With the pandemic forcing people to stay at home, a small group of Cambodian men – shirtless and using nothing but their bare hands and primitive tools – have quietly been digging and then building impressive structures from mud and clay in the community forest reserves in Siem Reap.
Their amazing construction and artistic skills have been used to create scaled-down versions of Angkorian temples and European castles as well as a luxurious underground room with a natural Jacuzzi and furniture intricately carved from the surrounding earth.
They’ve not only created these incredible buildings surrounded by wilderness, but their talent has also drawn the applause of nearly 1.5 million subscribers on their Youtube channel “Building Technology” as well as a “gold creator” award from the giant online video sharing platform.
Three years ago a former teacher, Peanh Setha, became a designer and online video creator, forming two Youtube channels – Leurt Wilderness with 30 videos and 74.4k subscribers and Building Technology with 99 videos and 1.49 million subscribers.
Setha teamed up with his brother-in-law Tann Molly, a designer and IT professional.
“Our purpose is to earn some income to support the livelihoods of local people and show their work to the world, entertain the audience and participate in sharing cultural works widely,” Setha says.
One day, the two discovered the poor but talented builders living in Roka Kambot village in Trapeang Thom Commune of Prasat Bakong district in Siem Reap.
“We’ve never studied architecture, construction or art. We just see things and get inspired to do our version. And the builders are talented and know how to build and carve mud and clay from observing other skillful people,” said Setha.
Having worked humbly in the forest for a couple of years, their videos documenting the creation of their mud and clay kingdom went viral last year. Their first building site became a hot domestic tourist attraction last year despite the industry struggling to survive due to the pandemic.
The peak period of visitors coming to see their mud and clay structures was during the Pchum Ben festival in September, 2020.
“Visitors came from different cities and provinces across the country just to see this wonderful man-made underground structure built by ordinary men using basic and primitive tools,” according to Leurt Wilderness’s Facebook page.
The “instagramable” attraction in the forest of Kouk Toeung village in Chan Sar Commune of Soutr Nikom district in Siem Reap has a bedroom and living room with carvings and sculptures made entirely from mud and clay. Visitors could not get enough of the place and were taking photographs at every angle and bombarding social media with their selfies.
“These amazing structures result from the sweat and blood of nine men using nothing but their hands and digging tools,” the Facebook page says.
Their most astonishing work is a royal chamber fit for a king that is dug into the ground and has a small pool in the middle of it. It took them about 130 days to build it.
Their videos show them digging in the forest to create an excavation that ended up being six by eight metres in length and width and three metres deep.
“The design of the house is a mix of Khmer style and some modern styles. Like a bed in the Khmer style, but with a modern fashion sofa. The walls are carved to look like bricks decorated with flowers or designed to look like cabinets. The basement includes a swimming pool to represent the modern 21st century luxury home,” according to the team.
These model structures are made with technical precision and the layout and planning is done before any construction. This work was done in collaboration with a team of assistants and volunteers as well as a total of three photographers. The construction is accomplished without any machinery at all, just tools like shovels.
“I have so many design ideas for construction of buildings recorded in my notebook. With the help of local talented builders and their skills and hard work, we’re able to build so many awesome things,” Molly says.
Leurt Wilderness was even featured in Nas Daily by an Arab-Israeli video blogger named Nuseir Yassin in April on Facebook with 17 millions views.
“They worked day after day, shoveling and shoveling, and made a bed, a door, a sofa, a mirror, and a house entirely from mud. They put the video on the internet and the rest of the world absolutely loves them. Trust me they’re almost therapeutic to watch,” Yassin comments.
However, after 3 years of working together to build stunning buildings from mud and clay, the challenge of long-term preservation of their work remains. A complex structure could take months to finish but might only last a year afterwards.
“We want to make all of the buildings last longer, so we’re trying to find ways to protect them from the rain,” Setha says.
Their hard work was acknowledged by the authorities who allowed them to relocate to a new area in the community forest reserve with five hectares of land to work with. The team hopes to be able to open it to visitors after the spread of Covid subsides.
“Now that we have the support of the local authorities we can build here without any worries, Molly says.
Now they are building more houses with water slides and fire places as well as a sculpture of King Kong, angry bird characters, small fairy structures and animal homes.
“The idea to build huts for animals to live in struck me when I happened to see three dogs that had been abandoned by their owners,” Molly said about the recent project of small dens, castles, and fairy houses surrounded by water and plants to create a harmonious environment for the animals.
They have now used about a one hectare of the five they were provided and have created over 10 buildings from mud. They are quietly and patiently at work in the forest and request that visitors postpone their trips there for now to help curb the spread of the virus in Siem Reap.
“Because the spread of Covid-19 hasn’t slowed down, the buildings and structures we made from earth, clay and mud can’t be opened yet to the general public to take photographs. We have finished our first building project on an area of one hectare.
“There are about 12 to 13 buildings or structures that would have been opened to tourists and local people since the Khmer New Year holiday in April if it wasn’t for Covid.
“When things get better and we get approval from the authorities, we’ll welcome locals and tourists right away,” Setha says.
To see their videos on Youtube check out their Building Technology channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCsNG5AKFeyX_2_GB7ubk9NA