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
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,"
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
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
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.