Why traditional Khmer Houses Are Disappearing

One of the missing pages in Cambodian history concerns the way people lived during the Angkorian era.

Brick and stone monuments can testify to the talent of its builders and artists, but barring a few details on bas-reliefs at the Bayon temple, little is left to show how people spent their days in towns and villages around Angkor.

The jungle wasted no time reclaiming the land on which wooden houses were built and abandoned in the 15th century.

Now, a whole aspect of Cambodian traditional life may be erased again. “I’m worried that Khmer houses will be destroyed by time and new styles,” said Hok Sokol, an architect and urban planner.

“If we don’t do research and document them in books soon, all these houses will disappear from Cambodia,” he said.

This concern has led Hok Sokol to research traditional houses on his own during his studies at the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism in Phnom Penh, and to continue doing so after his graduation in 2000.

Last year, he joined the Center for Khmer Studies as co-leader of a three-year study program funded by the Rockefeller Foundation in the US.

Also alarmed by the disappearance of traditional wooden architecture in the country, the center put traditional homes and buildings as one of its research priorities in 2001 and obtained funding to pursue the project this month, said Francois Tainturier, deputy director of the center, which is based in Siem Reap.

The result of Hok Sokol’s own study, plus work done at the center last year is exhibited at the French Cultural Center through Feb 7.

Photos and models built to scale show the most frequent styles of houses according to a research done by Khmer builders in 1955 and later translated in French, Hok Sokol said. Earlier, some French researchers had also broached the subject in studies on Cambodian life, he said.

One of these styles, “phteas” Khmer, has virtually vanished. A photo dating from the 1900s shows the house’s high pitched roof. It appears in wall paintings of the same era at one of the pagodas in Kompong Tralach village in Kompong Chhnang province.

The other styles can be found in many provinces but with local variations. In Kratie province, an area with few people and a great deal of forest, residents had the wood to build large houses, Hok Sokol said. In Kompong Cham, houses were smaller, but their beams and columns were covered with intricate designs carved in the wood, he said.

Architecture in Battambang province reflects a past that included being part of Thailand for more than a century. People in the area assimilated Thai style into Cambodian traditional designs, creating their own distinctive style in the process, Hok Sokol said. One of its characteristics is a series of gables projecting over each other.

Besides these particularities, people have chosen one style over the other based on their means rather than their taste, Hok Sokol said.

Wealthy people tended to build themselves “rong dol” or “rong doeung” houses. They sometimes are attached to one another, with the end of their roofs sloping to meet in the middle, Hok Sokol said.

Hok Sokol noticed an abundance of “rong dol” homes in Kompong Cham province and “rong doeung” houses in Battambang province.

A “kantaing” house has a high-pitched roof, but not as steep as a “phteas” Khmer roof. It still makes the house 25 percent higher than its length. This style might have been imported from Vietnam or China in the late 1800s or early 1900s, Hok Sokol said.

The “pet” house, which has a four-slope roof and no gable, has been quite popular among Cambodians, rich and poor, Hok Sokol said. “I have not found any evidence that the style existed before the 20th century,” he said.

To those styles, Hok Sokol added two more during his research. One is the “keung” house, an elaborate structure with a two-level roof reserved for high-ranking officials. “We also can find many in pagodas-villagers wanted monks to have houses different from their own,” Hok Sokol said.

The other one is the “adthayaok,” or lean-to house, which is unlike any other Khmer house, he said.

Finally, the houses of hill tribes in the northeast follow a completely different pattern, Hok Sokol said.

“This is minority architecture that has never been influenced by the Khmer empire,” he said. “They are still living and building as they have done for centuries.”

In Ratanakkiri province for instance, hill tribes use material they find in nature, such as bamboo and palm leaves, building houses that don’t last more than five years, he said.

All Khmer houses share some characteristics. They are built on stilts that are more or less high depending on the area. “The Khmer consider that a house right on the ground is a sign of misfortune and is uncomfortable to live in,” Hok Sokol said.

Besides being a precaution in case of flood and to reduce dampness, this provides good ventilation and protects people from wild animals.

Houses are rectangular, with sleeping areas higher than the entertainment and the working/eating sections of the house. Their structure includes three rows of columns lengthwise; the roof, floor and columns are made of rot-proof wood; and the walls of wood or palm leaves. The rich would get clay-tile roofs and poorer people thatched ones.

Cambodians have attached a host of beliefs to homes. In a house, Hok Sokol said, “beings-humans and animals, spirits, the god of the stairhead, the house spirit, which is the main column, and others-live together in tolerance and in harmony under the same roof above ground.”

In addition, there is the spirit of the land to be respected, which has led to a series of rituals to select the location of a house and build it. Even today, the entrance of a house hardly ever faces west, which is considered the direction of the dead, and thus is bad luck.

Those traditions have been transmitted orally, and rarely documented, which is why the center launched this research, which is expected to be completed by the end of 2004.

One other element of the study will be pagodas, Tainturier said. “They used to be totally made of wood,” he said. “During the French administration, they kept the wooden structure, but started putting brick on the exterior.”

The country’s heritage was thus deprived of this ancestral technical know-how, Tainturier said. There still are a few wooden pagodas left in the country, especially in Battambang, Kompong Cham and Kratie provinces.

The center is creating archives of these pagodas and traditional houses for reference and future research, and to promote their preservation, he said.

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