After our incredible elephant experiences in Surin our little troupe of Bamboo travelers made our way by bus across the Cambodian border to Siem Reap.
That transit and border crossing sit right up there with some of our most interesting and exciting to date. The process was the strangest we’ve ever been through, with our bags leaving our possession and then trundled out of our sight in weird barrows.
That is of course the biggest no-no and yet it’s exactly what happened, apparently because we were traveling as part of a group tour.
There was quite a bit of confusion in the ranks with some folk unsure about the procedure and whether money would have to change hands somewhere along the line.
Thankfully nothing went awry and we were reunited with our worldly goods, intact and uncorrupted, some time later on the other side.
The border crossing fiasco is actually a great story and we will happily share our version of events if we catch up some time over a few cool beverages.
Then off we went to start the next stage of our adventure.
Bamboo supports various community projects in some of Cambodia’s most impoverished villages:
- teaching English to children at local primary schools,
- construction of toilet blocks (many communities share 1 toilet among 30+),
- construction of water wells and pumps (often there may be just one water source within a 1klm area),
- building houses for families in need of safe shelter.
Dave and I were attached to the “Builders” team and our group’s mission was to build a house for a young family that had been living in a scant makeshift shelter for several years.
We’re certainly not the first people to build a house with their own hands but neither of us had ever undertaken such a daunting task, with 4 days to finish and hand over. Just think of that TV show Backyard Blitz without all the super duper equipment and fancy decorator finishes, though we did have some pretty good looking talent in our crew.
I’m really glad we had the prior week working with our group at the elephant village in Surin because by the time we started on the house project we had come to know each other and had worked through any differences.
It also helped that we were staying in a really nice hotel, so at the end of each workday we could sit around and share our experiences and feelings over a couple of drinks and a swim.
Each morning at around 7.30 a bunch of ever-smiling tuk-tuk drivers would arrive at our hotel and take us the few kilometers along a ridiculously bumpy road to Elma School and the welcoming excitement of the little kids.
The teachers of our group were cheered with “Goodmorning Teacha” then hugged and whisked off to their respective classrooms for a day of fun and learning.
Then our crew of builders transferred into the back of a really odd contraption of a tractor-trailer for even more serious bouncing around on hard benches across even rougher roads to our own welcome party at the village. What a great way to start the day!
On the building site it was a case of all hands on deck and it was indeed all hands because there were no electrical tools apart from someone with a brief moment with a power saw. You see, there is only one electricity source to the little commune and we had very limited access to the power.
Quite distinct and important tasks had to be done:
Sanding lengths of framing timber and floor boards. We had some extreme perfectionists in the group carrying this out with great gusto, which was terrific because we ended up with perfectly smooth wood with no splinters.
Digging foundations and set up ready for frames. Using very basic equipment.
Positioning and securing wall and roof frames. This was a delicate job and needed brute strength and dexterity, so at the appropriate times we all dropped whatever we were doing and put our backs into it. We found out during the build that money can be placed under the central support post of the house, bringing blessings and good luck to those living in the house.
Creating waterproof nails. Hard to describe: we were given rubber bicycle inner tubes, pairs of scissors and seemingly thousands of nails. Water-proof nails were needed for the tin wall and roof sheeting. The nails were pierced through the rubber strips then cut around the head of the nail. It all made sense once we started nailing up the sheeting, though it was pointed out that the rubber would likely perish in time….
Positioning and nailing the roof and wall sheeting. A quite treacherous task, given the rickety nature of the “scaffold” and razor sharp edges of the tin sheeting. It would have been very easy to lose a finger on that tin.
Positioning and nailing down the floorboards. Heavy work, noisy and challenging for those with poor eye-hammer coordination skills (me).
Sanding and painting all the exposed bits of wood. That was actually the fun bit.
Bamboo had engaged a building contractor to run the show, together with a couple of local men to work along with us which was great because they were quite skillful and knew what they were doing, though they seemed to have little concern about their own safety.
Dave reckons they could use an axe in ways he never could; where we would use a chisel they’d use a tomahawk. Very impressive tool (and balancing) skills.
Mid-morning a bunch of fresh coconuts would appear, at which point we’d down tools and hover around as our local guide Hornn skillfully carved the tops off for us to drink the mildly sweet goodness. Once the liquid was finished we’d then scoop out and eat the soft white flesh. Heaven from trees.
Hornn told us that if you have fresh coconut water twice a day you will never get sick. Ever.
Then in the afternoon the village women would bring plates across to us for “afternoon tea”. No cups of tea and cake here.
Thin slices of green mango, green banana (skin on), unripe tamarind still in the pod, served together with a new taste sensation for us – a muddled mixture of sugar, coarse salt and pounded chillies to scoop onto the fruit. Kapow!
Dave and I really loved it though it was not to everyone’s taste.
Of course, where there are kids there is fun and what is especially more fun is when there are also puppies. We got to hang with gorgeous little kids and the most adorable puppies, only a few weeks old.
It was all a bit distracting actually and sometimes not easy to stay on task.
The way the kids played together with the resources they had was a joy to watch. And not an electronic device or plastic toy in sight, just the kids’ own independent playful ingenuity and certainly no helicopter parenting.
We thought they must be having the most idyllic childhood, though we wondered for their future. Hopefully they go to school.
Those poor puppies though! It seemed to us the kids were a bit rough playing with the little puppies and we figured that you have to be tough to cope as a dog in a village full of little kids. Survival of the fittest in action, with lots of loving attention.
Finally, the time came when we were happy with the finished product and we got to create mementos by painting our names under the house and produce a paint hand-print montage. These were some very treasured moments.
We passed the hat around and raised cash towards buying food and supplies for the family and shared throughout the village.
Prior to leaving home, our lovely team member Tonia raised $400 from family and friends. With this money she paid $200 for a fresh water well for a family, a $100 donation to Elma School where she taught, and $100 combined with our group’s fundraising for food for the village, which will keep 6 families in food for 6 weeks!
OK, then came the actual really best part of the entire week.
Handing over the house to the young family, the monks blessing of the house and then the house warming party.
We had no idea what to expect and every aspect of the celebrations just completely blew us away.
These people sure know how to celebrate.
Until the house is blessed only new items can be placed in the house.
We each carried a newly purchased item and the group walked around the house three times, with the lovely Nan chanting as we went.
Check out this video.
Since traveling around SE Asia we’ve come across many monks of course, but I’ve never had this experience.
It really was very moving, as you can tell in this video.
I was totally unprepared for the enormous waves of emotions as the afternoon’s activities unfolded.
As I now look through all the photos and videos I recall the intense feelings of gratitude, love, humility and satisfaction.
I still tear-up recalling the sights and sounds of the monks’ chants as we all sat around inside the house, and I could tell that everyone else in our group felt the same way. We were all a part of this greater story.
I think Dave put it very well he posted on Facebook, “…what I love about the last 2 weeks is that we have all become so much a part of each other’s story & that is such a special thing given all of our individual differences…”
There are many many stories to tell about the incredible 2 weeks we spent on our Bamboo tour in the elephant village in Surin, Thailand and working with the Siem Reap community in Cambodia, and I will try to condense it all in to one more blog post. Though I doubt there will be any way for me to capture the true essence of our experiences.
Our group has stayed connected on Facebook and we continue to share photos, memories and feelings about our glorious weeks together. Some of us report difficulty settling back in to normal life. Some say they plan to take another trip to Cambodia.
Thanks for following along, we really do appreciate every like and every comment. See you next time from wherever we are.
Here are some random pics from our marvelous week in Cambodia.
* Some of the photos in this post were not taken by Dave or I. Many photos have been shared around the group and so I thank and give credit to those who shared.
** I tried to include a photo of each of our team, apologies for any unintentional omissions.