In May 2023, we were proud to relaunch our Global Village program in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. We had an amazing team of 30 volunteers join us to help build four homes and make a big difference in the lives of families like Sophany’s. Here is the first hand experience of Melissa, one of the amazing women on Team Yellow!
Day One: Welcome to Cambodia!
Stepping into the large entry foyer at the Frangipani, this afternoon, with its beautiful high ceilings, large circulating fans and smiling hosts, I had some butterflies. All nerves evaporated when a bunch of open, friendly faces asked; “are you with habitat too?”
After settling in we had a briefing from our Cambodian Habitat friends to introduce all 30 of us to each other; the four families whose homes we will be working on; some common Khmer phrases and site safety. The highlight was definitely the practical Kroma tying lesson from the infectiously fun Eric.
By the time we’d all indulged in the warm hospitality extended, including a scrumptious Khmer banquet and margaritas, it was time for bed – night!
Day Two: A Mekong River Cruise!
After a morning exploring the local area, the team jumped on the bus to go to an AWESOME long lunch full of firsts including an avocado shake and hot pot served to the table on its own porta fire.
A little bit of time for our lunch to digest and we were off once more as a big group on a Mekong River cruise out to an island where silk is grown, spun and woven on looms by some very skilful hands. It was fun shopping as a big group and hearing about the team’s life back home and who they were buying for.
The upper deck of the boat was the place to be tonight with festive lights, nibbles and party vibe music. In fact, our three build teams selected team songs for the build – Team Maroon – Brick House (Commodores); Team Yellow – Knock on Wood (Amy Stuart), and; Team Red – Red Red Wine (UB40). Geniuses, all of us!
Another treat of a meal with Khmer food preselected for us by our Cambodian Habitat Team and another opportunity to learn more about the great bunch of volunteers who have signed up for this build.
Very excited about the first day of the build tomorrow. Can’t wait to get started!
Day Three: The First Build Day!
Rise and shine, bright and early. We were ready and off to a good start with the whole team loaded into buses. There are just no words to describe what it was like to meet Sophany and her 4 children for the first time. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the opportunity to be part of something so special for this person who we had just met. I was also feeling relieved in that moment that I was here with a group who can this all achievable. Sitting and thinking at the end of today I’ve realised that this feeling is the feeling that will keep me coming back.
Our team (team yellow ‘Queen Bees’), alongside Sophany, an experienced local builder and mother, worked on foundations today – tying reinforcing bars; preparing the footings with a large rock layer; manually mixing sand, stone, cement and water in carefully measured ratios; pouring out freshly mixed concrete slurry into six holes around our reinforced column cages. Coming back together at the end of the work day for some reflective time with the families was so humbling and a hug from Sophany was the last straw in holding all those emotions in – what a day!
We started the day with a plan and we smashed it before heading back into the city and getting some great time together debriefing and sharing stories with the other teams how their first day on site went over an absolutely stunning meal in a spectacular venue. I will sleep well tonight!
Day Four: A Productive Second Day!
What a day! First up was a quick sprint of a breakfast and some happy snaps of the entire team outside the Royal Palace before springing into an early morning start to the second day of the build. Any first day tendency to hang back and tentatively dip the big toe in was thrown out the windows (which we were painting a mellow shade of blue) and replaced with action in full flight.
Team Yellow made brilliant progress! We managed to fill 3 x 3m columns with concrete slurry as a well oiled human chain, sanded floorboards and sanded and painted shuttered windows. The latter was achieved with the encouragement of a growing number of kids that expertly finished off the windows and then took us for a tour around their neighbourhood where we able to see the progress of the other three homes the teams were working on.
What we have all achieved in such a short time is so inspiring!
Needless to say, we all deserved our cocktails in the pool when we got back to the hotel and were ravenous when we got to a fabulous family style dinner. For the uninitiated – family style means the best foods on the menu, full tummies and sleepy sign off’s.
Day Five: Meeting Previous Habitat Home Recipients
While singing loudly to the likes of Jail House Rock and Islands In the Stream we were mixing concrete and pouring for three more columns, sanding more floorboards, painting windows and levelling the earth across a lumpy site for a sand layer and concrete pad on ground.
The tour of a nearby community was the icing on the cake after another productive but shorter work day. The established community had beautifully completed Habitat homes. And because they had homes they had businesses. And because they had homes and businesses they had roads and electricity, water and sanitation. It was a neighbourhood of people of all ages going about life in a way that connects them to one another – a cricket breeder; a tea and coffee stand; a woman who had a small shop. Modern urban design principles might call it a successful activation of the street edge but I think it’s more of a testament to how people want to live in community with each other given the opportunity. They are lucky to have each other.
One of my team mates said to another, “We are really part of something special” and that recalibration from the house that we are building to the bigger picture spoke to a number of us. We are lucky to have each other too.
Refreshed after dinner at a delish Vegetarian place half of us were ready for an adventure to the Night Market to select our Cambodian made outfits for Friday evenings wrap up night on the town.
Thursday here we come!
Day Six: A Mountain of Sand!
What a huge day of progress!!! An early start for us for a good full day of work. It really lifted Team Yellows energy another notch when we turned the corner and saw that our awesome skilled labour team members had kept working after the volunteers had left on Wednesday. Now atop our 6 beautiful columns, which had also had their formwork removed overnight, was floor framing for the entire elevated level. It looked beautiful – so much so that we did a semi spontaneous flash mob rendition of Nutbush in celebration and memory of Tina.
The work day really began with moving a massive pile of sand into our site to provide a level platform for the ground level slab to rest on. This was a huge task and just when we thought we had team spirit perfected with our human chain fearlessly tackling the mountain of sand that looked like it was going to take the entire day to move, Team Maroon came and joined our human chain of buckets and it was done in no time. This meant we could divide our team into three and complete floorboard sanding, bricklaying of the ground floor pad edges, sawing of eleven timber treads and we were so tantalisingly close to finishing the five brick high stair base when we reached home time and ran out of mortar.
I’m on the bus with a very quiet bunch on the way back to the hotel right now. The consensus from all three teams is that it was a top shelf effort day – tiring but a very rewarding day with tangible progress.
Day Seven: A Very Emotional Handover Day.
Handover Day catapulted me into such a puddle of emotions that I’m going to quietly admit to being moved to tears … more than once.
On arrival the two mini buses emptied their passengers and with precision honed over a week’s practice, we expertly formed our teams and marched out to our sites with determination to make the most of the four hours we had remaining on the build.
While expectations were set realistically at the start of Build Week, the result was fantastic across all four sites and after lunch Team Yellow, including Sophany, her girls and our experienced workers, were proudly viewing advanced framing – clearly outlining the bones of a home, with walls and roof structure in place now (tears).
After being pried away from our work, we gathered in the rest tent for lunch with our families (fabulous fish amok for me), followed by some time together to reflect and ceremonially hand over the home we had been working on together. Each family representative shared their reflections, gratitude for the support of Habitat for Humanity, and appreciation of being able to share the experience with the volunteer team. When Sophany spoke about how much the week had given her in friendship and hope for the future and that how every day her dream of putting her four girls to bed in a safe home became clearer, I had my biggest cry of the day.
Jebby, another volunteer responded on behalf of the group expressing our hopes for the families collective futures; our appreciation for the sharing of their stories, their homes and their children; and our having felt honoured to have been invited to be part of this amazing experience to work alongside them and the skilled workers towards such a tangible goal. I was so grateful to have had those heartfelt words expressed that so precisely matched my inner most feelings (more tears).
We said our goodbyes after a celebration dance and some chasing and smearing of each other’s faces with powder to lots of raucous laughter. Bitter-sweet really because while our souls were overflowing by this stage, we were saying goodbye to people who none of us will ever forget (still more tears).
The day finished with a beautiful dinner at Eclipse Rooftop Bar where we were able to take in the views of Phnom Penh while celebrating and acknowledging each other. Another great night together blowing off steam and seeing this amazing city!
Day Eight: Reflecting on our Life-changing Week.
Cheeky early massage before saying our goodbyes at the hotel and getting our transfers to the airport to fly home. I’m on the plane on the way home now but it’s not quite over because we are such a big group returning to Melbourne that the fun and laughter continues while we eek out the last of this life changing experience.
In what other place can you find a group of like-minded, action oriented, outward looking, kind, diverse, strong, open minded and generous people? Thank you, Habitat, for this opportunity to do something of real, lasting value and purpose as well as bringing us together to form deep friendships forged from working toward the common goal of helping one family at a time gain shelter.
Team Yellow is a group of nine women from all walks of life and our family was a single mum with four daughters – fourteen exceptional females with one purpose. What I hadn’t fully realised before this week was that the houses, we were building didn’t just provide shelter from the elements, sanitation, access to clean water and electricity, a place to store belongings and study after school or even the intangible pride attached to being able to call a place home. The most important thing Sophany is wanting for her family is safety. When the front door gets locked in the evening Sophany and her little girls will be safe.
Before signing off – if you are reading this and have yet to sign up to a build, sign up today. There are so many who don’t have enough to eat, let alone shelter to protect them. Shelter in a developing country cost relatively little. If you are unsure if what you give makes a real difference, wonder no more – it really does️.
Or Kun Habitat – see you soon!
Written by Melissa, a volunteer on a recent Global Village build in Cambodia.
If you would like to join our next Global Village build, head over to our Helping Hands page for more information! https://helpinghands.online/global-village/ or if you still have a few questions head to our FAQ’s page.