I have been spending a lot of my spare time lately reading all the information I can find on the internet ( of which there is tonnes ) regarding 0ff-grid housing. Actually, my searches usually include the words “cabin” or “shack” as that is what I really want to build. Anyways, people have been living off grid since day dot and many still do it full-time as a lifestyle choice or part-time as an escape from the rat race. Our land in Kep has no running water and no power so off-grid our cabin will be.
About 40 years ago when my Dad was about 40 or so he bought a couple hundred acres up on the mid North Coast of Australia in an area of NSW called The Great Lakes. Dad had a wife and 5 kids and I guess he wanted an escape from the city where his kids could enjoy some fresh air and where he could tinker away to his hearts content ( he is an engineer and avid tinkerer ). The land was heavily timbered, had no running water and yes….no power. It also took about 7 hours to get there in the old Landrover that the family was getting around in ( complete with Flower Power stickers on the doors !! ) . These days with all the road improvements and dual carriage highway it takes 2.5 hours but back then much of it was dirt ! Can you imagine ?
Dad built a very basic fibro shed with a huge brick fireplace at one end and a roller door at the other and at night whilst mum and dad slept in a double bed right in the “living room” in front of the fire, all the kids would pile into sets of pine bunks that were next to the tractor and motor bikes. You could hear the snakes slithering around and the mice hippety hopping about a foot above your head in between the tin roofing and the insulation and when it rained it was deafening. We went up there every single school holidays we had, many weekends and every Christmas for weeks at a time. Summer was brutally hot and winter was freezing cold but together as a family we had the best of times as we worked the land, cleared paddocks, erected fences and raised cattle. It was and is still just a magical place to be although things have changed considerably since the early days. In 1985 after 20 years of no power Dad finally capitulated to Mum’s desire for an easier house and together with my brother Adam ( as builder ) and me ( as Laborer ),we built mum a fine house with mist mod cons ; power, hot and cold running water, a flushing toilet and several bedrooms. So those early days of holidaying at Xanadu have got me thinking how can I apply what I experienced and learnt back then to an off-gridder here in Cambodia ?
The first thing I know is that Kids don’t ( or shouldn’t ! ) need power and mod cons to have a good time when they are in the bush. We spent our time from the age of about 8 rambling around the farm on old motorbikes , frogging, shooting ( you could shoot anything you wanted back in those days ) and generally keeping ourselves entertained. I want our cabin to be utilitarian and free of clutter. A glorified camping spot. I remember endless games of cards and backgammon and monopoly after dinner. In fact we all used to greatly look forward to the after dinner cards so much so we would eat as fast as we could. The fire would get stoked up and we would settle down for hours.
Lighting at Xanadu was by way of Kerosene and Gas lamps and candles. Dad would fuel up the lanterns and prime them up before adding a match and then WOOSH HISSSSSS we had plenty of (noisy) light. I have been giving the light aspect much thought. Battery lanterns are out as having to keep batteries forever on stock is a pain in the butt and I have still not found a lantern online that does not chew them. I love candles BUT again, they burn quick AND I would be too worried about hot wax burning the kids . Grace just loves to get into stuff though I here soy wax is very good and does not burn. I do love the kerosene pressure style lamps but we cannot buy them here in Cambodia which would mean importing the lamps, mantles,glass etc etc every time they broke. I did find a vintage Petromax lamp the other day in Russian Market that the guy was asking $40 for ( a bargain ! ) but it had no mantle and I had no way of knowing if it worked. So this leaves me with two options as I see it. I absolutely LOVE hurricane lamps and have finally found shop that sells the really large ones for just $5 ! They are Chinese made but come with a spare wick and a little funnel. Check out these fire engine red ones I bought yesterday ! I love the look, the smell and they are cheap as hell to run. They light up a dark room really well but are not so great in open areas as the light diffuses .
The second option is solar. Recently I had a local Khmer solar company price me up a system that would run 8 light globes, a fan or two and a water pump and they came back with a a BOQ for $4000. Jeeeezus H Christ almighty.Then I met a dude at a party who worked for a local NGO called Yejj that packages up 12v systems for the rural folk. He told me for a pocket full of change you can get a great little system with a few down-lights and a strip light that runs off a single small panel on your roof. It is all plug and play and a visit to test the system in a dark storeroom in their office showed the lights to be pretty good. I would want to see if I could soften the rather bright white lights somehow but all in all pretty good and it can be scaled up for a few extra dollars depending on your needs. You can also run some 12v fans off the battery which will be a must in April / May.
OK so that’s the light. Then you need to take a crap right ? At Xanadu we used a long drop for two decades. It was a simple hole in the ground with a slab over it and a fibro outhouse giving you the privacy you needed. A roll of bog-wipe, a box of matches and a candle and tin of spray for all those creepy crawlies and you were away to the…er….races. Ok so it smelled a bit but the big bag of lime we used to spread over the waste kept things breaking down the view down the front paddock was awesome. There is a mob here in Cambodia called IDE who are building very smart latrines for the rural folk and I have already been in touch with the head guy. I really like the look of these and at $50…who can argue.
Of course, after you have had that crap you might want to wash your hands or maybe, if it was heinous enough, you might need a shower so water is a very important requirement. Xanadu had a huge tin roof which fed into a 5000gallon tank and we simply went to the tank’s tap every time we needed water for anything. Our showers were had by hoisting a canvas bucket shower up under a tree ( in winter hot water was heated over a fire in a copper urn ) and those showers were legendary amongst family and visitors. Only someone who has had a hot outdoor shower in winter knows what I am talking about. I originally wanted to build our weekenders roof out of thatched grass as it is very cheap and looks great but you cannot collect rainwater off it as it taints the water . We could also sink an inexpensive ground well and get permanent(ish) water but I am not sure how clean it is as some areas have groundwater with a lot of heavy metals in it. We would still then have to get it out of the hole via either a hand pump ( hard yakka !) or a 12v pump. So I think a ttin roof will be the best option and I will also keep some of the big water 20litre bottles in the cabin for pure drinking water. I will build a simple but nice shower house and ship a canvas bucket in from Australiar make one myself out of a plastic bucket. The biggest issue will be heating the water as I like a hot shower and it does get “cool” in Kep over the NOV- FEB months. We can possibly do a fire under a drum but there is not much wood here in Cambodia and I feel kind of bad burning the stuff. Maybe we can burn coconut husks or maybe I can get a commercial jet burner running off a large LP tank that will heat a 40gallon drum of water in no time flat.
So there we have off-grid light and water sorted out. The final part of the equation is refrigeration. Xanadu had a kerosene fridge which was fine but again, nothing like that available over here. I figure a simple weekend / two night stay is easy as we can simply keep beer and basic baby food etc cold in a big tub full of ice and food for the bbq can be bought fresh that day. Anything longer than a weekend and it gets a bit tricky.
So there are my initial thoughts on a simple off-grid weekender in Cambodia. I am busting a nut to get something started as the city is driving my crazy on an increasing basis and I just love it to bits down in Kep.
Any advice from anyone who has done something similar is always welcome !