit that cham people in vietnam believe? what're entertainment in general of Cham people in vietnam?
Pop Das
I will visit the Cham community tomorrow with a Cham girl, now settled in Phnom Penh. I will take interviews o their culture and try to take photographs. The article is informative.
My ancestor from my father's side was Cham lady. She was a Cham princess married to the last king of Majapahit Kingdom (Bravijaya V) in present Indonesia .She was accompanied by her two brothers, with Tan surname. Bravijaya V and Cham princess had a son named Jinbun, who then became The Sultan Fatah of Demak Bintoro (first King of the first Islamic sultanate in Java Island, Indonesia). Their descendants (2 brother and Cham princess) are now living in Indonesia. This page helps me to learn about Cham. Thank you
Muslim Cham dont have pigs or dogs. Maybe the non-Muslim Cham do.
Hi, thanks for this piece on Cham people. The part where you wrote about burying the deceased and having several ceremonies for the dead, is this for the non Muslim Cham or both? I’m Cham but was raised very Islamically. But I’ve never heard of Cham Muslim people doing this.
Forealz tho
The Cham doing ceremonies for the dead are called Cham Bani aka Imam San sect. They mix Islam with ancient Cham beliefs. Instead of praying 5 times a day, they only pray once a week on Friday. I'm American-born, but I guess I could consider myself Cham Chau Doc of Vietnam since my parents are from there
Pulind Samant
The response to the questions raised above with regard to the original faith / root of customs etc. - The Cham were Hindus during the most glorious part of their history of kingdoms, liaison with other kingdoms throughout the mainland as well as peninsular South East Asia and such things. Their customs and traditions were highly influenced by the Hindu civilisation originating in India.

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