Among the many starry-eyed discussions we initially had when planning our big trip, one thing was certain to both of us – we wanted to work along the way. Of course, our primary desire was to travel around, experience new destinations and in the process build a strong foundation for our own relationship. But the idea of working as we traveled was almost as important to us – we wanted to come off this trip with new (and somewhat random) skills and experiences that went beyond hopping around from place to place.
With this in mind, we secured our first short term project shortly before leaving through HelpX – a website that facilitates work exchanges across the world. A few casual email exchanges to assess fit and skills, and it was set. We were going to spend a couple of weeks helping out with construction and landscaping at an upscale eco-friendly property in southern Cambodia.
We showed up to Sihanoukville, the beachside town our project was based in, excited and ready to settle down. After over a month of non-stop travel, the thought of putting our bags down and living and working in one place sounded ideal.
The area itself also seemed perfect – out of the town’s five or so beaches, we were to be working off its most pristine and relaxed one – Otres beach.
Once we got there, we realized that rather than a larger resort, we were actually going to be working on a smaller plot, one the owner wanted to complete and rent out on sites like AirBnB for whole seasons at a time. Though this came as a surprise, the space was still beautiful, our accommodation was fun and funky, and we were keen to start work.
All around us bungalows, restaurants and bars were springing up. Otres village was an upcoming area and most of the land had already been leased by Italians, Americans, British and Russians – each building with hopes that the popularity of Cambodia’s southern coast would continue to grow and bring more tourism and income to the area.
Our weeks there flew by. We typically worked 5-6 hours a day, 5 days a week. We spent our mornings exploring or lazing around the beach and our afternoons working alongside a Khmer builder, Sam. Because of time and budget constraints of our host, we were the only three workers, and our goal was to create value out of excess and waste construction materials. And over just a few weeks, we learned a host of new skills. It was fun, creative and hard work.
We spent our afternoon shifts outdoors during the hottest time of year, sweating off our sunscreen as we sawed leftover bamboo, sanded and varnished scrap wood, cut old pvc pipes, collected stones and used leftover tiles and pebbles to create concrete blocks.
These materials we then used for various purposes which included building a rock wall around the property, making a mosaic path on the lawn, building a duck pen, constructing a rainwater collection and drainage system and finishing off a BBQ grill.
Each week brought with it a different experience and perspective. On our first week, we felt like clueless novices. Charlie, at least, had some prior construction experience, but I had barely ever held a hammer before, let alone a power tool or a saw. And neither of us were adept at the Cambodian way of construction. We learned how to do things with the bare minimum, and were shown a myriad new and uncommon uses of basic tools. But largely, we did a lot of standing around and felt pretty slow with the tasks we were given.
Over the course of our second week though, we started gaining confidence. Our pace picked up and the work felt easier. It was fun and we started feeling more independent.
By the beginning of our third week, we had ducks in our finished pen and both Sam and our host wanted us to stay longer.
Our host even offered to pay to extend our visas and wanted us to housesit while she went away – saying she’d be happy to give us a budget to take ownership of the project and oversee it on her behalf! The recognition and appreciation left us elated.
But as the week progressed, we felt ourselves winding down. As fun as it would have been to stay, we had a fixed timeframe and budget and Vietnam was on our minds. Construction work had also exhausted us and we wanted a break from the long days in the sun.
And so, we spent our final week wrapping things up, saying goodbye to the staff at our favorite hang-out spots and getting visas for Vietnam. Overall, it had been a good stint but it was time to set off for Cambodia’s capital before the onward journey to Saigon.