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.