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Classic Khmer houses reborn


  The detailed woodwork on the shutters is a feature of this house.Photo by: Peter Olszewski

Siem Reap
SIEM Reap’s renowned Aussie art historian and architectural expert Daryl Collins is a man on the move … he keeps moving “significant” old Khmer houses from their original locations to new sites in Siem Reap and restores them.

After originally moving into Phnom Penh’s iconic The Chinese House in the late 1990s, Collins, co-author with Helen Grant Ross of the 2006-published book Building Cambodia: New Khmer Architecture 1953-1970, then upped stakes and moved permanently to Siem Reap.

Then, together with his sidekick and colleague Khmer architect Hok Sokol, he decided to move an old Khmer house more than 300 kilometres to a site in Siem Reap.

To make the task just a tad more Herculean, the ornate house, originally built in 1915 by a wealthy Chinese-Khmer timber merchant, sat on a remote island in the middle of the Mekong River in Kampong Cham.

Collins had bought the house on the spot in 2006, paying US$6,400, and then had to organise about 50 tons of house to be disassembled, loaded onto ferries to be taken to the nearest town and then trucked all the way to Siem Reap, where it was painstakingly reassembled on a block of land that Collins had acquired for $60,000.

The process of resituating the house took 10 months, cost $94,000, and was completed in July 2007.

Collins now lives in the house which has been featured in articles throughout the world and is at times open for specialised tour groups.

But over the past two years he’s been at it again, moving two more houses to a new site in Siem Reap’s Sbean Cheav village where he is, in a sense, creating his own mini village of restored Khmer houses. The new site incorporates seven individual blocks and Collins’ two houses occupy two of those blocks.

He’s now hoping that like-minded people who are also passionate about saving and restoring traditional Khmer homes will buy old houses and move them onto the site.

In May 2009 he began moving the first of the two houses onto the new site.

This move was a little easier, because the house was nestled beside the Siem Reap River rather than on an island, and instead of having to be carted 300 kilometres, the old house in Aranh Sakor village only had to be moved two kilometres.

This house is also special because, further research withstanding, it could well be Siem Reap’s oldest domestic structure.

Back in 2009 Hok Sokol said: “It’s maybe just over 100 years old, and I think it’s the oldest house in Siem Reap.”

Collins says he bought the roughly 100-year-old house “basically to save it”.

The house is now nicely restored and sits proudly on Collins’ new site.

He says the special features of the house are the horizontal board slats.

“I won’t say weatherboard because that’s an English term. But these board slats are a little unusual for a Khmer house because normally the slats are much wider. The windows are also an obvious feature.

“A great deal of attention was paid to the windows of the house. There’s a whole series of them around the house and they are very beautiful.”

The second house on the site, a “pre-1907” dwelling possibly dated to 1905,   came from Kralanh, a small town north of Siem Reap roughly halfway between Siem Reap and Sisophon.

This house sat beside a river and was also a challenge to move. “We had to do a river crossing,” says Collins. “But it wasn’t as spectacular as the first house I moved from the island.

“Access to this house was roundabout because there was no main road to the house. To get to the house we had to cross a suspension bridge just south of the town and then walk about a kilometre.
“Luckily the truck was able to find a back route, but it was a long way around.”

Both houses on the new site were originally built for Cambodian administrative officials during a time of Thai governorship of north-western provinces including Siem Reap.

The second house is also architecturally significant, according to Collins.

“There are not many houses of this style remaining,” he says, “Sokol and I know of perhaps two in Battambang, also built for administrators during the Thai governorship.

“This house is special, again, for the windows,” he says, explaining that because of the width of the windows the shutters had to be in three panels, instead of the standard two panels.

“The carpenter ingeniously solved this by hinging one of the two panels to put in an extra plate. So the shutters both swing open on a hinge, then slide on a wooden track. This is really unique – not even in the Battambang houses have I seen this.”

Collins says he is now inviting other people to find old traditional houses and move them to the remaining plots on the site to help preserve the rapidly vanishing quality wooden domestic heritage of Cambodia.

“It’s a pet heritage issue for me,” he says. “Because I think wood and its qualities is a very deep rooted material in Cambodian consciousness.

“At the height of the Angkorian empire Siem Reap had a huge resident population, and they lived in wooden buildings, while the kings had wooden pavilions. You can see the evidence of this in the bas reliefs at Angkor.

“And before stone was wood. In fact, at the stone temples there are features carved in the stone which would have developed from wood.

“There was a transition when the stone masons were actually copying wood carvings for temple structures.”

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