Meet The Man Who’s Life Passion Is Wooden Houses

Asking around about the topic of the Khmer wooden house, one sooner or later arrives at two unusually prominent figures. One is a Mr. Collins, an Australian art historian, and the other is Mr. Hok Sokol. Mr. Collins, as well know to the Khmer culture community, wrote splendidly on the subject of Khmer architecture and had made quite a name of himself by the Odyssean act of moving ancient Khmer houses from their previous surroundings of neglect and decay to his much cared for gardens of preservation in Siem Reap town. And Mr. Hok is the man at frontline who assisted him on both research and moving. 

Two ancient houses in the gardens:

Kralanh House, first built in 1900 by a merchant of Chinese origin.

Cambodia traditional house
Aranh House, built in 1910.

The writer paid a visit to Mr. Hok and had a small chat on wooden houses.

A shorthand noting the chat:

1. Reason of the Khmer wooden house traditionally built hanging in the middle of the air.

Majorly to avoid flooding as the Cambodian population has historically been located along the great rivers and lakes over 5 months out of a year flooding was nature’s chief challenge posed to the people. (Writer’s note: insects and undesired appearance of raptors were another reason; also, a lifted house enjoyed better ventilation and breeze.)

2. Lifespan of a wooden house.

Quite durable. With carefully selected wood and correct maintenance it easily stands in good shape for 100+ years.

3. Building fully with timber sustainable in face of rapid deforestation?

Commercial scale planting and farming of timber wood started years ago, hopeful to harvest in ten to twenty years from now, meanwhile a shortage of qualified timber is indeed increasingly becoming the problem as hardwood typically grows thirty to forty years before usable. (Writer’s note: traditionally royal and buddhist buildings made of fine Hopea odorata timber, which is in high demand but little supply today; civilian housing used Sindora siamensis, Dipterocarpus obtusifolius and Xylia dolabriformis which are in less stressed supply at cheaper cost today but still facing uncertain future.) 

The revered Hopea odorata, called ta-khian in Thai, by the Thai people. (picture source: public domain on internet)

Mr. Hok’s living room doors and flooring of precious timber:

4. How does a Khmer wooden house compare to the modern concrete brick villa?

Not quite favoured by the young, but certainly favoured by the older generation who hold a nostalgically loving view to the wooden house. Wooden houses must make way for modern development of high-rises in town, yet at proper location with properly selected wood a traditional house can be loved and enjoyed living by many. Mr. Hok has buit over 20 traditional houses in last 20 years for the people of a quaint taste who to this day still live in and love their traditional home dearly.

Mr. Hok’s recent work of a luxurious wooden villa commissioned by a wealthy local family as holiday home

5. Functionally does a Khmer wooden house beat a modern one? How about coping with heat?

A Khmer house is certainly comfortable to live in provided in “natural circumstances” (writer’s note: no air-cons involved?) being better ventilated, better insulated if timber properly treated, hence being the choice of the Khmer’s thousand-year old wisdom.

6. Structurally, how is it constructed and jointed?

By the ancient art of mortise and tenon, in recent a hundred years aided by the hand-forged steel nails when necessary. This method of structure makes the house strong when standing and easily dismembered and reassembled when required to be relocated. Mr. Hok over the years has moved houses through different terrains, sometimes across provinces by hundreds of kilo meters, which has been a wonder to a foreign eye.

7. How to move a traditional house?

Sometimes on the shoulders of a dozen stout men, sometimes on the wheels of a tractor, other times when required to go far or cross water dismembered and reassembled.

The different ways of moving a Khmer house:

Picture source: both from contents of the book Khmer Renaissance