Thursday, August 19, 2010

Chruoy Changva Naval Base

This base is located on the far side of the Chruoy Changva peninsula, on the Mekong River. There is a signpost for the turn off to it just a few kilometers past the bridge from the city, but I wouldn’t imagine that any civilian could just roll up there. It was an important installation during the wars of the 1980s and 90s. One has to keep in mind that much of the interior of the country floods for a large part of the year and there isn’t any other way to access many parts of the country during the rainy season other than by boat. While the Khmer Rouge and other allied factions didn’t have anything like a navy, they did often attack floating villages along the waterways, and there were some significant massacres of ethnic Vietnamese living in floating villages and boats in these areas right up till the mid-90s.
The base has obviously lost its importance since peace returned to the country, and the boats seem to have fallen into disrepair. Although you probably wouldn’t be welcome visiting by road, you can easily approach the site on any of the tourist boats that ply their trade along the riverside of Phnom Penh. There are two larger Russian ships which date back to the Cold War period when huge amounts of Soviet hardware arrived in the country via Vietnam, in an effort to fight the Khmer Rouge and their allies who were backed by China, ASEAN and the west at that time. They are quite impressive in a way, with their huge Star Wars storm trooper helmet-style turrets and smooth lines. On closer inspection the guns on them don’t actually look so powerful, just large caliber machine guns or small cannons, but they were probably big enough to scare off many land based attacks off back then.
What I find more interesting in a way are the smaller craft nearby. Home-made armored pontoons with welded cupolas jutting out of them, bristling with anti-tank guns and 50 mm machine guns, they don’t portray superpower backing so much as do-it-yourself tenacity in the face of international sanctions and pressure on an at that time much-criticized and maligned regime. Nowadays these Russian boats are rusting and waiting for the scrap man, but the pontoons look ready for action.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Wooden Houses.

There is nothing unusual about wooden houses in Cambodia, outside of urban centers they are extremely common. Houses in Cambodia have been traditionally been built from wood, on stilts, for an undeterminable amount of time. The stilts were made from tree trunks, but more recent structures often use concrete pillars with a wooden house above. The reasons for raising a house like this vary, the most obvious reason being to avoid flooding, yet identical houses get built on hills and mountains. There is also a certain amount of security from wild animals and bandits involved in living above the ground up like this. What is probably more important than either of these concerns is air-flow. Cambodia is a very hot and humid place, and keeping cool is often difficult. Traditional wooden houses are built with high ceilings and raised on stilts with loose and porous walls and floors to aid a certain flow of air that might cool the inhabitants. During the day, few people stay up in their house anyway. The” ground floor” is often used to keep livestock at night, whether they are buffalos, pigs or ducks. These are taken to pasture during the day, and people hang out in the space, on hammocks, cooking or working, or washing from the giant urns that collect rainwater.

Cambodia had, until just a few decades ago, a huge amount of forest, so wood was easy to find and cheap. The recent rampant destruction of forest resources has changed this. Wood is now, because logging is officially banned and timber has to supposedly come from a licensed source, seriously expensive. Nobody uses wood to build now because it’s far cheaper to use concrete. Box-shaped concrete shop-houses are now gradually taking over. Some people manage adorn their villas with teak panels and mahogany stair-cases, but for most it’s just used for interior doors or furniture. What has to be taken into account is the security element. As a result of very real problems over the last four decades or so, security is paramount for people here. I have never lived in a house here that didn’t have bars on the windows, metal gates and razor-wire on the edges of the compound.

Wooden house aren’t at all secure. Your only defense might be keeping a few hungry mutts or geese downstairs, but anyone with a blade and intention could get through the floor, if they even had to bother. There are often easier ways to break in, through the flimsy doors or even walls or roofs. While I admire these buildings the fact that any vermin can get in if it wants is a concern.

All these pictures were taken in the central part of Phnom Penh around the Daun Penh, Prampi Makara and O’Russei areas, on the 16th of April 2010 when the city was pretty-much deserted because of Khmer New year. They are only remarkable because of their central locations and because they’ll all be replaced by more solid and less traditional structures soon. You can see these looming at the edges of most of the pictures, gradually encroaching on the wooden houses and inevitably replacing them.