The traditional houses in Cambodia take inspiration from the historic Angkor empire, religion, and common sense. While most people think they are built on stilts because of a fear of flooding, that is not the case. It’s construction pulls from influences much deeper than that.
Recently I had the chance to visit Siem Reap Cambodia to explore the amazing temples of Angkor. You can do this by yourself and hire a tuk-tuk driver to take you around to the temples all day. You read from your guidebook trying to understand the culture and history you are seeing. All the while you are looking for the best place to take a photo. Your other option is to hire a guide who can fill you in on the historical and cultural details while you are free to take in the magnificent surroundings you are in. Plus they know the best places to take photos. I chose the second option.
My guide was full of knowledge, not just about the history of Angkor, but was happy to share with me his knowledge of current day Cambodia, and how it blends together. I’m not going to get into the Angkor Temples - that has been done to death. Instead I’d like to share with you an interesting bit of knowledge that he imparted to me, despite me not picking it up the first couple times he mentioned it.
As we toured around the various temples in Angkor, my guide kept describing to me that they were built on multiple platforms representing Mount Meru, the home of the Gods in both Hindu and Buddhist mythology. He told me about all the different structures figured into the representation of Mount Meru from the mount to the rings to the ascension to the heavens.
Now for his sake in the story that is about to come I’ll say this, he told me he mentioned the reason traditional houses in Cambodia are built on stilts to me multiple times. I don’t recall this, but I was on information overload at the time so I don’t doubt it.
So fast forward to day number three of touring all the Temples of Angokor. We were headed out to see the Cambodia Landmine museum and a couple of the temples a bit farther out, namely Banteay Srei (aka the Pink Temple or Lady Temple).
Up until then we had just gone from my hotel in Siem Reap straight to the temple and I really didn’t get to see much of Cambodia outside of the tourist area. This was going to be a great chance to see how the local Cambodians lived
The drive must have lasted about 45 minutes to get out to the site of the temples. Along the way I got to witness a lot of authentic Cambodian culture. I was struck by just how poor this country was. I knew from my research that it was one of the poorest country in the world, but I really had no idea what that meant in reality. If Cambodia is in the top 30, I’d hate to see what the top 10 poorest countries look like.
There was no visible means of infrastructure outside of the tourist area of Siem Reap. Rice farms took up most of the territory next to traditional Cambodian houses, whose source of income couldn’t all be coming from the same rice fields.
I saw school children in their uniforms on their way to school, happy that they weren’t forced to work in the fields, and could get an education. The Khmer Rouge had killed off most of the intellectuals during the genocide in the 1970’s. It is going to take a long time to come back from the damage that has been done, but it is good to see education going on.
Dirt roads were everywhere except the main highways and through streets. The railway had been dismantled and has yet to be reconstructed. Motor Scooter seem to be the most ubiquitous form of transportation, probably because they are the cheapest. Though my guide drove us around in a nice SUV, shows how well catering to the Western Tourist can pay.
The strangest thing I saw was a farm tractor unlike anything I’d seen before. A lawnmower engine on a frame…here’s a picture, you figure it out. These were driving around everywhere. The Cambodian’s make do with what they’ve got and an impromptu automotive industry has been started. Cambodian Tractors, coming soon to the farms near you.
So while we are driving along taking in all this culture as the empathetic and kind tourist that I am, I remark to my driver about the traditional houses in Cambodia I notice as we drive along. It went something like this.
“Hey Cham” I said. “How come all the houses around here are built on stilts. Is there a lot of flooding or something?”
He looks at me with a quizzical yet annoyed look, yet says nothing. I figured he didn’t understand my amazing English pronunciation, so I repeated my question. Apparently much to his displeasure.
He gave me a weird sort of look and said, “I tell you many times already. You not remember what I told you?”
“Fuck me, this dude is copping an attitude” I thought. I’m paying this dude, I can’t have that can I? Then again, I started to feel a little bit embarrass that he had told me something several times and I hadn’t been listening.
It had turned into a quiz and I was failing badly. As pissed as I was toward his attitude, I didn’t like being the dumb ass so I racked my brain trying to remember what he had told me. Smoke must have been coming out of my ears as the pistons and diodes did there thing looking for the answer. No luck. I drew a blank. Time to admit defeat and ask for forgiveness.
“I don’t remember dick head, you tell me again. That’s why I’m paying your gook ass.” I said. Or not. I might have been less Gran Torino and a bit more polite, but I was blinded by rage at my dumbness. Is dumbness an actual word? I totally expected to spell check that, but nope. Anyway back to the story of traditional houses in Cambodia or whatever it was that I was talking about. Fuck me I’ve been drinking a lot tonight.
So, he relented at my stupidity and went back into tour guide mode. Mind you we are still on our drive out to the temple. This dude was giving me attitude before our day had started. Ballsy move. But maybe he was as hungover as I was. I’m still bitter and digress.
So he goes on to tell me that traditional houses in Cambodia are not built on stilts to help with flooding, but because of the religious significance. It was meant to represent Mount Meru and be lifted above the churning of the milk.
Beyond there is practical reasons that the traditional houses in Cambodia are built the way they are. The underneath is often used as storage and a place for the family to hang out in the shade during the hot summer months. Not that I’m counting, but summer seem to last all year around in Cambodia, so it seems like a really good design for a house.
Now, not being one to split hairs (cough, cough…), I will take issue with my guides, “not for flooding bit”. If you look at these two pictures, you can’t tell me flooding doesn’t have something to do with traditional Cambodian houses being built on stilts. Maybe not in Siem Reap, but surely near the Tonle Sap Lake. But what do I know, other than logic.
So, I’m not sure where I was going with this whole thing. I had fun in Cambodia. I had a cheeky tour guide. I liked traditional Cambodia street scenes and I don’t know jack about traditional houses in Cambodia. But I’m willing to learn.