How to Build A Khmer Wooden House During The COVID-19

For all expatriates who live in Cambodia, 2020 has not been a pleasant year. Stories about people not getting paid and selling items from their already minimalistic households to stick on, or about them going to films at The Flicks without taking a beer or popcorns as the $4 ticket fare accounted for half the amount left with their ABA saving account, have made me shed tears. However, as a member of the Chinese society I have seen worse. To have nothing is far from worrying as I remember how my mathematics teacher put it at the ecole secondaire, as the French would call it, when he introduced to the class the concept of Negative Numbers:

Teacher: imagine your sister has two apples, let’s put the number 2 here.

Class: right.

Teacher: imagine your brother has no apples at all.

Class: poor him.

Teacher: let’s put a zero here, as for you, imagine not only do you have no apples but you owe 2 apples to your sister.

Class: oh,,,,

Ever since then, we the Chinese have discovered the great art of owing. Investing using borrowed money had been the favourite activity in the business circles and, most prominent of them all, those in Sihanoukville. When the Chinese Interpol chartered airplanes in late 2019 to ship lots of them back home, the Cambodia bubble nearly bursted for China. The survivors refrained for a few days from visiting their decadent KTVs and casinos, asked their loansharks to make allowances for delayed payments, were determined to make Sihanoukville great again, of course that was until the COVID came. It came, all went quiet, except for the news you and I read on the papers of kidnapping and ransoms. I suppose, the loansharks were pressing quite hard.

Meanwhile in Phnom Penh, we, the respectable Chinese business society, are rather undisconcerted. Speaking of respectability, you will allow me to break in to put forward a few lines in case you are to do business with members of the great ancient civilisation of the orient. The Chinese have one notion called 安土重迁 in our blood, literally it means “stick to your soil, relocate not”. That explains why in the olden days the most severe crime sentence, only next to death, was exile (流放). Some stout practitioners such as my parents would go so far as to not even travel for tourism’s sake, hence they have never seen the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, nor do they care. Nowhere compares to their remote cosy country house. My father nearly disowned me when I told him I was to stay in Cambodia.

That being well understood, it shall be believable if I told you one fact that the best of Chinese stayed within China, the next best moved to “popular” lands such as Australia, the USA and Canada, the 3rd tier relocated to not-so-popular venues amongst which are Cambodia, Philipines, Malaysia and the whole African continent. And out of the portion arrived in Cambodia, the unwanted ones went to Sihanoukville. That should be the context when I said “in Phnom Penh, we, the respectable Chinese business society”, by which I should really mean the comparatively respectable Chinese society of Phnom Penh, in the sense of relativity rather than absolute. 

We, the comparatively respectable Chinese business society in Phnom Penh are not disconcerted. Life went on, while people looked more distressed everyday. One day on TV I heard a man saying something rather sensibly against COVID and President Trump, he said “look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others” or some line along such bearing. I thought, right, I shall share some of my neighbours’ distress and make them happy, to realise which I found the direct way was to buy some items from their already minimalistic households. In my case, someone’s household was too minimalistic that she wanted to sell me her house all together.

It’s old but beautiful

The old Cambodian lady showed me the premises: give me your money, take it away. I loved Khmer wooden houses, in fact I went to interview specialists not long before. So I gave her my money, but found a problem that I couldn’t take it away as I realised a fact that the old lady had a house because she had a piece of land to host the house whereas I did not have a piece of land on which the house must perch. I spoke with friends about my distress and they got me a piece of land on an island in the middle of the Mekong about the suburbs of Phnom Penh.

Beautiful land too

Everybody seemed happy. I invited some Cambodian friends to dismantle the house and relocate it to my island site.

Before long I found another problem that in the grand and gracious backdrop of my land site, the little Khmer house looked quite sorry and suspiciously wretched, like a malnourished monkey wearing a pair of finely polished human shoes. I thought I might buy one more and assemble the two into a grand wooden house to live up to the standards of my land. Once this idea popped up, things went quite out of control. I suppose you have had the experience of going to the shopping mall. You meant to visit the mall to buy two small batteries for your TV remote so that you could watch how President Trump and Vice President Biden were to fight like school boys. Then you tarried too long in the mall and by the time you came out, before you could tell which was which you went home with a hi-tech giant robot lawn mower, and worse further, you forgot the batteries. This being the situation I found myself in when I bought another Khmer house, thereafter, I started receiving phone calls from friendly unknown numbers through which people told me they would like to sell their houses to me too. How could I refuse? In the end I had four.

Sky was blue, lovely day to dismantle a house

Men are pompous in nature. I found that, when you had four houses on hand, you grew over confident in viewing a matter in all perspectives. The strictly traditional Khmer house seemed not entirely competent to me now as I noticed that the style was developed in the age of no-bathroom, water and sink were not compatible to the wooden upper floor where most living activities took place. As a man who loves the shower, I went to my island village to observe how my neighbour villagers coped with it. It was revealed that  the ladies and gentlemen came down to the ground with themselves wrapped in a giant piece of scarf under the veil of which they simply showered in open daylight. The art was to make sure every part of the body was showered while the scarf kept dry. Seeing the operation required high levels of delicate handling, I decided I must not venture that way. Accompanying the wood structure there must be a concrete bathroom. And since the concrete bathroom would have appeared too slim and lonely I thought the lower half of the house structure should be concrete too. Finally there came the design.

A hidden study was added to the lower floor to take advantage of the cool climate there

Then construction started. My village fellows all showed up to witness the most exciting event of the season. Everyone made it their obligation to offer me advices on how the house should be like. Some suggested, as my land shape was narrow and long (over 100 metres long), I should move the house close to the road as any sensible Cambodian fellow would to open opportunities to business instead of hiding in the depth of the jungle; some assured that it would be a good idea if, therefore, I opened a shop selling popsicles; another objected that popsicles required a freezer which consumed much electricity, better a shop selling chicken and rice, only to be vetoed by yet another fellow that chicken and rice was too complicated, given that my water pressure was vigorous the perfect business was car wash. 

And then someone pointed out that there were not more than 20 cars on the island, suppose each one came to wash once a month, I would have 0.7 car per day, bad business. In the end, I failed to take their kindly advices and kept my house in the middle of the jungle.

First I built a gate

Before launching the foundation work, Uncle Construction performed the poorly equipped ritual of incense sticks, I suppose, praying to whichever relevant gods that helped. 

He also amazingly within half a day established temporary houses as the team’s dormant shelter at night and meeting room during day time.

Sometimes as handcraft workshop too
Internationally versatile technics of bearing foundation work
Ladies joined too
Septic system was straightforward 
Some working, others looked on
Ground floor
1st floor cantilevers

Since old lady sold me the first house in June, it’s been four months, and for four months this has been the only interesting thing for me and for many others in the bleak days of COVID. 

Each day, going on the ferry against the morning sun,

And coming back in sunset, now and then I ran into fellow passengers and they would say hello to me: so, you are the Chinese guy who builds a house in the jungle? Really no chick and rice shop?

Please click here for the 2021 update: complete project photos

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