Monday, January 25, 2010

Cham Girl

Men in white turbans and loose fitting shirts and slacks sat cross-legged before me. Their faces were dark, their lips sharp, their eyes full of secrets. These men eyed me suspiciously. Is this a Khmer girl? Is she one of us? I smiled shyly, not knowing the correct etiquette when interacting with village elders. If they are like monks, I certainly should not make eye contact with or come near them. (But if you read my last post, then you would know that I don’t exactly follow what I should do). One of these men dressed in a grey button up shirt and dark slacks smiled back warmly and invitingly.

Khmer mean they?” he said in a way that made this question sound more like a statement.

Cha, Mah, Pa cyom kait nuh sok neah,” I replied, telling him that my parents were born here. He nodded approvingly, and his eyes brightened.

Before this day, I’d never known much about Cham people. The two things I knew were that they are Muslim-Khmers, and they wrap scarves around their heads in a turban-like way. I knew this because the Harpswell girls and even my mother call me Cham girl when I take silk scarves that are meant to be draped across the shoulders during special ceremonies and tie them across my forehead.

When I got on the van this morning with twelve other people, most of whom are on the board of the Harpswell Foundation, I thought that this would be a tourist kind of day. I snapped photos as we passed by Oudong, Cambodia’s former royal capital until 1866 when King Norodom moved the capital to Phnom Penh. I was with a group of white Americans and one Canadian, and we were transplanted into the rural villages of Kandal province. Donning big sun hats and hefty Nikon-cameras, we stopped in Sala Lek Prahm for oranges that we would later bring to children in Tramung Chrum, a Cham village.

This is the first time I’d ventured outside the city of Phnom Penh. Instead of hearing endless honking, there was the sound of people living. Children shrieked and ran around the marketplace. Chickens squawked. Women called out Vegetables! Just picked Vegetables! These women are tiny in stature, but balance hula-hoop-sized straw baskets atop their heads as they walk with ease through the streets, weaving between men with wheelbarrows and hungry villagers headed towards their favorite market stall for some praboh (porridge) or cathew (noodles) or numpang (french bread).

I was greeted with smiles, not glares. Their faces and voices had a sincerity that seemed to be missing in Phnom Penh. They didn’t triple the price of goods (at least I don’t think they did), to rip off us Westerners. I looked through the lens of my camera, observing this foreign place. I snapped shots of stalls and people and stray dogs and chickens beginning their morning. As I captured theses images, I felt that I distanced myself from everything around me. Through my actions, I said, You are strange to me. I am different than you. Sometimes when I take pictures, I feel as if I’m not really seeing what I am capturing on film. I don’t understand the images, or cannot identify why I find them interesting. Sometimes, I don’t put thought into taking a picture. My fingers point, click, rotate, zoom. It’s all a series of motions. But is this what photography is? Is it rooted in instincts and emotions? Or is it about precision and technical know-how?

After wandering the market and using a moto shop’s squat toilet (a first for me), I boarded the van, and we headed towards Tramung Chrum. I was thirsty, but decided to limit my water intake as I didn’t know what the restroom situation would be at the next village. “Nothin’ in, nothin’ out. That’s my policy and it’s worked since I was in Thailand,” said a woman on the van. I adopted it for the day. Having gotten little sleep the night before, I tried to nap the rest of the way, but it was a futile effort. The road’s rockiness did not foster any sort of resting atmosphere.

As we approached the village, we passed by wooden homes held up by stilts. Some homes were held up by stilts that towered over the land. Many were held up by measly short-legged stilts that look like they would snap should a strong gust of wind come by. Speaking to the driver, one woman asked, “What happens during rainy season? Do the homes that are not high enough just flood?” In a nonchalant tone, the driver simply replied, “Yes.” Imagine if your house existed one day, and the next it was gone. Imagine if this happened every single year. What would you do with all your possessions? What would you do if you had no possessions?

I guess it would be easier then. That’s one of the things I’ve noticed here: people don’t have much. When I moved to the Teok Thla dormitory from Beoung Trabek, I had a suitcase that I could probably fit in and three additional carry-ons. The girls unhung their clothes, and packed them into one or two backpacks, brought their bags of books, and were ready to go in a matter of minutes. “If that’s a three month's worth of clothes Older Sister, how many bags would you need if you stayed here a year?” asked one of the first years. I opted not to divulge that I’d shipped thirteen boxes (each half the size of a refrigerator) from Denver to Hamilton, NY the summer before my freshman year of college. I am excessive. I knew this before, but seeing how Cambodians live here has shown me the extent of my excessiveness.

We parked at the Tramung Chrum School, which is also one of Harpswell’s projects. Many of the children who attend this school are Cham. The Cham people are a minority group in Cambodia, descending from the Champa. There are only a few thousand Chams left in South East Asia. They’ve survived persecution and genocide under the Khmer Rouge regime, and still speak their own language and practice the religion of their ancestors.

When Alan Lightman, the founder of Harpswell, and his daughter Elyse, first visited Cambodia, they were deeply touched by a man in Tramung Chrum who approached them and asked, “Can you please help us build a school here?” These people lacked food and water and basic necessities, and yet their one request was for a school. They believed in the power of education.

The students’ faces lit up when they heard we’d brought them krouch, oranges. We then gave them paper and crayons to draw their oranges before they devoured them, licking their lips and fingertips. This was quite the treat. “I want to take one home,” Sandy, a new friend of mine, said referring to the children. “Oh, and that one looks just like you. Look, she has your face-shape and nose and mouth.” I stared at the little girl, trying to find myself in her. She stared back at me with serious eyes. I pulled out my camera, deciding that I would figure out if she resembled me later.

In that moment, I let my camera do my thinking for me, replacing my own power of memory with this tool. I can remember this little girl’s face through a picture, but I will soon forget her, I’m sure. Had I talked to her, then maybe I would never forget her. Maybe she had a story that has yet to be told. I regretted my decision to snap a photo instead of make a connection.

We headed towards a mosque that was also one of the Harpswell Foundation’s projects. During the Khmer Rouge regime, 132 mosques were destroyed ( In 1988, only six mosques were still standing in Phnom Penh ( It is incredible that the Cham have maintained their culture up to this point. During the Khmer Rouge regime, many of their religious leaders, known as Mullahs, were killed. The Mullahs could read Sanskrit, and thus, passed on the words of the Koran orally by translating into Cham. Now, the Cham face the challenge of maintaining their culture and religion by passing it on to the children because of a lack of teachers and schools.

“We could use the mosque space as a school space,” said the mullah of the Tramung Chrum mosque. There were about thirty village elders sitting on the floor before us discussing possible plans to bring higher education to Tramung Chrum. I tried to understand the discussion, but realized that they weren’t speaking Khmer.

The mullah patted the space next to him, indicating that I was to sit there. “Help translate this for me,” he said. “We need a school, and we can use this mosque space. Or, we can bring teachers to the current Tramung Chrum school, but we need teachers. People from outside villages are moving to our village because we have a mosque and a school. But it’s not enough.” I translated this as best I could to Jean Lightman, Alan’s wife. The mullah continued to have me translate, and I was proud for a moment, realizing how much my Khmer has improved from the day I first got here. Then, I could barely form full sentences. Now, although my pronunciation isn’t the best and my words aren’t always used correctly, I can communicate in Khmer.

After speaking with him for a long time about why I am in Cambodia, the mullah called me koun, child. “You are welcome here anytime, and I take you as my own,” he said. I handed my camera to someone and asked her to photograph the two of us. This was both a moment and photograph that I will never forget.

To read more about the school in Tramung Chrum, visit the Harpswell Foundation’s site.


  1. wow that was a beautiful blog. i can really imagine it. i never knew there were muslim-khmers. Is this still in Cambodia?

  2. Yes, this is in Cambodia. Although the Cham I write of are a different sect than modern Cham. The Cham at Tramung Chrum are of the Imam San sect, and their practice stems from the ancestral customs in the very beginning practices of their religion. For example, they pray once a week on Fridays rather than every day. The mullah at the Tramung Chrum mosque explained, "We are not violent like the modern religion now. We love everybody and God and nature."

  3. Kanitha Heng, I love everything you write. Thank you for existing and doing what you do. Much love and respect. Peace.