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Old Cham town shelters lore and architecture from days long gone

The old minaret of Svay Khleang. Once a centre of Cambodia’s Islamic community
The old minaret of Svay Khleang. Once a centre of Cambodia’s Islamic community, the village is still home to around 1,000 Chams who mostly farm tobacco and corn. Charlotte Pert

Old Cham town shelters lore and architecture from days long gone

No Min, a 55-year-old village leader in Tbong Khmum province’s Svay Khleang village, lives in the same large wooden house that his great grandfather bought in the late 19th Century. No Min said his ancestor, a wealthy Cham police commissioner for the French Protectorate, had a family of 11 wives which included Khmer, Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai women.

Others in the village say that he was a timber merchant who floated his merchandise down the river to Vietnam, though No Min said he doesn’t know about that.

“Most of the information is massed from oral sources which passed on from one generation to another,” said Farina So of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), which has taken the initiative to preserve the community’s old Cham heritage.

“We have found very little information about the village then and now in written records.”

What is agreed upon, however, is that this small Cham village on the Mekong’s east bank in what was until recently Kampong Cham province was once a centre of Cambodia’s Islamic culture.

The Cham people, which DC-Cam estimates number at around 350,000 in Cambodia, are the remnants of the once powerful Hindu Champa Kingdom, which ruled much of southern and central Vietnam from the seventh to 19th centuries. After centuries of sporadic warfare with the Vietnamese and Khmers, the last of their territory was captured by Vietnam in 1832. Although many Vietnamese Chams continue to practice Hinduism, most in Cambodia have converted to Islam throughout the last millennium for reasons not entirely understood, though Arab traders are thought to have played a role.

Sanas Min, No Min’s 23-year-old daughter, said she grew up hearing stories about the lavish lifestyle lived by her great-great-grandfather, Snong Man.

“He built houses and stupas for all his wives and left many properties for them before he died,” she said, adding that Snong Man even owned an elephant to ride.

A few doors down from No Min’s house is the former home of Haji Osman Paung, a counsel to King Sisowath Monivong who was also known as Ta Ba-ror-tes (literally “foreign director”, which he was called due to his extensive travel away from the village). DC-Cam researchers heard from villagers that Ta Ba-ror-tes once welcomed the king into town when he visited on his steamboat, with Snong Man covering the riverfront with a red silk carpet for the occasion. According to No Min, Ta Ba-ror-tes was Cambodia’s top imam.

Sanas Min, who calls Ta Ba-ror-tes “grandfather”, said that his friendship with Monivong is still legendary in the village.

“The king even used to visit his house and they used to hunt wildlife together, so this is an important point that the village still remembers and talks [about].”

The derelict house of Ta Ba-ror-tes, a Muslim leader and royal counsel to King Monivong
The derelict house of Ta Ba-ror-tes, a Muslim leader and royal counsel to King Monivong. Charlotte Pert

The interior of the old house, which is kept locked by the villagers, still has Ta Ba-ror-tes’ old furniture, including ornately carved wooden benches, a desk and a bed. An old lamp fixture suspended from a dusty chain hangs from the ceiling, though No Min said that the lamp was stolen five months ago.

The house is currently the subject of a dispute between Ta Ba-ror-tes’ surviving relatives. Although Ibrahim Keo, a son of Ta Ba-ror-tes living in the United States, had entrusted the property to DC-Cam, Farina So said that other relatives have also claimed the house and have even taken out a mortgage against it from a local bank.

But Farina So said that she is hopeful that the dispute will be resolved.

“This is not surprising for us. We have to expect all these kinds of problems when working on community preservation [and] development.”

Once resolved, DC-Cam plans to use the building to house an educational centre focusing on Cham persecution during the Pol Pot era. Exhibits are to include swords used in Svay Khleang’s 1975 uprising against the Khmer Rouge, which resulted in the area being purged. DC-Cam estimates that only 600 of the town’s 6,200 residents survived the regime.

Next to Ta Ba-ror-tes’ house is a three-tiered minaret built in the 19th century in the village centre near the river. Little is known about it, although No Min said it was active right up until Khmer Rouge cadres gutted the interior.

“We assume that this architectural style is a combination of Cham, Arabic and Khmer style,” said Farina So, adding that all they know for sure is that the minaret was already erect when King Monivong visited in the early 20th century.

No Min still lives in the house of his wealthy great grandfather
No Min still lives in the house of his wealthy great grandfather. Charlotte Pert

“We will have a team of archaeologists and architects from the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts and the US to conduct a comprehensive study about its physical appearance, style, and restoration next year,” she said, adding that DC-Cam recently applied to the US Embassy for grant money to preserve the minaret.

For No Min, his own house, handed down from his great-grandfather, is a family heirloom that he intends to keep.

As the youngest child in the family, it was given to him as a wedding present from his parents in lieu of a cash gift, and he would like to give the house to one of his three children.

“I will never sell this house,” he said, adding that he was born there and lived there his entire life, save for the Pol Pot years. “A tycoon from Phnom Penh wanted to buy this house, but I didn’t sell.”

Sanas Min, who came to Phnom Penh in 2009 and works at DC-Cam, said that she is fond of her childhood home and misses her homeland.

“The location of those houses is really nice, along the riverbank where the old Muslim generations always stay.”

However, her father said that he doubts any of his children will want to move back to Svay Khleang to take over the family house.

When asked if she would be interested, Sanas Min said it was too soon to tell.

“I don’t know yet, but I will probably go back and live at home when I am old.”

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