HOMES, POSSESSIONS, TOWNS AND EVERYDAY LIFE IN CAMBODIA

LIFE IN CAMBODIA

Susan Spano wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The long-lost heartland of Cambodia centered on village, temple and field. Once, most of the population lived on the land, where peasant farmers harvested three to four rice crops a year, revered their king, lighted candles at Buddhist shrines and raised big families with scant hope of betterment but enough to eat. Ideology had little to do with the role they played in the civil war; they joined nationalist troops or communist guerrilla bands depending on which side entered their village first. When the Khmer Rouge took charge in 1975, moving city people to communal farms and construction projects in the country, peasants who were already there were somewhat favored by communist ideologues. But they, too, suffered starvation, disease and summary execution. [Source: Susan Spano, Los Angeles Times, May 15, 2011]

The majority of the inhabitants of Cambodia are settled in fairly permanent villages near the major bodies of water in the Tonle Sap Basin-Mekong Lowlands region. The contemporary locations of major Khmer population centers date back to antiquity according to geographer Jacques Nepote. He points out that contemporary Khmer Krom settlements are located in the same areas as the ancient site of Funan, and that the Khmer settlements extending from Phnom Penh in a southeastern direction are located where pre-Angkorian archaeological sites are clustered. The Khmer Loeu live in widely scattered villages that are abandoned when the cultivated land in the vicinity is exhausted. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

The permanently settled Khmer and Cham villages usually are located on or near the banks of a river or other bodies of water. Cham villages usually are made up almost entirely of Cham, but Khmer villages, especially in central and in southeastern Cambodia, typically include sizable Chinese communities. In his study of the coastal Chinese in Kampot Province and in Kaoh Kong Province, French geographer Roland Pourtier points out that the Chinese dwellings and shops--usually in the same structures--are located at the center of the town or village, while the Khmer houses are scattered at some distance from the center. He also finds that there are some villages made up almost entirely of Chinese. *

Towns and Villages in Cambodia

Most Cambodians live in villages with a few hundred to over a thousand people. The houses are either clustered together, dispersed among rice fields or arranged in a rectangular or linear pattern along a central road, river, stream, levee or the base of a hill. Around the houses are trees, shrubs and kitchen gardens. Around the villages are rice fields.

Village life for many Cambodians is essentially the same now as it was a 100 years ago. Most villages don’t have electricity or telephones or mail delivery. The roads are dirt and badly rutted. Many villages don’t even have a shop. Maybe one house sells rice, noodles, chilies, cigarettes and incense sticks. Pots and pans and plastic toys and other items are purchased from traveling peddlers, who often get from one place to the next by bicycle.

In the old days many communities had their own wat (temple) and school. Many of these were destroyed in the Khmer Rouge years and have yet to be rebuilt. According to a study by the Ministry of Planning in 2000, only 14 percent of villages had market places, 16 percent had clinics and one third had toilets.

Towns have traditionally grown up at market, trading and administrative centers, in some cases at the site of old Angkor era trading posts. Many towns still serve as meeting areas and market centers for surrounding villages rather than places that people permanently live. Few towns have more than 5,000 people.

Homes in Cambodia

Traditional Khmer houses are built on stilts above the ground and have a rectangular shape, gabled roofs and access via stairs or ladders. The building materials are often defined by the wealth of the occupants. The poorest live in houses with thatch roofs and split bamboo walls and flooring. Slightly better off families have wooden floors and walls. Better off still may have tile or metal roofs or concrete pilings. Kitchens have traditionally been partitioned off from the rest of the house. Some people cook beside or beneath the house.

A typical nuclear family, in rural Cambodia, lives in a rectangular house that may vary in size from four by six meters to six by ten meters. It is constructed of a wooden frame with gabled thatch roof and walls of woven bamboo. Khmer houses typically are raised on stilts as much as three meters for protection from annual floods. Two ladders or wooden staircases provide access to the house. The steep thatch roof overhanging the house walls protects the interior from rain. Typically a house contains three rooms separated by partitions of woven bamboo. The front room serves as a living room used to receive visitors, the next room is the parents' bedroom, and the third is for unmarried daughters. Sons sleep anywhere they can find space. Family members and neighbors work together to build the house, and a house-raising ceremony is held upon its completion. The houses of poorer persons may contain only a single large room. Food is prepared in a separate kitchen located near the house but usually behind it. Toilet facilities consist of simple pits in the ground, located away from the house, that are covered up when filled. Any livestock is kept below the house. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987]

During the Khmer Rouge era most people lived in small thatch houses built directly on the ground, and many people continue to live in such housing because they can not afford anything better. Some of these structures are little more than shacks.

Nice houses are designed to catch breezes. Many have front porch shrines. More and more people live in houses with concrete or cinder block walls and metal roofs. In the cities some Western-style apartments and houses can be found. Chinese and Vietnamese houses in Cambodian town and villages typically are built directly on the ground and have earthen, cement, or tile floors, depending upon the economic status of the owner. Urban housing and commercial buildings may be of brick, masonry, or wood.

Lumberman who work on the Mekong river live in palm leaf huts that float along the river. In October 2002, the Cambodian government declared that increasingly popular Thai-style houses were an eyesore and banned them from the streets of Phnom Penh.

See Architecture

Possessions in Cambodia

The interior of houses owned by the poor are basically open spaces with cloth, thatch or wooden partitions. There is a minimal amount of furniture. People sit on wooden platforms or the floor. More well off families have several rooms with more furniture.

Many poor people sleep on the floor. Some have straw mattresses. Others have hammocks or beds with a frame but no mattress. Additional possession may include some mosquito netting, an oil lamp and a few pots and pans and water containers. Relatively well off people may have a television with a car battery. Food comes from the fields, trees and gardens around the house. Money earned from the sale of crops and animals is spent on sugar or fish paste and things they can’t grow themselves.

Everyday Life in Cambodia

Most Cambodians are rice farmers who live in small villages scattered around the Mekong basin. Describing a typical village in Cambodia, Alan Lightman wrote in the New York Times: “Tramung Chrum, like many villages in Cambodia, lives on subsistence farming and menial labor. There is no electricity or running water. The men, women and children live in huts made of palm leaves and sticks and own little more than the clothes on their backs. They live a stripped down existence. [Source: Alan Lightman, New York Times, July 5, 2005. Alan Lightman teaches writing at M.I.T. <>]

Describing a typical day, one man told the New York Times, “We awake at two in the morning to steam sticky rice cakes. Tith Yun carried the steamed rice cakes alongside other vendors in front of the market.”

John Burgess wrote in the Washington Post : “I passed the night at the house of a Cambodian family, friends of a friend. They couldn't have been more gracious. They gave me a room of my own, bottled water, mosquito coils and a big luxury: a car battery hooked to a fluorescent light. I could have light all night if I wanted it. Staying the night brought another cultural experience. A festival was going on nearby, and its amplified music carried into my room as I sat reading. Then around 10 p.m., silence. Private generators don't run all night, even for a celebration. [Source: John Burgess, Washington Post June 21, 2009]

“I got up at dawn, scoop-bathed in slightly murky water and walked to the moat from which it had been drawn. I took in the early morning sights: the mist, dogs prowling around in first light. I played amateur archaeologist for a bit, noting that an ancient feeder or outflow channel, now dry, was connected to the moat at this corner. Members of our party slept at a formal homestay, the term given to guesthouses as well as family homes that accept paying guests, a few steps from the temple's gate. It had two rooms with large beds covered by mosquito nets. Downstairs there was a basic bathroom with a squat toilet and scoop bath.

See Consumer Customs, See Villages, See Agriculture

Visit to a Remote Tribal Village in Northeastern Cambodia

Howie Nielsen of mongabay.com wrote: “Another sacrificial chicken was dispatched and we ended the evening drinking rice wine and a surprisingly rich tasting chicken soup was served. We were up early and needed to visit a nearby house to meet, talk (and drink), avoiding another house en route. The occupants in the forbidden house were trying to exorcise some demons that had brought illness and suffering on their household. It was 6:30 in the morning and we were led straight to a jug of rice wine and a gang that had obviously been at it all night. [Source: Howie Nielsen, mongabay.com , March 14, 2013 +++]

“This was to be another opportunity for Greg to hear more tales of spirits and ghosts of this landscape. A horrific shriek came from the direction of their afflicted neighbors. It was quickly pointed out that a pig had been sacrificed to appease the angry local deities causing the household’s misery. I got up from the wine jug and tried a circuitous route, feigning picture taking in various directions to approach the troubled abode. My attempt was noticed and a couple of men began shouting at me. In no way was I to be permitted visiting that family. I guess that I had the potential to bring down the wrath of their spirits on every household. +++

“When we got to the river, we waded across, as it was quite a span. The river was alive with fishing, and laundry, and bathing and children playing, buffaloes cooling off. We finished up in another riverside string of houses, ending at a shabby, unfinished house with multiple generations living there. We were called in off the road by a rowdy group of drinkers, who wanted to share. Greg and I obliged with a social sip, then excused ourselves, but we lost Su for a couple of hours, as he was in the thrall of a couple flirtatious young women. We continued a bit farther, ending at the shabby, unfinished house of Niem. A stream of curiosity seekers kept wandering in for a stare, then quietly moving on. Rice wine, chicken in a pot and a slab of beer. Stories into the night, but I retired to the upstairs floor and checked out early. +++

“In northeastern Cambodia—particularly Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri provinces the indigenous or "highlander" people who lived there were still mostly animists. Due to decades of warfare and instability, Christian missionaries had stayed away, and the highlanders had retained their traditional beliefs. I was sold. They want to put in a dam on the Lower Sesan River, a project that will—if it goes ahead—flood several villages. I stayed at one of those villages in February. It’s called Kompong Commune. Early one morning I walked down to the river and saw a man coming up from the embankment with five large fish flapping in a net, their wet scales glistening in the morning sun. About twenty minutes later I saw those same fish being barbecued on sticks over an open fire, where a pot of garden-grown rice was boiling and where a pile of the freshest looking vegetables I have ever seen were being chopped up. It was the healthiest-looking breakfast imaginable, and it cost that family nothing. How do you "improve" that? Sure, healthcare is lacking, but do we need to build dams and level forests to improve hygiene and healthcare? +++

“The next morning, I performed my social duties before I could find a bush for relief. An aging matron called me to sit for a crank on the wine jug, again well before 7. I had my bins with me so, I continued off into the paddy fields and forest remnants for an hour or so of birding, returning to the house for my dose of rice. We then packed and headed down to the Sesan, an hour away. Two boats were waiting for us, ferrying back to Vuen Sai. Thinking the trip was over, I was startled when two critically endangered red-headed vultures sailed over the boat landing in Vuen Sai. We indulged in our first cold beers in almost 2 weeks before our car had us back in Ban Lung by mid-afternoon. +++

See Traveling in Virachey National Park Under Places

Life During the Khmer Rouge Years

The Khmer Rouge attempted to totally reorganize society and create a new social order based on an ideal peasant scoiety free of class structures and foreign influences. Exceptionally strong and aggressive coercive methods were used in an effort to achieve their goals. Teachers,, merchants, doctors and Muslims were killed. Personal property was banned. Religion, press and all personal freedoms were abolished. Schools and banks were closed. Cities were emptied and people were forced to work on cooperative farms.

Survivor Vichea Sopheak Tieng reported: “In the morning, it was the 17th of April 1975, the day in which the people were being evacuated from the city of Phnom Penh. That morning, the sound of guns could be heard throughout the city of Phnom Penh. There was total confusion and chaos and people running all over the place and in every street. ...When the Khmer Rouge soldiers captured Phnom Penh... it was also like they captured the entire country. This was the day the Khmer Rouge began to evacuate the people from every province and city and forced them all to live in the rural areas and countryside. All 7 million people in Cambodia were transformed into farmers and peasants. The cities and provincial centers became so deserted and silent, one ought to be terrified. Hundreds of thousands of homes remained uninhabited, markets had no traders, roads had no traffic, and cars had no one drive them. At night there were no lights and the city became so dark it became a ghost town. Every family that lived in the cities was forced by Khmer Rouge soldiers to work in the fields in the countryside. This was the time in which husbands and wives, mothers, fathers and their children, and brothers and sisters were all separated from each other. Some large families were even separated from each other since the evacuation. [Source: Vichea Sopheak Tieng,Documentation Center of Cambodia d.dccam.org/Survivors/1 ]

See Khmer Rouge

Land Seizures in Cambodia

See Human Rights

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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