Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Khmer Woodcarving

Recarving an art niche in Cambodian culture

Master wood-carver Chan Sim survived the Khmer Rouge purging of artists and now passes on the tradition of Khmer woodcarving to the next generation

Photo by: Stephanie Mee

PROFESSOR Chan Sim watches keenly as his students delicately chip away at blocks of wood, using metal tools to shape it into figures, scenes and decorative lintels based on designs and motifs passed down for centuries.

The small gallery and workshop on Street 178 are Chan Sim's, as are the students who are among hundreds who study under the master wood-carver to learn the ancient practice of Khmer woodcarving in the hopes of one day opening their own successful woodworking studios.

The 73 year-old Chan Sim began his journey into the art world in 1950 when he enrolled at the Royal University of Fine Arts. He studied visual arts such as painting, sculpture and woodcarving as well as history and archaeology, and in 1957 was awarded a Bachelor of Fine Arts. In 1959 he started teaching at the university, specialising in teaching woodcarving until the onset of the civil war in Cambodia.

Rich tradition
"When I was in university, many people from all over the region wanted to learn Khmer arts, including many Thais and Laotians who attended the school," says Chan Sim.

"It is a rich tradition that is steeped in history and symbolism, and is aesthetically stunning. Unfortunately, during the war this all changed."

The Khmer Rouge regime deemed the traditional Khmer arts unnecessary to their socialist agrarian revolution and purged countless monuments, artistic works and educated artists during its 1975-1979 rule of the country.

Chan Sim survived this dark period by hiding his education, telling people he was a simple labourer carving doorways for houses. When senior Khmer Rouge officials brought him stencils and blueprints for woodcarvings with foreign lettering he pretended not to be able to read the characters despite his fluency in French and slight knowledge of English. "Before the war there were 40 master wood-carvers in Cambodia," he says. "Only four of us survived."

After the liberation of Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge, Chan Sim immediately began teaching woodcarving again, and in 1980 opened up his shop, Art of Khmer Angkor, that still stands today. He has made it his life's goal to teach the rich history and specialised techniques of traditional Khmer woodcarving.

Photo by: Stephanie Mee
Professor Chan Sim at his workshop Art of Khmer Angkor on Steet 178.

Heavy Hindu influence

He explains, "Khmer woodworking can be traced back as far as the 6th century AD, and was heavily influenced by Indian styles and designs and images from the Hindu religious pantheon, and later Buddhism.

"During the Angkor period, skilled artists were called upon by the kings to contribute their work to the vast building plans at Angkor, and it was then that the four main design types of Cambodia were consolidated."

Khmer woodworking design motifs have typically used four main styles since the Angkor period: wind, water, land and air. Each style has unique defining aspects, and symbolises elements of the human experience.

The wind style uses graceful curlicues and motifs of clouds to represent life and breath. The water style uses images of plants, such as lotus flowers, lily pads and fish to symbolise the life-giving force of water. The land style symbolises the body and makes use of vines, flowers, tree stalks and plant stems while the fire style employs intricate flame designs and is mainly used in temples, funerals and cremation ceremonies as it represents war and death.

"Khmer style is quite different from Thai or Laotian styles," says Chan Sim. "For example, the Thai like to use the fire style in many of their wooden artworks.

"Everywhere you go in Thailand you see these designs, but for Cambodians, this style symbolizes very negative aspects, so we use it very carefully."

Chen Sim explains that Khmer woodcarving designs rely heavily on spirituality, and many are religious in nature. "The most powerful images are statues that are highly realistic, and these must be treated with respect as spirits are often fooled into thinking they are real, and will come to inhabit the object," he said.

Powerful symbolism
"To be a proper woodcarver you must be aware of the power of symbols, the styles and the designs as well as the history behind the art."

The master woodcarver has also compiled two comprehensive books titled Book for Learning to Draw and Sculpt by Yourself, parts I and II, both of which contain blueprints and grids of drawing scales for common Khmer design motifs and have been endorsed by the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts. In 2000, the Ministry awarded him a certificate designating him a Master of Khmer Fine Arts.

As for Chen Sim's students, many study for years under his tutelage either at Norton University or the Royal University of Fine Arts, or at his workshop at Arts of Khmer Angkor.

Nationwide input
"My students come from all over Cambodia, from every province," he said. "They are keen to learn woodcarving and sculpture in order to preserve and carry on this aspect of Khmer culture, and because it can be very lucrative. Many return to their home provinces after they have mastered the art and set up their own shops, distributing their works to shops throughout Cambodia."

Wooden statues at shops along Street 178 range in value, from US $3.00 for a small wooden apsara at Arts of Angkor up to US $20,000 for a life-size wooden elephant at nearby Kosal Gallery. Prices vary depending on size, quality of wood and the skills of the carver.

As Chen Sim walked around the workshop giving tips to the diligent students, he stopped at one young carver working on a wooden reproduction of the famous statue of Jayavarman VII and said: "Very nice; almost perfect!"

The student swelled with pride and continued his work with extra vigour, smiling broadly as he did so.

Cambodian Rice Wine

How rice wine ferments the Cambodian spirit
Thursday, 02 July 2009
Stephanie Mee
The Phnom Penh Post

AN old English proverb says, "Good wine needs no bush", meaning that something of good quality does not need to be advertised. This is especially true of Cambodia's traditional alcoholic beverage srah sohl, or rice wine.

As rice is the primary staple of most Cambodian diets, it comes as no surprise that the cheapest and most popular alcoholic beverage for most Cambodians is a potent brew made from the plentiful grain.

Similar to sake from Japan or cheongju from Korea, rice wine in Cambodia is produced by fermenting grains of rice until the starches in the rice convert into sugars, resulting in a mildly alcoholic liquid. Unlike wine made from grapes, the fermentation period can take as little as 24 hours.

"Once you have the equipment, the process is quite simply really," said Dos Lun of Tang Russey village in Takeo province.

Every second day Dos Lun boils 25 kilos of rice, lays it to dry in the sun, and then transfers it to plastic buckets, where it is mixed with a natural fermenting agent called dom bai in Khmer. The mixture is then left to bubble and ferment overnight. Once the rice has fermented, it is dumped into a large metal vat along with pure rainwater and covered with a purpose-built lid, sealed with a rice husk paste.

Leftover rice husks and scrap wood are used to start a small fire under the vat, heating the rice mixture so that the watery, alcoholic mixture evaporates, travelling up two metal pipes protruding from the lid and down through a concrete container full of water. The water in the container cools the liquid in the pipes, and a small spigot at the bottom of the container releases the clear, pure, mildly grainy-flavoured rice wine.

"There are three stages of wine," said Dos Lun. "The first batch is extremely strong, and is not suitable for drinking. The second stage is the best, at about 30-percent alcohol content, and the third stage is very weak. I often mix the first and third batches to create an evenly balanced blend."

Dos Lun sells his natural rice wine from his stilted wooden house in the midst of rice fields and cow paddocks for 2,000 riels a litre, and can sell as many as 20 litres a day. "People like to buy rice wine from me because they know it's natural and not bad for you," he said. "You have to be careful because some producers of rice wine that sell in bulk from stores or roadside stalls put chemicals and pesticides in the wine to make it taste stronger, but really it just makes you sick."

Takeo native Khem Sokkhieng said, "I like to drink rice wine during special festivals or holidays and sometimes when I'm relaxing with friends or family, but some people drink it every day. Farmers who work in the rice fields will often drink one glass of srah sohl in the morning before they go to the fields in order to warm their body, and then again at night to relax."

Srah sohl can also be used as a base for traditional Khmer medicinal remedies, which many claim can cure everything from muscle aches, fatigue and stomach disorders to menstrual cramps and labour pains.

Medicinal rice wine in Cambodia goes by the name srah tinum, and can be produced by infusing pure rice wine with items such as herbs, roots, tree bark, and even insects.

Chen Veasna, owner of Restaurant No 66, a family-run restaurant on Street 360, has been selling srah tinum at the two-level restaurant for fifteen years, and believes wholeheartedly in its healing powers.

"All of the wine we sell here is good for aches and pains in the body," she said. "Some of the varieties are particularly good for women, although anybody can drink any of the varieties. And the greatest advantage of our wine is that it doesn't burn your stomach when you drink it because it contains no harsh mixtures or harmful ingredients."

Varieties of medicinal rice wine at the restaurant include srah gondia, a dark, rum-coloured brew that is made by infusing red termites in rice wine and then straining the bodies out. The resulting drink tastes a bit sweet and earthy, with flavours of almonds and nutmeg. It is said to help with blood circulation and menstrual cramps.

Srah bondul pich is made from the woody stems of a small plant native to Cambodia and possesses a vibrant yellow colour, with an extremely strong, bitter taste that coats the tongue long after it is swallowed. It is said to be most beneficial for elderly people and cure arthritis, rheumatism and body pains.

Srah tinum chen sei is the most common type of medicinal rice wine in Cambodia and is often taken to alleviate stomach disorders and fatigue. The best tasting wine by far at Restaurant No 66 is srah dom narp k'mull, a strongly alcoholic, sweet and slightly spicy blend, made from black sticky rice. The busy restaurant also sells regular srah sohl.

All rice wine at Restaurant No 66 is sold by the litre and varies in price depending on the variety. "I can't even count the number of people that come here every day to purchase rice wine," said Chen Veasna. "People love it because it is healthy and it won't give you a headache or hangover the next morning, provided, of course, you don't go overboard on it."

Whether imbibed as a social lubricant, for pleasure, or for curative purposes, srah sohl is a long-established element of traditional Khmer culture, and to quote a common Khmer colloquialism, "If you don't drink, how will the rice wine merchant make his living?"

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Cambodian Jasmine Farms

Jasmine season yields its offerings Print E-mail
Written by Stephanie Mee
Thursday, 25 June 2009
The Phnom Penh Post

A skip and jump from Phnom Penh, Kroh Kroubey village is famous for its jasmine farms, of which the fragrant and cream-coloured buds are often used to create offerings to Buddha

Photo by: Stephanie Mee
Sun Sey harvesting jasmine.
Every morning, a sweet, floral scent wafts through Nuon Chenda's house and grounds. As small girls weave their way in and out of the bushes in the back yard, picking tiny white buds from the shrubs, the delicate aroma of p'kah maleas, or jasmine flowers, perfumes the air.

"Right now is the best season to collect the jasmine flowers, as the water from the daily rains helps the plants produce many buds and flowers," said Nuon Chenda, the owner of a jasmine farm in Koh Kroubey village, an area renowned in Cambodia for its bountiful jasmine farms.

With help from a team of local village girls, Nuon Chenda harvests the whitish-green buds of the jasmine early every morning before the flower can bloom, and sells the fragrant buds to wholesalers, who in turn transport the produce to Phnom Penh to be sold at various markets.

Eleven-year old Sun Sey, who works on the farm, says that she can usually pick 1 or 2 kilograms of the flowers per day, taking her around three hours.

"I get paid 3,000 riels (US$0.75) per kilogramme. Sometimes people come here to buy directly from us, but more often, the buds are sold to a large buyer," Sun Sey said.

Nuon Chenda in turn sells the buds at $1 a kilogramme, although prices vary depending on the season.

"Right now, because the bushes are flowering so well, the price for jasmine is low, but during the cold season (December to February) the plants don't produce as many flowers, so the price jumps to $25 a kilogramme," she said.

On a busy day, such as a Buddhist holiday, Nuon Chenda can sell up to seven kilogrammes of jasmine buds a day, although her average yield is usually around four kilos.

Decorative ornaments and offerings
In Cambodia, jasmine buds are predominantly used to create offerings to Buddha, due to their heavenly fragrance and creamy white colour.
In fact, the English word for jasmine comes from the Persian word yasmin, meaning "a gift from the gods".

Buds and flowers are also used in decorative ornaments for temples, festivals, birthday parties and weddings, and the blossoms can be added to holy water used for blessings by the monks or boiled in water to make an aromatic jasmine tea.

Taking a break from jasmine picking, Sun Sey demonstrated her skills in creating sweet-smelling offerings for the temple.

"There are two main types of jasmine offerings," she said as her nimble fingers deftly threaded small buds onto a long wooden needle made from coconut branches. "Je kah is a thin stick with layers of buds circling it, usually with a purple or red flower on the end of it, and pum melei is the circular garland, which many people put around the neck of a Buddha or Shiva statue."

Villagers in Koh Kroubey have a long tradition of growing jasmine, and farming methods and ornamentation techniques here have been passed down from generation to generation.

Although the harvests may not be as abundant or lucrative as rice, jasmine is a year-round crop, and requires little maintenance once the trees have grown for two years.

Sophea Sophat, a local jasmine farmer and mother of three, explains that the jasmine trees in Koh Kroubey are hardy plants, requiring no harsh pesticides, merely a simple fertiliser of vegetable compost.

Trees are cut back after three to four years in order to encourage the growth of young, delicate buds and blossoms.

As for the money, Sophea Sophat explained, "I'm not getting rich, but it's enough to put money in the pot for my family and food in our mouths".

"I can't imagine doing anything else or not waking up to the lovely scent of fresh jasmine in the morning," Sophea Sophat added.
Koh Kroubey can be reached from Phnom Penh by crossing the new Monivong bridge towards Kien Svay and taking the first right onto Street 369, and then a left at the large stone temple gates.

The best time to go is in the morning when the jasmine buds are fresh, and farmers will custom-make temple offerings and flower arrangements on-site.

Warung Bali review

Popular Indonesian dishes reflect diversity of the islands Print E-mail
Written by Stephanie Mee
Wednesday, 24 June 2009
The Phnom Penh Post

Warung Bali restaurant offers one of Phnom Penh’s finest examples of
Indonesia’s unique cuisine, along with traditional culture and hospitality

Photo by: Sovann Philong
Warung Bali restaurant, on Street 178 west of Sothearos Boulevard.
TUCKED away amid several fried noodle shops on Street 178 near Sothearos is a small unassuming restaurant with simple, plastic-covered tables and wooden chairs. At first glance, one might be forgiven for mistaking it for another Khmer eatery, but in fact Warung Bali is one of Phnom Penh's finest examples of the unique cuisine of Indonesia.

Indonesia is a nation made up of more than 6,000 islands, a population of approximately 240 million people, and more than 300 ethnic groups. Thus, it is no surprise that the food from this vast archipelago reflects the diversity of its islands.

At Warung Bali, native Javanese owners Pirdaos and Kasmin offer some of the most popular Indonesian dishes, along with a little bit of Indonesian culture.

"When I moved here 13 years ago, there were not many places to eat Indonesian food," said Kasmin from the small but bustling eatery.

"My boss at that time decided to open Bali Cafe on the riverside, and it did well, but the prices were a bit high. When it closed two years ago, I saw the opportunity to open up a small warung (Indonesian for a small family-owned restaurant) where we could offer authentic Indonesian food at lower prices," he added.

Kasmin said that, although he doesn't make a lot of profit from the food sales, his restaurant does well due to the sheer numbers of customers, mostly made up of Indonesian travellers and expatriates, as well as Western customers.

"Indonesian food is similar to Khmer food in some ways, but in other ways very different," Kasmin said. "For example, Indonesian food can be much spicier than Khmer food, and the meat is often marinated in a variety of spices before cooking. Also, the soy sauce is sweeter and thicker. In fact we make our own soy sauce here in the traditional Indonesian style."

On the menu
Warung Bali's most popular menu item is the ayam bakar kecap Bali, tender, marinated chunks of chicken on the bone, grilled and smothered in Kasmin's homemade soy sauce with a hint of coconut and garlic, and garnished with fresh chilli and peanuts.

Other popular dishes include gado gado, a salad of lightly steamed vegetables such as crisp, green string beans, crunchy cabbage leaves and sliced potatoes in a fragrant peanut, chilli and lime sauce; and sate sapi, marinated grilled beef skewers served with spicy Indonesian peanut sauce and sweet soy sauce.

"These dishes come from all over Indonesia, not just Bali," Kasmin said. "Different dishes originated in different regions, although they are eaten widely throughout Indonesia. For example, the gado gado is a Jakarta-inspired dish, and the sate ayam (chicken satay) originates from Madura in East Java."

As Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim nation, much of the food outside of the small island of Bali is Halal, and Warung Bali is no exception despite its name.

"You will never find pork, frog or dog here," Kasmin said.

Dishes at Warung Bali are a bargain, ranging from 6,000 riels (US$1.50) to 10,000 riels for portions large enough to be shared with friends or family.

Taste of Indonesia
Kasmin and Pirdaos also offer customers a taste of the culture of Indonesia at the cafe, with authentic Indonesian paintings and batik hangings on the walls, and a large wooden table, loaded with books and magazines containing information about their native country.

Part of the restaurant's popularity also comes from the open and affable nature of the owners, who are quick to offer a broad smile to newcomers and who never forget a face.

Service is quick, easy-going and reliable.

For a taste of Indonesia at bargain prices visit Warung Bali at 25Eo Street 178, or call 012 967 480.

Lunch Box review

A different sort of sandwich Print E-mail
Written by Stephanie Mee
Monday, 22 June 2009

The Lunch Box in Phnom Penh offers an experience altogether beyond lettuce, tomato and meat on bread – gourmet meals amid unpretentious surroundings

Photo by: Stephanie Mee
Co-owners of The Lunch Box, Thoeun Soeun and Eliza Mealey.
SANDWICH orders in many of Phnom Penh's restaurants and cafes generally consist of the ubiquitous baguette or plain white bread with mandatory lettuce and tomato, and a choice of meat. In fact, most of the time it hardly matters where the sandwich is ordered, as the basic formula is the same across the board.

Bona fide foodies will rejoice, then, that Phnom Penh's newest lunch spot, The Lunch Box, has dared to deviate from the norm, offering many hard-to-come-by gourmet ingredients and home-cooked specials in a shady garden setting next to Wat Lanka.

"The idea was simple really," said Eliza Mealey, owner of the Lunch Box and a native of Brisbane, Australia. "I wanted to open a place where I could offer food that I really miss from home, things like creative deli-style sandwiches with a variety of fresh breads, vegetables, meats, cheeses and condiments to choose from, and unique specials - things that people might not necessarily find in many other eateries around the capital."

Diners at the Lunch Box can opt to construct their own sandwich using a myriad of ingredients from the brightly lit refrigerated display case or try one of the cafe's original concoctions from the menu board displayed above the cosy wooden bar.

Gourmet all the way
Gourmet sandwiches include the Vego-delight: roasted pumpkin and red pepper, goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, caramelized onions and basil, wrapped in fresh Lebanese flat bread; or the Antipasto Wrap: basil cream cheese, salami, mozzarella, olives, red pepper, artichokes and gherkins in a soft pita bread.

Fresh, inventive ingredients at the cafe include Turkish flat bread, olive and herb focaccia, lightly spiced pepper ham, homemade pesto chicken, roasted pumpkin spread, guacamole, tzatziki and marinated artichokes, to name a few.

Lunch specials change daily, and can range from a flaky ricotta and asparagus tart to a fresh Nicoise salad, bursting with veggies and tuna, to home-cooked lasagna.

The cafe also offers a full breakfast menu with a range of coffee selections, including espressos, lattes, and iced blends, as well as omelettes, croissants, fresh Cambodian fruits and muesli. The oddly popular Aussie favourite, Vegemite with gourmet toast, is also on offer.

"It was important for me to create a space that wasn't stuffy or pretentious," said Mealey.

"I want people to be able to come here and order a really nice breakfast or sandwich, relax, read the newspaper, or meet friends for a coffee and a chat."

The location of The Lunch Box is ideal for a casual breakfast or lunch given that it is centrally located on a quiet side street next to Wat Lanka, mercifully free from the jarring noise pollution that often plagues the city.

Lush tropical greenery creates shade and seclusion, and a large, flowering jasmine tree next to the gate scents the air in the cafe.

All of the fluffy pillows adorning the wooden and rattan chairs were made locally with materials purchased in Cambodia, and a few of the tables, chairs, and lamp shades were made by the cafe's Cambodian co-owner, Thoeun Soeun.
"I like to use the word ‘quirky' to describe this place," said Mealey.

"We like to joke and say it's a little bit of Brisbane and a little bit of Prey Veng (Thoeun Soeun's home province)."
The cafe is open from 7am to 4pm daily excluding Mondays, and offers dine-in service, as well as quick and easy take away.
Plans are afoot for delivery service in the near future.

To enjoy gourmet food in a tranquil setting, visit The Lunch Box at 14, Street 282 in Boeung Keng Kang I, or for more information call 012 893 784.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Kampot's Cave Temples

Kampot's cave temples make for a magical trip Print E-mail
Written by Stephanie Mee
Thursday, 18 June 2009
The Phnom Penh Post

Long believed to be magical sites, Kampot’s temples are safeguarded by pious elderly men and women, and scores of knowledgeable children

Photo by: Stephanie Mee
Loak Ta Neak Sohlor or 'Grandfather White Dragon'.
DEEP within the limestone karsts scattered across Cambodia's Kampot province lie networks of cave temples, some of which have been used for centuries as centres of Hindu and Buddhist worship. Long believed to be magical and spiritual sites, today the temples are safeguarded by pious elderly men and women, and scores of small children.

Just eight kilometres east of quiet Kampot town lies Phnom Chngouk, one of Kampot's oldest known cave temples.

The winding dirt road to the temple snakes past scenic views of the Cambodian countryside, lush with rice paddies, small farms and dramatic limestone formations, covered in dense vegetation.

Shortly before the muddy footpath to the base of Phnom Chngouk, packs of smiling schoolboys lie in wait, leaping at the chance to offer their services as tour guides to the cave in the hopes of bringing in extra income for their families, many of whom are local farmers.

Phnom Chngouk itself is a hulking limestone karst, which contains many hidden chambers, rocky outcrops and stalactites, formed by calcium carbonate deposits in water. The largest cave contains an ancient red brick Hindu temple resting under a massive rock formation resembling an eagle.

The temple was built in the 7th century, during the Funan period, and today is tended to by the elderly Loak Ta Neak Sohl, or "Grandfather White Dragon".

"I came to this area 12 years ago to devote myself to the Buddhist dharma and meditate," Loak Ta Neak Sohl said.

"At that time not many people knew about this temple; there were no steps up to the cavern, only forest and rocks. With my encouragement, the villagers pooled their money to build stone steps up to the temple."

The slight, wiry patriarch explained that many electronic devices such as cell phones and watches cease to work in the cave, and that even airplanes and helicopters never fly over the site, as it interferes with their controls.

Next to the main chamber is a passageway that leads to the interior of the cave. The path is slippery and dark, and littered with large boulders, a stalactite resembling the head of a cow, and a cool, subterranean pond filled with tiny black fish.

The journey through the cave and out to the rice fields below and behind the mountain is easily negotiated by the young boys who hop effortlessly through the obstacles with only a flashlight. But it is not an easy trip for first-time visitors.

"Tourists don't often explore this cavern, as they are too scared," said 16-year-old Sun Pet, who comes to the cave and offers his services as a tour guide whenever he has free time. "If people want to go, I take them through, but only if they are under 80 or 90 kilogrammes, as some of the passageways are too tight for larger visitors."

Photo by: Stephanie Mee
Cave Buddha shrine at Wat Kirisan.
White Elephant cave
Further down the road from Phnom Chngouk is Phnom Sorsia, or White Elephant Cave, a small hill that houses an impressive modern wat and a number of small underground chambers.

Local teenage boys point visitors towards the main cavern where a large rock formation in the shape of an ele-
phant glitters with mineral deposits in the low light.

Man-made steps hewn into the dank stone of the cave lead down to a crevasse, where sunlight pours in through an opening in the roof of the cave, and a thin ledge juts out, creating a precarious walkway over a chasm and out to the back side of the hill.

Arguably the most interesting of Kampot's unique cave temples is Wat Kirisan, located in Kampong Trach, 29 kilometres from Kep.

Twelve-year old Lu Tak is a fount of information when it comes to Wat Kirisan. Armed with a flashlight, he leads visitors down the temple steps and under the mountain into a channel carved out by a now-defunct river.

"During the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge used the soil in this cave for the rice paddies nearby because it was full of minerals," he said. "Later, Vietnamese soldiers hid in the caves, but the Khmer Rouge found them and killed them. Some Vietnamese officials returned to collect the bones, but many of their bones still remain in hidden recesses."

Ten metres on, the channel opens up into a wide clearing, a hidden garden open to the sky and surrounded by towering walls of limestone.

Around the perimeter of the rock walls are grottoes, carved by ancient streams, which contain multiple Buddhist and animist shrines. Some of the grottoes lead to vast underground caverns with lunar-like landscapes and echo with the eerie sound of water softly dripping into the underground pools.

Magical powers
"Years ago my auntie Diep was very sick and she had a dream that Loak Ta Ey Sey, the spirit of the forest, told her to come here and pray and she would get better. She obeyed and immediately got better, so now people come here to pray to the forest spirit for health, wealth and better life," Lu Tak said.

As for Lu Tak, he believes in the spirit's powers but rarely asks it for favours.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Ancient Houses of Battambang

June 16, 2009
By Stephanie Mee
The Phnom Penh Post

HISTORICAL architecture in Cambodia has often been epitomised by the grandiose stone monuments of Angkor, the glittering pagodas sprinkled generously throughout the country and the crumbling facades of French colonial structures.

While many of the traditional wooden Khmer residential dwellings have been demolished to make way for newer concrete models, remnants of Khmer household architecture have survived at Wat Kor Village in Battambang.

Located 2 kilometres south of Battambang city, the village boasts more than 20 traditional wooden homes, many of which date to the early 20th century and are still inhabited by descendants of the original builders.

In an attempt to preserve the historically and culturally significant structures, a number of villagers, with support from the municipal and provincial government of Battambang, have opened their homes to the public, offering guided tours of the grounds and interiors, as well as homestays with meals upon request.

Wat Kor village lies on the banks of the Sangke River, and is blanketed in fruit and palm trees, offering a cool breeze and shade on hot days.

But the placement of the village has more to do with the turbulent history of the region than a blissful location.

Previously under the jurisdiction of the Cambodian royalty, the city of Battambang was annexed by Thailand in the late 18th century following a series of invasions into northern Cambodia and was handed back in 1907 as a result of a French-Siamese treaty.

Yi Sarith, the owner of a house built during that period, is happy to talk about his family's history.
"My grandfather, Loak Ta Tab, worked for a royal governor named Loak Mchass during that time period," he said.

"When Battambang was handed back to Cambodia, Loak Mchass was exiled to Siam. My grandfather lost his title and position under the French rule, and so he decided to build here, away from the main roads and French soldiers, in a place where he could live simply and grow rice."

Loak Ta Tab decided to dismantle an old wooden house built in the kro choam style in 1890, and transport it 2 kilometres away from its original location to Wat Kor village.

In 1907, he added a much larger addition to the front of the kro choam house, in the khor sang style.
The difference between the sections of the house is stark.

The kro choam portion of the house sports dark wooden walls, small windows that open inwards and a low ceiling made of mud brick tiles.

In contrast, the khor sang section has immense windows that open outwards, cool clay wall panels and a high double ceiling, made of intricately patterned slats of hardwood. Fifteen massive wooden pillars hold up the entire structure.

Yi Sarith has retained many memories of his time growing up in the old house, particularly the night it almost burned down.
"I was very young, maybe 4 or 5. Thieves had come to our house one night and stole some things and smashed a beautiful old mirror in our rosewood armoire. A year later they came back, but my mother refused to open the door, so they grabbed a sarong of hers hanging outside, dipped it in oil and left it below one of the pillars to burn the house down. Luckily, my brother saw it and quickly doused the fire after they left," he said.

Shortly afterwards, Yi Sarith's family installed metal strips on the doors to prevent thieves from slashing through, which can still be seen today.

During the Pol Pot regime, the family was evicted from the house and forced to work in camps outside Battambang.
Upon their return in 1979, they found the house empty, but in good condition.

Yi Sarith, his sister Yi La Kheang, and numerous children and grandchildren now inhabit the house.

Down a shady lane away from Yi Sarith's house is the house of Bun Roeurng, built in the pet style in the 1920s.
The style is characterised by two sweeping verandas at the side and front of the house, Naga scale roofing tiles, woven bamboo and plaster walls, and a support of 36 large wooden pillars.

Originally built by an army commander and lawyer, Nou Pinet Phoeng, the house still contains some of its original furniture, as well as all the original hardwood and roof tiles, and is inhabited by the first owner's descendants.

"During the civil war, Khmer Rouge cadres took over the house and threshed rice here. They also used it as a communal place to eat and prepare food, so part of the back of the house is damaged," Bun Roeurng said.

"But other than that, it's completely intact, and with proper care I think it will remain in good condition for many more generations."

Villagers believe that the opening of their houses to visitors will facilitate the maintenance and preservation of their family histories and properties, as well as inform people of a unique time period in Cambodian history.

Although not all homes in Wat Kor village are open to the public, those that are are clearly marked with signs welcoming visitors in Khmer, English and French.

Entry is free, but donations are welcome as money generated by tourism goes towards preservation and maintenance of the buildings.

To visit a piece of history at Wat Kor Cultural Village, follow the Sangke River 2 kilometres south of central Battambang city.