He moved house, and literally...

Last Updated : 08 July 2010, 10:29 IST
Last Updated : 08 July 2010, 10:29 IST

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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 maximise air circulation. |

It was constructed 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 Collins, 63, who heard about the house from a friend documenting the country’s historic wooden architecture. 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 from happening, Collins penned a contract on the spot, agreeing to buy the house for $6,400 (in US dollars, the de facto Cambodian currency), a figure the sellers deemed auspicious for its square eights (eight and nine are considered lucky numbers in Asia) and its amount.

Moved and re-assembled
Antiques dealers, 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 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 floor boards, were hand-carried and loaded onto ferries that transported them to a nearby town.

Then a truck took them to the land Collins had bought for $60,000, where a new concrete foundation waited.

Working with a local architect, Collins embarked on a 10-month-long 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.  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 retiled, the additions quadrupled the living space, to more than 6,400 square feet.

Published 08 July 2010, 10:29 IST

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