By NAOMI LINDT
Published: July 7, 2010
SIEM REAP, Cambodia
A CENTURY ago, Cambodia’s rice fields were filled with majestic, elevated wooden houses. Today, few noteworthy examples remain, largely because of the cost of maintaining them and the near-universal desire for air-conditioned Western-style homes.
So when Darryl Collins, an Australian art historian who has lived in the country since 1994, had the opportunity to buy one four years ago, he couldn’t pass it up.
Built in 1915 by a wealthy Chinese-Khmer timber merchant on a remote island in the Mekong River, the house was set on stilts, nine feet off the ground, to protect it from floods and to maximize air circulation. It was built with at least five types of Cambodian hardwood, and the interior woodwork was decorated with ornate carvings of phoenixes, plum blossoms and fruit — symbols of success, abundance and wealth.
“When I walked in, I was amazed,” said Mr. Collins, 63, who had heard about the house from an architect documenting the country’s historic wooden structures. At the time, he was facing the prospect of turning 60 and was looking to make a dramatic change from his life in Phnom Penh.
But the elderly owners had no plans to sell the house — because of its isolated location and the general lack of interest in old homes, they assumed it would be more profitable to dismantle it and sell off the decorative elements. To prevent that, Mr. Collins wrote a contract on the spot, agreeing to buy the house for $6,400, a figure the sellers deemed auspicious for its square eights (eight and nine are considered lucky numbers in Asia) and its amount. Antiques dealers, Mr. Collins said, would have driven “a harder bargain.”
The location of the house — nearly 200 miles from Siem Reap, the town near the Angkor Wat temples where Mr. Collins planned to retire — didn’t deter him. He simply had it moved. The traditional wedge-and-pin construction made it possible for the 1,650-square-foot structure to be pulled apart; walls were sliced into panels by a team of 20 carpenters.
“I was horrified,” he said. “I didn’t believe it could ever be put back together again.”
The pieces — which weighed about 50 tons and included two dozen 30-foot columns and 400 35-foot floorboards — were hand-carried and loaded onto ferries that transported them to a nearby town. Then a truck took them to land Mr. Collins had bought for $60,000, where a new concrete foundation waited. Working with the architect who discovered the house, Mr. Collins embarked on a 10-month reconstruction that was completed in July 2007 and cost about $94,000 (including the relocation and the installation of electricity and running water).
The main interior space, framed by an elaborate decorative archway, functions as a large living and sleeping area, with a simply furnished master bedroom. Mr. Collins added two staircases, one lighted by lamps made from old chicken cages, and a two-story concrete wing to house the kitchen, the bathrooms and a guest room; a second new structure contains the garage, a storage area and another bedroom. Along with the patio under the house, which was tiled, the additions quadrupled the living space, to more than 6,400 square feet.
Though the house was built to provide natural ventilation in sweltering Cambodia, Mr. Collins spends much of his time on the patio, which he has furnished with high-backed antique chairs, a platform bed and a bamboo birdcage filled with origami birds. Here, in the space defined by giant columns, he sees the true value of his hard work.
“Older people who grew up in houses like these will just walk right under the house and hug a column,” he said. “They connect the house with something they knew a long, long time ago.”