Diminutive 67-year-old Yi Layieng steps behind the enormous hardwood cabinet that stands commandingly in the living room of her century-old Battambang house and moves through to what was once the servants’ quarters.
The timber ceiling at ‘Khor Sang’. Photograph: Ruth Keber
Inside the first room of the plaster-walled pét house in Wat Kor, Battambang. Photograph: Ruth Keber
Photograph: Ruth Keber
Boran House: once a family home on the road to Ek Phnom, now a restaurant. Photograph: Ruth Keber
Nou Phum, the third generation-owner of one of Wat Kor’s stately wooden houses. Photograph: Ruth Keber
Generations of dust have settled over some of the objects – an old locked chest, a wooden tobacco slicer, a Smith Corona typewriter, a gilded mirror from France– but she brings our attention to the door that we have just walked through. Bolstered with a lattice of metal strips, her grandfather, who worked in the French colonial administration, had it reinforced to protect against axe-wielding thieves.
Called ‘Khor Sang’, Layieng’s 1907 house was completed the same year Thailand handed Battambang back to Cambodia and was built from the timber of the previous family home. Six years ago the Ministry of Tourism chose Khor Sar and another nearby house in Battambang’s Wat Kor village, to throw open their doors as heritage tourist attractions.
Although they have an ancient precedent in Cambodia, no wooden houses older than the 1880s survive in the Kingdom, according to Wooden Architecture of Cambodia: A Disappearing Heritage, a 2006 book and inventory of the country’s most outstanding traditional wood dwellings.
Among the surviving examples, Battambang and Kampong Cham and Kratie were identified as having still intact, complex houses – but they are not always easy to spot as the open houses of Wat Kor.
Every morning, along with her 72-year-old neighbor Mrs Nou Phum, whose grand stilt Pet - named for the hipped roof - house stands several hundred metres down the road, the women prepare to greet visitors to their historic family homes – households which saw all but a few members perish under Pol Pot.
Phum, who often watches tourists arrive from the verandah that runs in a wide L-shape around the house, smiles sweetly as the busload of French-speakers makes their way up the stone steps of the house.
“Bonjour,” she says before leading the group through the dark slated doors and into the quiet and polished living area of the house. The wide, luxurious floorboards are a dark shiny Cambodian wood, called Khvav, and the huge mirror that sits in front of the entrance to the back quarters, like ‘Khor Sang’, offers a measure of privacy between the guest space and her sleeping quarters.
“I tried my best to come back as soon as possible (to the house) when the war was finished,” Phum says, “I knew if I arrived late, somebody would take over… (however) it was quite easy for me and no one cared - everybody around here knew this house belonged to me, for three generations.”
Phum, a former teacher, uses the house’s antique agricultural tools and parlour objects, rather than her own memories, to tell her visitors about its forgotten way of life.
“I remember, but it’s hard to talk about all these memories and all these people that have gone, I don’t feel I can say it. My four children, my sister, my aunty, uncle and parents were killed… It’s difficult to talk about it.”
The 1920 triangular-roofed house is airy and faintly gloomy with the shuttered windows closed. Like its neighbour, the walls of the main living room and smaller back rooms don’t meet the ceiling, allowing air to circulate around the house. In ‘Khor Sang’, the roof is made up of two sections, a style called rong doeun, to which extensions could be added. A deceptively modern-looking lattice of timber slats creates a ceiling between the rooms and the pagoda-like roof, providing cooling insulation.
To Phnom Penh architect Yam Sokly, current classifications of traditional Khmer houses– which he prefers to call simply ‘tropical wood houses’, to emphasis their broad Southeast Asian heritage – should be improved. Houses are classified by their roof structure, of which there are five types – but they can change when other sections are added on. To this end, he is slowly compiling his own study of wooden houses, a slow process, but one he hopes will result in more sophisticated terminology.
Around 20 early to mid 20th century traditional wood houses are estimated to be in the Wat Kor area, but there are many more around the township of Battambang itself, in varying states of disrepair.
At 111 years old, the family house of Ching Yang Nhan, 58, looks grey and weathered, almost hidden behind worn tarpaulin, on the road to Ek Phnom. Answering from behind large modern gates, the owner at once begins to talk about the faded wooden house – as though she was just waiting for someone to ask.
The house was built by Nhan’s grandfather, a rice merchant, she explains. Worn carvings decorate the door frames and low windows meant one could sit on the floor and still be able to see out to the yard. At night, after dinner, the family would retreat to the verandah that overlooks the Sangke River, and have discussions.
When the Khmer Rouge fell and both her parents had died, Nhan came back to reclaim the house – although the old building is hard to maintain, it’s still a source of pride, she says.
The houses could explain the lives of the people who lived in them as well as she would, Sokly says: “why do they have this or that? It’s about security, innovation… The house is a real-life museum. Through it, you can explain the whole of society.”
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