Cambodia - Unforgotten
Updated: Oct 30, 2022
Since 1994, I have been involved with a group of Vietnamese American doctors who regularly go into remote villages in Vietnam where medical, dental, and optometric services were not available to provide healthcare services. We then identified social and medical needs that we can assist with in our follow-up programs.
As Vietnam developed and modernized over the past 28 years, and western medicines became more readily available and affordable throughout the country, we find our mobile health unit to be less needful. At the same time, the demands of full-time private practice and that of a family with four growing children and 2 elderly parents meant that I was able to attend these mobile health clinics less often. Luckily, I was able to continue to support the Social Assistance Program for Vietnam financially for their orthopedic, cataract, and heart surgery programs as well as their medical supplies, education, and disaster relief plans over the past decades (https://sap-vn.org/)
In 2019, the same group of Vietnamese American doctors, dentists, optometrists, and pharmacists identified a huge group of stateless Vietnamese living in Cambodia on the large Tonle Sap lake and along the Mekong river who has never had access to medical, dental, or any healthcare whatsoever. Because they were born, live, and die on the river and lake, these people have no citizenship in Cambodia or in Vietnam ( where their ancestors came from in the exodus to flee Vietnam many decades ago). We were able to organize a mobile healthcare trip to 3 villages of Vietnamese and Cambodians, Kampong Chhnang, Kampong Luong, and Svay Pak, where we dispensed healthcare but also identified the greatest needs of that population at the time.
Many of my patients have expressed interest in learning what I do when I leave them each summer. A great youtube video was made of that Medical Mission in 2019 here. It really helps to get some perspective on our lives, no matter how wonderful or miserable it is under our current shutdowns and inflations and stresses.
The result of that trip in 2019 was the formation of another non-profit called International Humanitarian Missions which was able to raise the funding needed for various projects that we on the Board of Directors found to be needed throughout 2019-2022. Although I am on the Board of Directors, I honestly contributed less than 1% of the effort that this team has put out in the past 3 years to accomplish what we did.
Thus while the rest of the world shut down in the past 2 years, IHM was able to build a small village for some of the people to settle on land who have been evicted from the lake. We built a small clinic to staff with local practitioners, and most importantly, we built a school for the dirt poor kids of Kampong Chhnang, developed a curriculum, and staffed it with teachers who taught in both Vietnamese and Cambodian. This will enable the children to assimilate into Cambodian society and cultures, allowing them to attend higher education and giving them a brighter future.
See what IHM was able to accomplish in the few years during the pandemic at
The medical mission trip this year was to serve the same 3 villages that we visited last time and to see with our own eyes what has changed from 2019 for these people with and without our aid.
What we found was the floating village of Kampong Chhnang was essentially gone, although the land town of Kampong Chhnang is rapidly being developed into a resort area. There is a new park in the middle of town, the sidewalk is being paved with modern brick blocks, and signs of development was everywhere.
Since it is summer, we were able to use the school that we had built in the village of Kampong Chhnang to see patients for the first 2 days that we were there. I was told we saw 700 patients the first day and 800 patients the next day. This is the scene that greeted us when we got there, the patients were told we were going to be there at 6 am, not accounting for the 2 hours of bus ride that it had taken us from Phnom Penh.
We set up our workstations for medical, dental, optometry, and pharmacy using the tables and benches that were in the school and started dispensing medications, injections, dental extractions, and glasses for the next 2 days.
On the 3rd day, we went to another village further out from Phnom Penh which took 4 hours bus ride to get there and 4 hours back. The floating village of Kampong Luong was still there but decimated, fewer than 10% of the houseboats were still there.
This is a picture of the floating church and attached school and barge where we worked in 2019, surrounded by houseboats from the people who lived there.
And this is a picture of the church and surroundings now, standing almost forlorn in its lonely domain.
Most of the people on the houseboats on the river have been moved to houses on stilt, some of which they built, some of which were built by non-profits like ours. Many of the people who could not afford to build houses on land have just taken their houseboats and moved further out into the uncharted and inaccessible areas of the lake where the authorities can not get to. Unfortunately, this just makes it harder for them to access care and any form of protection from the law.
I had not realized how bad things had gotten until we were told that the church was just robbed the day before we were there and all sorts of crimes were happening on the lake without any hope of intervention. This helps explain why we were accompanied by 2 armed Cambodian officers when we took the boat out to the church.
We were told by most of the patients who arrive at our mobile clinic sites that they have to travel 2 hours by boat and/or tuk-tuks to get to us and, in some cases, the nuns had to help people with their transportation costs if they had no money for gas. The same issue involving access to care that we have here in the US but quite a bit more severe.
Unfortunately, Kampong Luong's workday had to be terminated early because a storm came out of the lake and it became too dangerous for patients to venture out on the stormy lake in their little boats. But even after we had folded up shop to wait out the storm, and to await the dental team to finish with their 2-hour backlog of patient wait, people were still pulling up out of the lake asking for treatment and cure. I doubted if any medication would help this hemiplegic man who dragged himself out and into his boat to come to see us. But I gave him an injection in the swollen and painful knee on the side that he could still move and medications for bp and pain anyway. We donated the rest of our medications allotted for Kampong Luong to the local sisters of Providence and volunteers of the Tri An Foundation to disburse to people they visit on the lake. Instructions have been included in the bags of acetaminophen for pain, amoxicillin for infections, multivitamins, anti-parasitic meds, etc...
We had one day of break from working with patients to go visit the villages on the lake where many people had moved to. The sisters of Providence who were our guides told me they have been out since 6 am delivering the medicines that we left to the closest of the 41 villages they visit on the lake. They noted that the further out the villages are from civilization, the poorer they get. Children sometimes don't even have clothes and the nuns have to scrounge together used children's clothes to bring to them.
We saw few houseboats anymore, just people living on dinky little boats, some don't even have covers for the rain. The sisters also passed on to me a request from the young women of the villages for some form of contraception since it was not uncommon for a woman in her early twenties to have 6-7 kids crowded together on a tiny boat. This gave me ideas for 2 more projects we could look into for IHM while my respect for these dedicated women increased tenfold. (http://trianfoundation.com/)
Afterward, we went to visit the village that IHM had built during the pandemic. The village had houses raised on stilts in readiness for the wet season. There were lotus fields in the back along with chickens and ducks. There were little shops and groceries. People had motorcycles and some houses had satellite discs. Some people from outside and inside the village had gathered for gifts that we brought in the form of clear nylon tarp for their boats. I make a habit of supporting local merchants and stopped to buy some bird's nest with aloe drink from a shop there.
Then we went on to the celebration in our honor at the school that IHM had built.
The children and teachers had prepared a welcome and gratitude ceremony that involved a lot of singing and dancing and locally prepared food that was beautiful and delicious.
The last day of my trip to Cambodia was spent in Svay Pak, a village or area within Phnom Penh known for human trafficking in sex workers. Just like last time, we were asked not to take any pictures when working in this area within the clinic and school of the Agape International Missions. AIM is a very thoughtful and admirable organization that has been rescuing young people from child sex trafficking for many years and we are always happy to spend some time in Svay Pak to provide medical and dental care for the residents of this community.
That last evening, we got back to our hotel early enough for me to eat out at a restaurant before leaving for the airport to meet up with my family in South Korea. We were staying at the Palace Gate hotel which literally is across the street from Phnom Penh's Royal Palace. The rooftop bar has a beautiful view of the Palace, especially at night.
I googled for some food other than Vietnamese or Cambodian, having eaten only that the past 6 days, and was tickled pink to find the Kathmandu cafe a block from my hotel.
When I lived in Nepal for a month in the last year of my medical school to learn Poverty Medicine, I lived with a family who would serve dinner to me on a metal cafeteria tray. There was always a rice or nan portion, a meat curry of some kind, a lentil or vegetable soup portion, and a couple of vegetable portions. So it was very satisfying to find that this is the way dinner was served in this Kathmandu cafe. The lamb curry was great, the momo's (Nepalese dumplings) had that little spice kick that you don't find in any other dumplings, and the mango lassi was just right. What a nice bonus to a great trip!
My husband agreed that these missions are very helpful to me. Although it took a lot of effort, and time away from my family and work, I always get so much out of each trip.
I get back some perspective on life after spending the past 2-3 years growing more depressed and angry at every news item. The trip lets me see how lucky I am to be able to live where I live and how I live. It reminds me of the resiliency of the human race, how people have survived conditions of poverty, hunger, and exploitation for thousands of years and, given a little help, they can keep going in the toughest of times with a smile on their faces. And most of all, it reminds me of the beauty within the human spirits. How everywhere I go, from Nepal to Italy, New York to Mexico, I find incredible people helping others. It makes me happy to have chosen a profession where I get to see the very best that humans have to offer.
Here are some last glimpses of the beautiful people that I get to see and work with.
Have a beautiful day, week, or month, until the next post !! (which should be soon, I have much to show you about our South Korea family road trip)