In 2003, when Channa Chhum was an art student at Phare Ponleu Selpak in Battambang, he went to Prek Toal – a remote floating village on the Tonle Sap – to work on a painting project about Cambodia’s wildlife. But the stilted wooden houses, and not the area’s renowned birdlife, caught his eye.
“I found them exceptionally beautiful,” the 31-year-old painter and Battambang native said. “The hand-built houses on the water, combined with the wildlife and trees around them, create a spectacular view.”
What especially captivates him is the shifting reflection of the houses and their surroundings on “the natural mirror” of the lake.
He also found “a great sense of relaxation” in the life of people living in the stilt houses because of their connection with natural surroundings – on the water and in the wetlands that extend for miles around Prek Toal.
In 2008, Chhum wanted to display paintings of floating and stilt houses for his first solo exhibition at Reyum Institute of Arts and Culture, but he decided to put it on hold because of time constraints, instead turning to more accessible Khmer traditional wooden housing structures instead.
Over the next nine years, work at his painting shop got in the way of finishing the project, but the idea stuck in his mind.
When his friend Serey Siv, a freelance documentary and street photographer, asked Chhum to come with him to Kampong Phluk, a village in Siem Reap province built on stilts on the Tonle Sap, he realised the time had come.
Over nine months, Chhum painted nine paintings, which are hyper-realist depictions of the area’s homes and their residents. They are now on display at The Little Red Fox Espresso in Siem Reap and will be for the next month.
“I hope more people will visit the community after seeing my paintings,” he said. “More tourists means more income to those who live at Kampong Phluk, and that’s the least I can do for them as an artist.”
Channa Chhum’s The Stilted Houses of Kampong Phluk exhibition is on display at The Little Red Fox Espresso on Hap Guan Street in Siem Reap. It is open to the public for free until January 17.