Volume 2 No.7

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Houses Of Old
By: Suy Se. Picture Courtesy of Ministry of Culture . Illustration by : Sao Pagnarith ( July, 2002 Volume 2 No.7 )

The ancient Khmer houses, to the untrained eye, are similar to those found in contemporary Cambodia. Traditionally they are aligned to face the East for prosperity and as a mark of respect for the sun. They were also elevated about two and a half meters above the ground, supported on stilts. The access to the house is normally via a wooden ladder. The roofing was made of similar materials: thatched leaves or straw. The shady space underneath is used for storage and for people to relax at midday.
It is only upon closer examination that it is revealed that there are actually five distinct forms of housing, which have existed since Angkorian times. These five are known as: Khmer houses, Roong houses (today called Kantaing houses), Roong Daul houses, Roong Duong houses and Bet houses. An entirely separate style of housing is used to accommodate the monks; these are referred to as Keng houses.

Architectural Styles

The Khmer House

The Khmer house style begins with the erection of four lines of pillars and crossbeams. Crucial to the structure is the king post, used to build the roof, there is a high and steeply sloped roof and a big lower gable. The high roof was meant to add to the beauty of the house: resembling the roof of a temple from a distance. There are two floors, the lower floor for receptions and the upper floor for living. They usually build this kind of house small and short, approximately four by six meters.
The Roong house, or Kantaing house, is built without front or back porch, some people build them long, ten by six meters, with three main columns supporting ridgepoles However, some people build short ones, six by four meters, with two center columns. A Kantaing house was built with short and a gently sloping roof to make the building easier. At the turn of the century it was mostly housing used by Chinese and Vietnamese, however, it became increasingly more popular amongst Cambodians. If they cut obliquely at the front and the back of the main roof carving it into the shape of an animal's mouth then it is called a "Baknok Kantaing house". Usually this type of dwelling is about ten by six meters.

The Roong House or kantaing House

The Roong house, or Kantaing house, is built without front or back porch, some people build them long, ten by six meters, with three main columns supporting ridgepoles However, some people build short ones, six by four meters, with two center columns.
A Kantaing house was built with short and a gently sloping roof to make the building easier. At the turn of the century it was mostly housing used by Chinese and Vietnamese, however, it became increasingly more popular amongst Cambodians. If they cut obliquely at the front and the back of the main roof carving it into the shape of an animal's mouth then it is called a "Baknok Kantaing house". Usually this type of dwelling is about ten by six meters.

Roong Daul House

Roong Daul houses are built it into a long shape with shoulders for carrying the weight of the house: joining the roof-rafters. There is a small gable at the intersection of porches and there are both front and back porches. Some people build this one with three center pillars, which means they come with four compartments and if there are four center pillars there are five compartments.

Roong Duong House

Roong Duong housing, they build with a large roof and there are both the end piece of the roof at the front and the back
There are three styles of Roong Duong house: the first gets its name from the alteration to accommodate a large foot powered rice mortar called a Kduoung mortar. The overhang at the back of these houses provides such a place. The second style of Roong Duong house was developed for storage and an additional line of pillars was included in the original design. Hence, this kind of Roong Duong house has three lines of pillars with five compartments. The third kind of Roong House was especially for high ranking or wealthy subjects. This was a further extension and made a much longer and larger dwelling. This was achieved by four lines of pillars, which formed five compartments.

Bet House

Bet houses, were built without shoulders to join the main rafters of the porch and the roof, both feet of the rafters of the porch and the roof are joined at the top of the main rafter of the roof near the top of the center pillars.

Keng House

Keng house, they build with two classes of roof and a lower part. They enveloped the top floor and the lower floor surrounding them by a handrail. But this Keng house laymen rare build, usually, built in the compound of pagoda for Royal monk called "Keng of monk house."

Building ceremony

To begin they must fill in the land where they plan to build the house. After flattening the surrounding area, they will erect a warehouse structure to ensure they have all the suitable materials to build the actual house. As with all occasions an auspicious date must be chosen according to astrological observations. Most ancient Cambodians would build houses between January and March. There are certain days that they can start building, these are: Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
In the past they didn't start on Sunday and Monday because of the word of custom says: " Sunday and Monday are the days of marrying wood", if they insist on building on these days then they have to be very careful in case it falls down. Although Tuesday is considered a lucky day, if a building were to be commenced on this day it would never be finished. Thus Tuesdays were also avoided as starting days. Before starting to build, they usually put a pair of Sator (an offering made from coconut, candles and incense) and they light the candles and incense sticks to pray to the god called "Prah Phoum" (the god of the village). They ask permission to build and show the spirit where the house will be built. After that, they place wooden sticks to be markers called "Khneng Phoum". When they dig the hole for the pillars they are very careful with rubbish falling into them. They believed that if the rubbish falls in the hole the house, when completed, would receive a multitude of guests. On the actual day of building they take a piece of red cloth to tie at the top of center pillars. They also prepare black sugarcane, which still has both white root and leaves on it. This is the tied higher than the center pole. After that, they prepare a ceremony called "Pithy Sen", in the ceremony there is a boiling of pig head, a pair of chicken, two cups of tea or some wine, four fruits, one riel of money, a white piece of cloth for a shirt, a bowl of perfume and a suitcase of construction ware. The clergy recites prayers and sprays the water to the top of those center pillars, and next the chief of the contractor prays to the Prah Pisnoukar while the clergy hit three times of Khmous (a kind of metal used to be hit when there is a ceremony or wedding) all contractors gather to pull up the center pillars very quickly. Although nowadays the ritual and symbolism may be loosing its role, the end result is still a functional and ever practical solution to housing. It is for these reasons: of being both practical and affordable that the Khmer house has endured through the centuries and will no doubt continue to do so. It would be easy to overlook the cultural and social history involved in the ancient Khmer houses.

Factors to be avoided in construction of a house

- A levee in a rice field goes straight to the front of the house
- A Tamarind tree grows on the left side of the house and a well on the West
- All kinds of roots growing into the ground house because it will cause the house owners to be scared
- Building escorting cook house (have to build parallel to deep of main house)
- The main roof running parallel to the road
- The top of the pillars is bigger than the foot of the pillars
- Building in front of temple because it stays in front of Gods eyes it would cause difficulties when he opens his eyes in the morning.

The choosing of pillars

Khmers, with their strongly developed superstitions, are cautious about the kind of pillars used in the construction of a house. Thus, the contractor needs to select pillars and timbers carefully. If any wood has the symbols that they cannot use them to build the house they have to replace them. The symbols are as follows:
- Paim Sambak Wood: the wood has bark inside. This is because when the tree was young it was chopped. When the tree matured the wood covered that place and lead to having the bark on the inside. The ancient Khmers didn't allow it’s use; it would cause danger to people who live in such a house.
- Konlong Wood: the wood that has a bad inner heart. They can see through a lot of three point of articulations around the tree. Ancient elders didn't allow using as center pillar because it will cause chronic disease.
- The tree that has the whole inside, but if it has the whole from the foot to the top it is allowed to use it. Such a tree is called " Banghot Tnaol."
- The wood that has been used as a scratching post by pigs is considered bad luck.
- The wood that has the symbol of chicken foot at the foot of tree is also inappropriate.
- The pillars must not to have sub joint of articulation under the crossbars, bolts and bars.
- The contractors cannot carve at the middle of the pillars to put crossbars, bars and bolts.