Rah Lan Pênh, in Central Highlands province of Gia Lai, is considered among the most skilled and last “doc moc” (dugout) builders in his region.
Elder Penh, who doesn’t know how old he is, faintly remembers building his last “doc moc” (dugout) some three years ago.
Despite his old age and poor health, the veteran artisan went with his son into the forest for one week to search for and fell down the right tree trunks. He then meticulously did the hollowing and chiseling during a few days and his last boat to sail along the Po Ko river finally came in shape.
Penh said that his father was an ingenious grave statue and “doc moc” builder. Since he was 10, Penh would follow his father and roam in the forest for days on end for the logs and trunks and built his own one at 16.
“ ‘Doc moc’ isn’t unique to ethnic Ja Rai people, most ethnic peoples habiting the areas next to rivers have that kind of canoe. However, few know how to build a beautiful, good one,” Penh said.
According to the artisan, “doc moc” usually measures some 7-12m in length and 40-70cm in width. A nice-looking, durable canoe calls for quality logs or trunks with the proper age rings. Just like the intricately carved pillars in “nha rong” (communal house), its hollow is chiseled meticulously and with great care. The axe strokes must also be moderate, they aren’t supposed to penetrate too deeply or hollowly into the trunk. After the chiseling is completed, the dugout is turned upside down and its surface is refined and smoothened in the fire.
Before the dugout is put into the river, the artisan has to perform several worship rituals as they believe that otherwise the canoe will get broken or smashed during the building or soon after being put in use.
Penh has built too many dugouts to remember the number, with most being built during his prime years. He would row his dugouts to take the Vietnamese soldiers and guerillas across the rivers during the Vietnam war and also donated the canoes to the local army.
“ ‘Doc moc’ artisans have all been dead now. Now dugouts are also rarely built, and the few remaining ones are sold. People now prefer to cross rivers in motorboats, which is much faster and safer. Besides, large trunks are now really hard to come by. That the dugout is going extinct really pains me, but I don’t know what to do. However, I’ll try my best to build one if someone asks me to,” Penh sadly added.