IT’S more than a different religion that separates Kampong Cham’s Khmer majority from its Muslim minority. It’s also what they do. Whereas Khmers tend to farm the province’s fertile soil, Chams fish its waters.
Nowhere is this distinction more marked than in the village of Pret Toch just across the Mekong River from the town of Kampong Cham.
Khmer farmers live next to Cham fishing communities, sending their children to the same primary school a few kilometres away in Ror Kratholm, where classes are mixed race.
“There’s no discrimination and no problem between Cham and Khmer children,” says the school’s director, Saing Sy Moeung.
About 60 percent of the children attending the school are Cham. The only real difference Saing Sy Moeung notices is that attendance by the Cham children drops off by about 5 percent during the fishing season.
The Cham settled on this bank of the river many years ago.
“We have lived here for a long, long time, before the French even,” says Cham Chiro’s spiritual leader, Imam Samath. Cham Chiro is a small Cham enclave of 331 families within the mixed village of Pret Toch.
“More families live in this area because here is good for fishing.”
The imam is overseeing construction of a mosque right on the river’s bank. “We’ve been building it for three years now,” he says. “We still need US$3,000 or $4,000 to complete it.”
Predominantly funded by private donations from Malaysia, Prime Minister Hun Sen also donated $5,000, something which Imam Samath sees as a clear indication of the country’s religious tolerance.
“Throughout Cambodia, whatever their religion, people can live together in harmony.”
It is not religious intolerance but daily survival that is the key issue facing Imam’s congregation.
“Some families are really poor, they don’t have a home to live in,” he says. “They live day by day.”
The poorest receive money from those more fortunate within the community. Periodically the Islamic Association in Phnom Penh visits to provide money. None of this helps when the village floods.
Until last year Pret Toch used to flood by up to three metres each year. Many would lose homes in the deluge. According to the imam, part of the raison d’etre behind the new mosque is to provide the homeless with some accommodation when floods arrive.
A path leads down from the mosque to the river. Here a small community of fishing people are loading up goods to trade in Kampong Thom. Some are fortunate enough to own land, upon which they are growing tomatoes and other vegetables.
“All the families in the village fish,” says Ly Y, 55, who has fished these waters since a child. “This year there are less fish than previous years.”
Ly Y attributes this to the Mekong’s diminishing level, which culminated last year in the traditional floods not arriving for the first time in memory.
Although they made many of the villagers homeless, the floods produced favourable fishing conditions. Fish used to spawn on what would become dry land, creating an abundance of fish once the waters subsided from December to February. As the river did not flood last year, the fish spawned elsewhere. “The river is not as rich as before,” says Ly Y.
At least the school in Ror Kratholm should benefit from the lack of flooding. Saing Sy Moeung indicates a level 2.5 metres up the classroom wall where the waters used to reach. Prior to a stilted library being built last year, all the school’s furniture and teaching materials would be washed away as there was nowhere to store them.
Now the library will preserve the school’s property should the floods ever return. Climbing the steep steps to visit the library, all the books are lined in a row. They look brand new and lightly leafed.
The school lacks toilets and there is no well for the children to wash. Dust covers the desks and benches on which they study, but at least the pristine library is a start. As for Pret Toch’s fishing community the floods’ absence could mark the beginning of the end for their traditional way of life.