Hands and Hearts Build – Phnom Penh Cambodia February 2016

Our family travelled to Cambodia for the first time in July 2013. We went to Siem Reap to visit Angkor Wat and other temples. Basically, we went to see the sites, but we left remembering the people. Ever since, I have wanted to go back to Cambodia and in some capacity help the people there. The country has been through so much, the stories are haunting, but the smiles stay with you.  My first ambition was to help build a school there. After months of research and dead ends, I realised how much corruption and fraud is prevalent in Cambodia, and that working on a school project was not going to be straightforward. Some of you know that we have been able to pursue that goal in a different location for now, but that still left me wanting to do something in Cambodia. I cannot express it in words, but the feeling of wanting to help continued. I spent some time exploring volunteer opportunities here in Brisbane, and came across Habitat for Humanity. This was an organisation we had made a couple of appliance donations to back in Canada, and so the name and what they did was somewhat familiar. Turns out they were holding a meet and greet gathering the next night! I attended that evening, and met some people that had been on previous Global Village builds…and I just knew I had to go. They have build weeks in Vietnam, Nepal, Fiji, but I knew that my heart was in Cambodia. Long story short, I looked at their upcoming builds and settled on a build to Phnom Penh in November. However the dates didn’t work for our family, so I delayed until February. My friend Larissa (whom I met in KL, but now lives back in Toronto) really wanted to come along as well, so after getting her own ducks in a row, she registered too. The dates were set!

Our build was just outside of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Our accommodation was in Phnom Penh which was fortunate as we were able to explore some of the city in the evenings after our day was over, although truth be told, most nights we didn’t have the energy for that. I had been told at the Habitat gathering that an urban build may be a good one to choose for a first timer because of the additional options for food choice and other conveniences in the evening. I think this was sound advice. After 3 days of Khmer food for lunch and dinner (think rice and curry, and rice, and more rice…), our team was quite happy to stumble upon an expat restaurant where we could order pizzas and meat and fill our empty bellies after a huge day of physical work. One woman on our build had been before to Mongolia, and she indicated that the choices were few and far between as they had been in a much more rural/remote area.

Some facts about our build:

1) The Team – our team was made up of 9 people, all coming from Australia except Larissa. The team came from Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane, ranging in age from 22-63. There was also another group along – a corporate team from Procter and Gamble. On the ground in Cambodia each team had a translator, a construction foreman and 3 skilled workers. There was also a Habitat Cambodia employee that oversaw things and made sure all went well. Each team also had a driver that took us in a van to the build site each day (30 minutes drive in the morning, 60 minutes back in the evening)

2) The Families – Our family was made up of a mother, father and 16 year old son. Currently they have been living with her sister. Both parents have HIV but the son does not. Our family was quite shy, and only the son spoke a little bit of English, but through smiles, glances and gestures we could see their appreciation as we worked alongside each other. The father worked as a tuk tuk driver, and the son attended morning school. The other family was a mother, father, and 9 year old daughter. Both parents in that family also have HIV but the daughter does not. The father is also a tuk tuk driver and the mother works with other people affected by HIV.

3) The Houses – the houses our two teams built were not side by side because each family had purchased their own plot of land earlier. Most Habitat builds work where Habitat for Humanity buys the land as well as the house materials, but in both these cases the families had worked hard for years to be able to buy the land themselves. Therefore the houses were a few km’s apart. The houses are built for the families, after they are chosen in conjunction with other organisations in the community. The selection process appeared to be quite thorough and responsible.  In some cases the families may pay back small amounts (like a mortgage) but in these cases the houses were 100% funded. The families must contribute their efforts to the build as much as they are able to. Not all teams finish their houses (some builds are actually done in stages, such as brick laying for 3 houses side by side) so that is not a goal. Our build we were able to see it 95% completed which was great. The skilled crew stays on the build until the house is fully complete and then hands the house over to the family. Habitat keeps the title on the land for 5 years so that the family cannot sell the house after it is built. I found the support and sustainability factor to be very high. The houses themselves were very basic – one room of about 600 square feet. Brick walls, two windows, two doors and some ventilation. A basic squat toilet with septic tank out the back.

4) The Days – Each day was HOT! 36C with a feels like factor of 40C. Humidity was high, and we felt like we just walked out of a shower with all of our clothes on by about 10am. I think our time spent in KL helped a lot with that, and you do just get used to being hot and sweaty. We were lucky to have some cloud cover and breeze later in the week!  Each day we took a break for lunch, meeting the other team at a nearby temple, where we were brought a pre-ordered meal.  Curries, pad thai, chicken wings…and rice.  Did I mention rice?  An ice cold Coke or Fanta sure tasted great! By the end of the day we were sweaty, dirty, exhausted, but energised by what we had accomplished.  The van ride home felt long, the traffic was nuts, and the race to the shower was on!

I can’t possibly put down in writing all of the things we experienced or did during that week. We carried bricks, buckets of sand, water and cement. We mixed the cement by hand and shovel on the ground. We learned how to lay bricks, trowel plaster, tamp rocks and sand into the ground to build the floor. The men on our team dug a 1.7m deep septic hole, dropped tanks into it and then took 10 minutes refilling it with the sand that had taken hours to remove. But more importantly, and even more difficult to explain, is the relationship building that occurred. The smiles between people that could not communicate with each other through language. The camaraderie between people that dug till their backs ached, lay bricks in the beating sun until not one more brick could be raised. The ice cold towels to cool us down, jokes told over electrolyte drinks, encouragement given to finish just one more row, carry just one more bucket, and then the encouragement to take five minutes for a break. Our team worked hard. I don’t think we could have given one more ounce of energy during that week. The team I was able to work with was Amazing! Its such a cliche but the strangers I met Saturday, were family by Friday. Our team, our Cambodian family, our Cambodian crew….we will all be connected to each other forever, even if we never meet again. I truly believe that. One thing we were told by the staff there was that the families do not understand why we would come to their country to help. The culture there is not to help others so much,a nd I think that stems from needing to live to survive. You must help yourself before you can help others and so many people are still in that struggle everyday. I found that very interesting. A word that got used a lot on this trip was Perspective. It’s all about your perspective.  I think our team grew together in learning the meaning of that word through our experience.

Before we went, while we were gone (via texts, emails etc.) and since we’ve been back, a common thread from our team is that others want to know how to get involved. Coworkers want to know how to find out about projects like these. Friends have told me they’d love to be part of something like this as well. I recognise that I have been fortunate to have the time and resources to make this happen. But please understand that this has impacted my entire family, and did take planning, commitment and motivation to execute. We all had to make the decision together so time could be used, extra effort pitched in, events possibly missed,  looking after each other more than usual, because this was important. And I can tell you, it is so worth it. People are just people – everywhere you go. We are blessed to have been born in developed countries. Nothing more. We did not get to choose how we came into this world, or where.  From day one we were given opportunities that others can only dream of.  When you meet, and work together towards a common goal – you know that for sure.  So I hope that I can pass along some information, share my experience and encourage others to go for it.  It’s not just about helping someone else either.  All that you give will come back tenfold.


From start….




If you’re interested in this exact type of work or want to learn more about the process:

In Australia: http://www.habitat.org.au   You can link to Global Village from there and see all the dates, country options, costs etc.

In Calgary: http://www.habitatsouthernab.ca   They have Global Village builds as well that are closer to your neck of the woods. Also, there are local builds in Calgary that you can contribute to help locally if you prefer with less time invested.

Elsewhere….just search for it. Habitat for Humanity is not the only organisation doing this type of thing, but I have had some experience communicating with others and really felt confident with this organisation. It is the largest global charity doing this type of work that I know of.

Lastly I want to recall one last story…at the end of the build, both teams, both families and the Habitat staff sat inside the house we built. The family had decorated with balloons, some flowers, laid woven mats on the floor and welcomed us into their house, that they will soon turn into their home. I cannot convey the emotion inside that room that day, and wouldn’t even begin to try. We all know what those experiences and moments are like. The group went around and shared their feelings about the week etc. The story that will stick with me was from my team mate Tom and the response from Nat (the mother in our family) . We had presented the family with a mango tree to be planted in front of the house. Tom wished the family all of the best, with the hope that the family could take this hand up and go forward, doing better for themselves, and for their community, and their country. To look after themselves well, and that mango tree, and someday he would like to come back to visit, not as a helper or worker, but as a visitor to share one of the mangoes. When the stories got around to Nat, she broke down crying and spoke in Khmer. When the translator told us what she had said….Her reply was this:

“I  hope someday those of you that have given us something so special can come back to visit, and that I can invite you into our home and I will share all of my  mangoes.”

To see more photos click here



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