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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Mud houses give shelter to Svay Rieng's poor

Mud houses give shelter to Svay Rieng's poor

Villager Pov Kong adds a finishing touch to his mud-walled house.

Banteay Kraing, Svay Rieng: In 1936, Pailin's heart of love was revealed when Cambodian

writer Nhok Them published his novel The Rose of Pailin that tells the story of two

lovers: Chao Cheth and Khun Neary.

In the then gem-rich town on the Thai border, an impoverished young man, Chao Cheth,

was lucky enough to marry Khun Neary, the daughter of a millionaire, despite the

fact that they were from different social classes.

Five hundred kilometers away on the Vietnamese border, the residents of Banteay Kraing

village say Chao Cheth would not have been so lucky had he been born here. His advances

might well have been rejected had he lived in a mud house and wanted to marry a girl

from a large wooden house with a tiled roof.

Chao Cheth would not be the only person living in a mud house in the area. The villagers

say more than half of the 600 families in Banteay Kraing commune have built their

houses from that material. Not that mud is their first choice when it comes to building

materials, explains 26-year-old villager Pov Theary.

Theary says the reason people build their houses from mud is because they cannot

afford to buy wood, which has become increasingly expensive. Theary and her 24-year-old

husband, Pov Kong, have just completed their house, a structure of five-by-four meters

that stands on nine wooden columns, a meter off the ground.

Although they collected the mud from behind their house, Theary spent around one

million riel (about 250 dollars) six years ago just to buy the columns, bamboo floor

and wall frame, and the iron-sheet roof. Today, she says, she would have to pay twice

that.

Construction materials aside, the villagers usually build their houses by themselves

with help from local carpenters who ask for not much more than their daily meals.

Pov Kong says the four people he hired, who worked as both carpenters and masons,

took only two weeks to build their house using simple, traditional methods.

The first stage involves putting up the structure of the house, preparing the bamboo

floor and nailing up bamboo bars for wall supports. After that, the messy work of

building the mud walls begins.

The villagers simply dig up the sticky mud around the house, sprinkle it with hay

in a shallow pit, then trample the materials together until the mud and the hay mix.

A buffalo helps to speed up that process.

"You can also mix the mud with cow or buffalo dung to turn the color gray,"

explains Kong, his feet bogged down in the mud. "The dung works like cement

to prevent cracks."

Theary and Kongís mud-walled house, five-by-four-meters on wooden columns a meter off the ground, should last for ten years. Forty percent of Svay Riengís people live in mud houses.

If the job is done properly, the walls should last ten years. Kong advises would

be mud house builders to wait five days for the walls to dry completely before moving

in. By then, the smell of the cow dung is gone, "[otherwise] you have to cover

your nose when you sleep".

From a distance, the gray mud walls convey a different impression to strangers. The

villagers tell the story of some UNTAC personnel who came here in 1993 and thought

the mud houses were built with cement.

"They said Khmer people are poor, but they all live in concrete houses,"

Kong jokes of those foreigners on their first viewing.

And while people in other provinces tend to live in huts of thatch or straw, the

needy folks in Svay Rieng say the benefits of mud are numerous.

"Straw houses can catch fire easily," says Kong, "and if there is

a strong wind, they can be blown away."

Not that mud houses are entirely safe: locals tell of a poorly built hut that collapsed,

injuring a 12-year-old boy who was trapped inside. To avoid such dangers and improve

their social standing with the wealthier villagers, Theary and her husband plan to

improve their home one day.

"If I have money in the future, I will remove the mud walls and replace them

with wooden planks," says Theary.

But that could take years - across the country, wood is getting scarcer and costing

more. Theary says it would cost 600 dollars to replace the mud walls with wood, an

astronomical amount after two successive years of floods and drought which destroyed

their crops and interrupted their farming.

The villagers say the government is partly to blame for the floods, drought, and

the wood shortage - it cut and exported much of the area's timber, which made it

too expensive. They want the government to lower the price to allow those who live

in mud houses to build wooden structures instead.

But a forestry official in the province cites a different reason for both the wood

shortage and the decision to use mud. Chan Tak, who heads Svay Rieng's forestry office,

says 40 percent of the province's population of 500,000 live in mud houses. Tak attributes

the scarceness of forests in the province as one of the main factors behind the inability

to find local, cheap wood.

Among Svay Rieng's seven districts, he said, only Romeas Hek still has 200,000 hectares

of forests. That is around half the size in the 1970s.

"For 100 years people [in other districts] have been born without seeing forest,"

he explains.

Tak says the forests in Romeas Hek were cut during the Khmer Rouge period to build

collective dining halls. After 1979, local farmers used slash-and-burn methods to

clear land for farming.

And people in some districts, particularly Svay Chrom, cannot even find wood for

cooking, let alone for building. Instead they burn dried cow dung to prepare their

food.

The forestry chief says another reason for the prevalence of mud houses stems from

the 1960s and 1970s. American bombing during the Vietnam War spilled over into Cambodia,

and in the subsequent civil war most wooden houses in border villages were burned

down. That was a mistake, he says, the villagers don't want to repeat.

Villagers dig up mud around the house and trample hay into it. A little buffalo dung works like cement and prevents cracks.

"If they build mud houses, they won't feel [much] regret if they have to run

away again," he says, pointing to Chantrea district on the border where almost

90 percent of the houses are built from mud.

What is clear is that mud houses are not something new in Svay Rieng. Seventy-seven-year-old

Chin Suon from Banteay Kraing village recalls mud houses as being among his earliest

memories.

Suon says the first mud houses were built on the ground and called 'Ptaeh Tiem'.

After that people used mud to build 'Ptaeh Rong Daol', a house with pillars to raise

it off the ground. Then, he says, came 'Ptaeh Pet' with a longer roof-end, before

they built another similar type of house called 'Ptaeh Kantaing'.

The village elder says that although people built their houses from mud, they would

still organize religious ceremonies and invite the monks to bless them, much like

those living in wooden and brick houses. But there is a social difference.

"It's a division between the rich and the poor," said Suon's 72-year-old

neighbor, Neth Heang.

And while many Phnom Penh residents still distinguish between city and country folks,

the villagers in Svay Rieng say discrimination exists here between those who live

in mud houses and those who stay in tiled-roof, wooden houses, especially when it

comes to love affairs.

"If the son and daughter of a rich and a poor family love each other, their

parents won't let them marry," says 56-year-old Kim Uon as she gazes at a tall,

wooden house across the street in Kampong Ro's Russei Leap commune. The young lovers

of Svay Rieng clearly have some way to go before they can emulate the literary bliss

of Chao Cheth and Khun Neary.

Moeun Chhean Nariddh is a former Post journalist who now works as a journalism instructor

for the Cambodia Communications Institute.

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