Organic Farming in Cambodia

We had not initially planned to volunteer on a farm in Cambodia, but after our permaculture plans in Thailand fell through, we decided it would be a shame to go through all of our SE Asia itinerary without any farming experience. For once, Workaway did not have any inspiring projects, so we turned to Google. A few clicks and articles later, we came across a blog about a couple who spent time on an organic farm outside Siem Reap. We followed the OrganiKH trail, contacted the farm via Facebook, and we were set.

The plan was simple: arrive in Siem Reap in the evening of August 20, go see Angkor Wat for sunrise the next day, and head out to OrganiKH for a short week of volunteering.

After waking up at 430am and going to buy our Angkor Wat day passes – thankfully a process which took just a few minutes and cost us $30 each – we went to the main temple to watch the sunrise. It was busy but not crowded, and the colors were stunning. By 7am we were sweating and desperate for any inkling of a breeze, so the change to Ta Prom temple – the one featured in Lara Croft’s Tomb Raider movie, with the trees growing over the temple – was welcome. What a sight! Nature really does always find a way.

We left in the nick of time, just as busloads of tourists were pulling up.

A few hours later, we were in the middle of nowhere on a lush farm which just two years prior had been a rice paddy. Olivier and Darin came back to Darin’s home town after years of working in hotel management across SE Asia, and started a project destined to combine permaculture principles with community building, hospitality, and the vision of being self-sustainable.

During our five days there, every day was different but started with making breakfast, feeding the chickens, and flower picking. The flowers were from the butterfly pea plant, a gorgeous blue color, and a great addition to ginger tea to make it blue (or purple if you add lemon!). It felt like there were more flowers every day, a testament to how prolific these plants are.

Beyond that, we dug ditches to contribute to the water management system – essential to ensure as close to every drop as possible is directed where needed instead of sitting in puddles or making walking paths soggy; we planted branches of frangipani in the hopes they would take and grow into trees; and we sorted through accumulated bits and pieces so wood, bamboo, and any other potentially useful materials were organized. We also weeded, prepared a few beds and transplanted seedlings, and made mud bricks!

Mud bricks are the most exhausting kind of fun you can imagine. You need to dig up a good amount of soil, add water, stir, stomp around until there are no more chunks (which takes longer than you’d think), and then start adding rice husks as fiber for added strength* while stomping around some more. Once there is almost too much suction to lift your feet (the cartoonesque “schlurrrp!” sound effect is the auditive indicator you made it) and you are exhausted, the mixture is probably ready. It needs to be moist and sticky but thick and a bit dry…

Then you can bring out your mold. In this case, we used what looked like a ladder made of thick wood planks which had five “steps” which were each a brick mold. We wet it to prevent the mud from sticking, put it on the ground, and filled it with our mixture – making sure we packed the corners. When the five “boxes” were full, we carefully lifted the ladder up, leaving five glorious mud bricks on the ground. They can then bake in the sun for a few days before being dry and ready to fulfill their destiny, whether it is to make a wall, a bungalow, or a skateboard ramp (true story).

Between all of us – Regina, Robert, Nadia, Guillaume, Darin and her youngest son Arun, and us two, we made 68 mud bricks in a morning. Not bad, though nothing close to the 200 bricks made a few months prior by the group of 15 or so volunteers!

All in all we learnt about natural building, water management systems, commercializing butterfly pea flower tea, and the kind of vision it takes to turn a bare piece of land into the beginnings of a productive farm.

It was also inspiring to hear Olivier and Darin’s vision of balancing their farm project with the intent to develop a community center, starting by giving young people from the nearby village access to a flat piece of land so they could play soccer, encouraging them to get organized and think of sponsorships to get the material they needed. Longer term, the idea is to have a space where young people can come and learn or practice English, spend time playing soccer or learning to strum a guitar, or seeing what alternatives exist to being a rice paddy farmer.

Our time in Cambodia was short but intense (and very hot and humid!), and we barely scratched the surface – of the country, its history, its culture, and even its food… but no regrets, because now we know where to start to build a mud brick bungalow and welcome our guests with magic tea that turns from blue to purple!

*If you’re not in SE Asia where rice husks are easy to find in large quantities and cheap because they would otherwise be considered as agricultural waste, you can use straw or most likely other equivalent materials.