“I was nursing in the early 90s here for a couple of emergency NGOS and Cambodia was a very different world - it was what woke me up.”
Set back over five kilometres from the Tonle Sap’s chocolate waters and hours away from any of the country’s sandy coastlines, the sleepy suburb of Sangkat Boeung Tumpun is an unlikely location for a ship.
“It’s interesting because we literally almost bought a boat,“ says art therapist Carrie Herbert as she opens a Bougainvillea-swathed cream gate, throwing her arms up towards the three level house in front of us, its white-washed concrete moulded into the bowed shape of a boat.
“The one that became Pontoon – do you remember? It didn’t work out for a number of reasons but I think that even back then, years ago, we had already thought of the metaphore of boats and water.”
Herbert designed the home (it straddles the border of Boeung Tumpun and the fast developing Tuol Tompoung) with her partner – also an art therapist - Kit Loring, and the metaphor she is referring to is their practice of therapy: “diving deep into experiences, navigating the storms of life, letting go and washing away.”
The home is also the base for Herbert and Loring’s Ragamuffin project, which provides clinical arts healing for Cambodian children and adults - rape victims, refugees, those with emotional and mental disorders or who have suffered trauma or drug addiction– along with running training programs for organisations, courses for local counsellors and housing research facilities.
Herbert channels all the right earth mother vibes – a soothing intonation, calm gestures and ample, genuine embraces - but is without the saccharine spirit often synonymous with hippie healers.
“Personally I am lured towards the water and ocean... I grew up in a small fishing village in the south of Wales, around boats. Water is a powerful force- it’s in our tears, most of our body is made up of it.”
The pair purchased the block of land five years ago, which originally held a traditional Cambodian concrete house and a couple of “sick, wounded mango trees” and asked a visiting architect friend for his aesthetic expertise.
“He joked, ‘You could fit the hull of a boat in there’ and I suddenly knew what it was. The next day we were walking around the house with chalk, sketching out the lines, I’m sure people thought we were mad.”
The soaring boat house can be spied from the street below, tangles of vines and creeper tumbling over its curved walls, the hull of the ship looking east over Phnom Penh. It is grand and commanding but at the same time veiled in privacy by the layers of vegetation – something the pair intended.
The nautical theme has been wonderfully played up: portholes are dotted around each level, nautical rope is hung from railings, vessels filled with shells and sand are placed on tables. Turquoise, teal and aqua silk cushions form a wall around the feature and the heart of the house- the living room and “healing room”. The circular windows are lined up close to the ceiling – one looks out from the inside to a sea of leafy green. “We were trying to create that privacy but at the same time keep it very light and bright.“
There’s ample security – a number of guards, barbed wire, cameras and padlocks – but once inside the house is free from the iron bars and blackened windows that mar the homes of many in this city.
Herbert says the house was designed around the two mango trees – they’re now producing over five kilos of mangos every year. The house – there are three sections: the boat room, an office and an apartment - swirls around a verdant courtyard with large, kidney shaped ponds, a waterfall and Japanese-styled pebble paths and bridges.
“The trees were so symbolic really of what we do and who we work with. I got chatting with Bill Grant, the engineer – he’s back in Wales now – and he helped us design foundations underneath the house which would allow the roots to spread. The trees have just flourished! It’s like they’re saying ‘I am a mango tree!’ They are actually breaking through the concrete and rock bases of the ponds. Overall, the most important thing for us design-wise was to respect nature as we built... It was just fitting that these trees rose up again and we deal with people that are also incredibly wounded.”
The garden certainly did flourish and the property’s lastly built structure - the three level apartment the pair do most of their living in – is “like a beautiful white tree house... You can hear the water trickling outside.”
Herbert employed a builder from a village in rural Cambodia, Sarun – a friend of one of her staff – and says she was touched by his response to “a strange idea”.
“He’d never heard of a curved wall... But he was so committed to building things in a safe way. He was a bit puzzled, but it broadened his creativity. He surprised us with beautiful gestures - he carved a lotus into concrete [the lotus, a symbol of healing in Cambodia, is used throughout the spaces- windows are shaped like the flower, as are lights] and lovely spirals. He put his and his workers’ energy into it.
The apartment is petite – on one floor an office and therapy room, on the next a small lounge and miniscule kitcheonette and a maritime, iron ladder creeps up to the third floor bedroom and bathroom. A white, ornate balcony wraps around the structure.
“I call it very economic, ergonomic pod living. You realise what you don’t need when you live in a small space. Because nature is wrapped around us you have a sense of spaciousness.”
Inbuilt wall boxes house trinkets from all around the world (Ragamuffin works in Russia, Peru and Kazakhstan) – there are brass singing bowls, sculptures of delicate Kbach Apsara dance hand gestures, an embroidered carving from Kazakhstan, a shisha from Russia, a pretty sketch of a Celtic ‘healing woman’ from Wales, and saxophones, flutes and other percussion instruments (Herbert and Loring are both musicians).
A favourite object of Herbert’s is a wind chime made of driftwood gifted by her brother. “It says Gwled, it means homeland in Welsh. A constant reminder of home.”