Imam San Festival

Cambodia has a small Islamic population known as Cham Muslims.  They are a group believed to have come from Central Vietnam, descendents of the former Kingdom of Champa.  There is actually considerable diversity amongst the different Cham Muslim groups.  One particular sect is known as Imam San, named for the man who is believed to have brought Islam to Cambodia.  They practice a unique form of Islam, in which among other things, they only pray once a week.  There is a small community of Imam San Muslims that live near the former capital of Oudong- just north of Phnom Penh.  Today they held a festival/ceremony in honor of Imam San.  I went to visit along with my friend Alberto- who is doing his PhD research on Cham Muslims- and two other friends who were covering this event for various newspapers.  Photos and more are after the jump.

Above: An older Imam San Muslim man stands next to a tree decorated with flowers, cookies, and money for the Imam San Festival.

Like most events/festivals/parties I’ve been too in Cambodia- this festival didn’t have a specific schedule of things to do.  Many older people had come and were sitting under the shade near the entrance of the mosque with their decorated trees (see above).   The cookies, or Nom Bat, were made in elaborate shapes out of a dough made from sticky rice flour, coconut, and sugar which were then fried in oil.  I ate quite a few after the festival and they were tasty.

Above:  People sitting in the shade outside the Mosque- surrounded by cookie trees.

The mosque is at the top of a hill and nearby on a ledge is a small “grave” for Imam San.  His body is not actually there, but there is a coffin and a place to pay your respect.  People were gathered around it nearly the whole time placing white cloth on the grave and saying prayers.  People were then taking small pieces of the cloth and tying it around their wrist – for good health.

Above: A young Muslim woman ties a piece of cloth around Alberto’s wrist.

Around noon, several men gathered in the mosque to begin prayers.  People gathered around on all sides to watch and listen.

After the prayer service there was a huge procession of all the cookie trees (not their official name, obviously) into the Mosque.

The men then all began to sing a song about the life of Mohammad. This continued for awhile with men joining and leaving as they wanted.  I shot this video on my digital camera after the festival had finished. Some of the older ladies were cleaning up and this group started to sign again.

There were also some official representatives from the government (including a Buddhist Monk- can you spot him?) there who gave a speech for the crowd.

I also had the pleasure of meeting some great young people from the Muslim community who indulged me in speaking Khmer, taught me some Cham (I’ve forgotten it already) and practiced their English on me. I’m looking forward to seeing them again.


-Alberto discusses some issues regarding the Cham community on Erik Davis’ excellent blog.

-I also met another French anthropologist who is studying the Cham as well.  She has been in Cambodia for 8 years and is blogging (in English) about the Cham here.

-Khmer speakers can check out for more materials on the Chams here and here.

3 responses to “Imam San Festival

  1. Interesting stuff!!! Nice photos as always, the first one is my favorite, with the guy standing next to the cookie tree.

  2. Gotta love a festival with cookies.

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