Interview with Sinn Meang, Founder of the house building project for families in need in Cambodia

A house building project for families in need in rural areas in Cambodia has fascinated us from the first day on. We have been to Siem Reap several times now with volunteers, always coming back with remarkable effects not only on the families in need but also on ourselves. You just need the will to tackle things and within a week you can help changing the life and future of a whole family. A principle that is as simple as it is effective. To give you some more insights we asked Sinn Meang, founder of the project on how this idea developed since 2014, why it was set up and how you can get involved as a volunteer.


Sinn, when and why did you come across the idea to set this project up?

I have a background in construction and I owned a tourism business. Through my business I met some volunteers who were building houses. I joined them one day to find out more. I then helped them out initially for a limited period but when the previous charity operator wanted the project run by a Cambodian I decided to start Volunteer Building Cambodia. I come from a poor family in a small fishing village and I could relate to the problems these families were facing. I could see the need for better housing and I wanted to help poor Cambodian families like my own. Sometimes you just need an opportunity.

When did you found VBC and what kind of an organization is it?

VBC was established in March 2014. It is a locally registered NGO (non-government organisation).

How has this whole project developed since you first started, what have you achieved over time?

When VBC first started there were just three part-time staff – myself, a builder and a volunteer coordinator. We built houses from palm fronds and they could take us three to four weeks to build.

Then we refined the process and it took us two weeks to build each house. Today we have streamlined the process so that it is a one-week project. Sometimes we are able to finish a house in three days. All our houses are made of timber with a tin roof.

Last week we celebrated our 200th house build. This was a major milestone for VBC. It also featured a new design with an extra window for added ventilation and a concrete floor downstairs.

In the four years since we started we also bought land in a village about 25km from Siem Reap. We built a warehouse on the land so we are able to buy building materials in bulk.

We also built a community centre on the same land and in late 2016 we opened an English language school at the community centre. We have more than 200 students and more than 50% are girls, which is significant because in Cambodia girls’ education is often not seen as a priority.

The community centre has an office, a library, four classrooms and a computer room. The computer room opened last month and has 24 computers. We are starting to offer basic computer lessons.

How do you select which families are in need?

Selecting the families who will receive houses is the most difficult part of the organisation. This role is undertaken by our social worker and is an in depth process.

We do many interviews with the families, their neighbours, village and commune chiefs to ensure the families are in genuine need of a house. We require families to own the land and have the documents to prove it and to be debt-free. Because all our funds for houses are donated we cannot build a house if there is a risk that it could be taken from the family.

Who is part of your project team?

VBC has grown significantly since its early days. We have a team of 16 including an admin officer doing work experience and our part-time communications manager.

Our team includes three builders – one of these is also our warehouse manager. We have two staff members who also work in the warehouse. There are four teachers and a librarian at the community centre. We also employ a volunteer coordinator, a social worker and a finance officer.

Why should a volunteer choose your project, why is it so important from your perspective?

Adequate housing is a basic human right. Many of the families we build houses for are living in small, flimsy dwellings made of palm leaf. Some are raised off the ground and have wood or bamboo floors. Some are on dirt floors and many have holes in the walls and roof and do not offer protection from the rain. Some do not have walls. Secure housing makes a difference to quality of life, overall health and security. Volunteers joining VBC make a real difference to the lives of Cambodian people.

What do you love most about your home country Cambodia?

I love my country. I love the culture. People respect each other. Even when people are poor, they are still happy, they always smile.

What do you like most about your work?

I like to help people. I love that I am able to make a difference in people’s lives. I meet many people from around the world and exchange knowledge and experience with them. I also love encouraging young Cambodians and helping them to learn and grow.

Which stories were the most memorable you can share with us – either with families moving in their now home as well as with volunteers?

The most memorable story happened in January when VBC built 11 houses in one week. Usually we can build three houses in a week. But a fantastic supporter of ours – Ulrik Nehammer – decided to celebrate his 50th birthday by raising money to build houses for VBC. He wanted to build 10 houses for people in need along with 10 toilets, 10 wells and 10 solar packages.

We also had another group booked in during the same week making it a total of 11 houses. It was very stressful and required a lot of planning and organisation but the team worked together to achieve this incredible goal. It also means in just one week we helped 11 families, which is absolutely fantastic.

Do you often get feedback what happens with the families after moving in? What do they say, how has their life changed?

Our social worker carries out regular impact assessments with our families. These are done in the first six months, at 12 months and two years. We get feedback from them on how the house has changed their lives, any problems they are still having etc.

Mostly we find that people feel safer, healthier and more secure. Protection from the rain and not lying on damp, dirt floors means they get sick less so they are able to work more and the children go to school more regularly. They spend less money on medication so they are financially better. They worry less. And they feel secure in that they can lock up their homes and belongings. The men often feel more secure to go away for work and leave their families, knowing they are safe. In some cases going further away can mean being prepared to travel 10km per day for work instead of 5km.

Volunteering in the house building project:

What is a typical day like for a volunteer in the house building project? 

We pick up volunteers from their accommodation at 7am. We drive them out to the build site, which is usually 30 minutes to one hour away from Siem Reap.

They spend the morning working on the building project. They help with the sawing, hammering, chiselling etc. They are active participants in the building. We bring the volunteers back to town in time for lunch. The afternoon and evening is then free time for them.

Usually they spend Monday to Thursday building the house. On Friday they attend the house blessing ceremony.

Does a volunteer need to have any pre-experience?

No, volunteers do not require any experience. A large percentage of our volunteers have never used a hammer or saw before volunteering. Our builders will guide them through all the stages of the building project, show them what to do and how to do it. Our volunteer coordinator is often on site to help as well.

What are the guesthouses like the volunteers stay in?

The guesthouse we generally use is basic but clean and friendly. However, if volunteers wish to upgrade we can help them find accommodation suitable to their needs.

What is the breakfast like in Cambodia the volunteers will eat?

The volunteers usually have breakfast at the guesthouse before they are picked up for the project. It is a western breakfast.

What can volunteers do after finishing work in the evening?

Siem Reap is a popular tourist town and there are many activities and much entertainment available to them. Siem Reap has many restaurants of all standards with food from around the world. There are many bars and volunteers often like to spend their evenings at Pub Street in the nightclubs.

But there are also massage places for those who want to relax, a cinema, karaoke bars, night markets, Phare, the Cambodian Circus and much more for them to do.

What type of a person should a volunteer be to take part in your project?

We have people from all walks of life and from all over the world volunteer with VBC. We require volunteers to be 16 or older. Our oldest volunteer was in his early 70s. Men and women join us but interestingly about 70 per cent of our volunteers are female. We have accountants and lawyers, architects, students, builders, farmers, IT people, administration officers, secondary school and university students. There is no set type. We just require people who genuinely care about others and want to make a difference. They also need to be okay being outdoors in the Cambodian countryside.

How can we imagine the direct surrounding in Cambodia to be like?

The countryside around Siem Reap is mostly rice fields. It is low-lying and flat. In the wet season (June to November) there can be torrential rainfall. Usually this happens late in the day but this year had a lot of morning rain. This is the time of year the rice is planted and the countryside turns a beautiful bright green. Everything is fresh. It is a great time of year to be here but it causes more worry for house building. The ground is muddy and slippery, the weather can be humid and it is difficult to work in the rain.

In the wet season there is lots of water across the land and people are busy in the fields. Everything is more alive.

In the countryside you will see cows and water buffaloes. Many of the houses are traditional Khmer-style wooden houses. To the south of Siem Reap we have Tonle Sap, a huge lake, dominating central Cambodia. It expands up to five times its size in the wet season flooding the rice fields.

In the dry season (December to May) the rice is harvested and then the land turns brown. December and January are our coolest months and great for building. March and April are the hottest months with very high temperatures and high humidity, which can be very challenging for volunteers to work in.

Thank you very much Sinn for answering all our questions. We look forward to meet you again with our next volunteers in Cambodia!

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