Once upon a time, the Cham owned one of the great empires of Southeast Asia, stretching from present-day Cambodia to north-central Vietnam. They traded with India, Java and China, and had great military, maritime and agricultural knowledge. Today, however, they are one of Vietnam’s most impoverished and marginalised ethnic minorities, while in Cambodia, their number and influence greatly declined because of the genocide committed against them by the Khmer Rouge. In Vietnam, there are currently about one hundred thirty thousand Cham people (0.17% of the population). Despite their poverty, traces of their great history remain. Throughout the southern and central parts of Vietnam, a number of impressive Cham temple towers (dating from the ninth to the fourteenth century) are living testimony to the artistic and architectural genius of the ancient Champa kingdom.
A significant proportion of Cham people today follow an adapted version of Islam. Historically, however, they have worshipped Shiva as their main deity, as well as deified kings (who were probably considered incarnations of Shiva); those who do not follow Islam continue to do so. Naturally, Shiva’s son (Ganesha), wife (Parvati) and bull (Nandi) were also popular, as well as a range of other Hindu deities and divine creatures. As elsewhere, the worship of Shiva was intertwined with fertility cults. Great symbols of divine fertility, and of the unity of male and female, are the so-called linga and yoni, usually made of stone. They represent a male phallus and female vulva, the unity reached through sexual intercourse, and, ultimately, divine reproduction. Most Cham temples still have their linga and/or yoni, some of which are decorated with elaborate carvings.
On previous occasions, I have visited the temple complexes of My Son and Tam Ky in Quang Nam province, as well as the lovely tower in Nha Trang. I have also visited the excellent Museum for Cham Sculpture in Danang, and seen the Champa collection of the Musée Guimet in Paris. For some time, I have had the wish to visit the heartland of Cham culture. Today, that wish has come true. Some of the greatest Cham temples can be found here, in Ninh Thuan province, around the city of Phan Rang. Unlike the towers in Central Vietnam, these are still used for worship. Most Cham people live in this area, and they continue to use the temples for their religious activities. Even those who follow Islam still take part in traditional festivals and rituals.
One of the most impressive Cham temples - perhaps even one of the most impressive religious places I have ever visited - is located near the train station of Thap Cham, six kilometres west from Phan Rang. It is called Po Klang Garai, and was built to honour and worship a legendary king from the past. The king is said to have reconquered land from the Khmer, unify different mini-states, and designed dams and irrigation projects for his people. The temple, which has been restored, is located beautifully on top of a high hill, offering great views of the surrounding countryside. Inside the temple are statues of Shiva and his bull, as well as an altar where offerings are placed. Every year in April, thousands of Cham come here to celebrate their traditional New Year ceremony.
The second Cham temple is located fifteen kilometres south of Phan Rang, and somewhat difficult to find – kudos to the Lonely Planet for giving an adequate route description. The best way to get here is by motorbike or xe om (motorbike taxi). On the way, we pass through poor Cham villages, surrounded by litter as the state does not take care of garbage collection in this area. Cows and pigs are eating the plastic, children play in the dirt, and diseases spread easily. In places like this, there is little or no money for education or healthcare. Meanwhile, the provincial capital is filled with large government buildings and Pyongyang-style monuments, built by megalomanic local officials maintaining strong personal ties with construction companies. One of the problems of Vietnam is that the central government is too weak, and provincial governments have too much freedom to decide what they spend their money on. Thus, shitty provincial capitals turn into hideous concrete parks, while no money is spent on waste disposal or basic education – especially if politically marginal ethnic minorities are concerned.
In order to reach the temple of Po Ro Me, you have to leave the concrete road, and drive the last 500 metres on an unpaved path full of stones, which is a bit of an adventure. But it is worth it. Po Ro Me is not as large as Po Klang Garai, but equally impressive, and even more mysterious. The landscape is wild, rough, deserted, beautiful. The temple is built on top of a pyramid-like construction, and offers great views of the landscape. It is currently in the process of being restored. Inside is a peculiar stone relief, consisting of a carving of Shiva with a long beard and hat, as well as a female statue (possibly a deified queen) and two small bulls. Next to the temple is a large stone linga.
On the way back to Phan Rang, we pass through a Cham village called Bau Truc. It is famous for its pottery, and sometimes visited by tour groups. We visit one of the shops. The owner is an old, friendly Cham lady, who has given demonstrations of her pottery skills in places as far away as Tokyo and Kuala Lumpur. She is a good salesperson, and we leave her shop with a small religious statue. She is also a good story-teller, who proudly shares her cultural heritage with visitors.
We take the national highway back to Phan Rang, pass through the city, and continue north for another twenty kilometres or so. The wind is very strong, and driving here is not exactly fun, as the road is used by many large trucks and buses. Finally, we arrive in the village of Ba Thap, which literally means 'Three Towers'. Two of the three are still standing, and they look impressive, even though they are not built on top of hills, but in a large field. According to my book on Champa buildings, these are the oldest remaining Cham towers, dating from the ninth century. They have been restored professionally, probably by Unesco, judging from the logo on the bricks. Unlike the other two places we visited today, however, they are not actively used. Whereas all tourist buses going from Saigon to Nha Trang pass by this place (you may have seen them from your window), none of them ever stop here.
The towers are surrounded by high walls, and a gate, which is locked. When we ask the neighbours, we are told that the person who has the key does not live here. We have little choice but to climb the gate, which turns out to be fairly easy. The towers are inhabited by bat colonies. Both have beautiful roof constructions. One of them also has fantastic carvings of Garuda, the mythical god-bird. Around the towers, cows are peacefully maintaining the grass, but aggressive dogs prevent us from entering the second tower.
We go back to our hotel, which is located on Ninh Chu - a lovely, little-visited beach, with several affordable resorts. Our second day in Phan Rang is devoted to swimming, sunbathing and relaxing. It is clear that this place has great tourism potential. It is also clear that the place has much more poverty than other areas in Vietnam - judging from housing conditions, the waste problem, and even child labour. The Cham deserve better. The problem of tourism, however, is that it is not usually the local people who benefit most. It is a so-called 'double bind'.
In any case, anybody who is interested in the great architectural and religious traditions of the Cham, had better visit this province. Its landscape and cultural heritage are very different from many other places in Vietnam, but it is a fascinating place nonetheless.