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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Keeping rural history alive

Keeping rural history alive

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081215_04.jpg

A program in Battambang is focusing on antique wooden homes and hopes to keep the city's traditional Cambodian architecture intact as the city changes

Photo by: Eleanor Ainge Roy

Bun Roeung outside her traditional wooden house in Battambang.

WANT TO VISIT?

The traditional house is located in Wat Kor village, Wat Kor commune on the road next to the Sangke River. It is a 10-minute moto drive from the centre of Battambang and is located by Wat Kor. Entry is free, but donations are welcome.

Battambang
IN a quiet lane by the Sangke River in Battambang town, little has changed in 80 years, and the place remains an enclave for middle-class families. Pursat orange sellers line the edge of the road hawking their coveted wares, and wives carry lunches to their husbands, busy hauling heavy catches from the fertile river.

Nearing the shady end of the lane, by a grand Buddhist temple, 69-year-old Bun Roeung lives in the same house in which she was born.

The structure, a fine example of traditional Khmer architecture, was catagorised as an "antique house" in 2005 by provincial authorities under a listing scheme that officials hope will both preserve these architectural gems and bring tourists to the area to see them.

Battambang district Governor Uy Ry said the European Union-backed program has been extended to three communes,  encompassing not only antique architecture but other aspects of traditional country life as well.

"We want to conserve the oldest houses to attract tourists. We want to turn these into cultural sites," he told the Post.

Built in 1920, the grounds of Bun Roeung's house are surrounded by mature fruit trees that hang low with fat oranges, pawpaw and jackfruit, their leaves littering the stone staircase leading up to the traditional living quarters of the once vibrant family home.  

But the rooms these days are empty, and the house's only remaining inhabitant sleeps beneath the floorboards on a rotting hammock, waiting for tourists to come and see the frozen splendour of the home.

My first memory of this house is my Mother singing songs to me.

"My first memory of this house is my mother singing songs to me and my sisters in our hammocks to put us to sleep," Bun Roeung said.
"Her voice was sweet and she used to sing so softly. So my first memory is of a feeling of a great peace within the walls of this house."

Bun Roeung's grandfather, Nou Pinet Phoeng, was an affluent army commander and later a lawyer, and his wife Yin had the house built in 1920 during the reign of King Sisovath, in the classical Pet style, meaning a house had verandas.   

Bun Roeung's parents, who inherited the house, were also wealthy and socialised frequently with the French officials working in the area.

Her father, a prominent lawyer and later a university professor, hosted weekly parties at their home, with champagne, well-dressed guests and rich French food.

However, in 1975 everything changed. Bun Roeung's father was killed by the Khmer Rouge, as were 30 other members of her family, including her mother and most of her siblings. Bun Roeung was evacuated to the north of Cambodia and stayed with peasant relatives with whom she toiled in the fields.

In her absence, the house was taken over by the Khmer Rouge and used as a storage facility and barracks for soldiers.

When Bun Roeung returned home in 1979, 80 percent of the house was destroyed.

"The kitchen was gone and everything was broken, missing or sold. There were rats everywhere, but still it was my home - my only home because I had no where else to go, no friends or family left."

Bun Roeung survived by selling fruits and vegetables at the market, as she began the slow process of rebuilding her life.

She now lives alone, and  supports herself from a donations box to which tourists sometimes contribute.

"Those first years were very lonely. ... I had nothing left of my family but the house where we used to live and the memories of the wonderful times we had here together. I was born here and I have decided I will stay until I die."

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