The harsh realities of Cambodia stares me in the face. My second trip to this desolate country in a month has left an indelible mark in my throve of memories. Touching down in Siem Reap, we travelled four hours on a local bus to Battambang. Packed with over 40kgs of old clothes, medical supplies and a vague sense of what to expect, our team of a doctor and four medical students, 10 professionals and a little girl (Vanora) and set out to make medical aid possible for the rural village folk.
We met up with Pastor Sam of Legacy of Hope, an English language institute that offers quality education to children and youth. He brings us around the school, a few simple blocks of tiny classrooms with ceilings low enough to make you feel claustrophobic. Students stare at us intently offering welcoming smiles and respectful bows as we peeked in.
Prior to our arrival, Pastor Sam had organized the purchase of medicines and prepared a group of local translators to help us with the medical camp. We spent the rest of the day sorting, counting, packing and labelling medicines into the wee hours of the morning.
The next day, many questions still hung in the air as we travelled another hour into interiors of the country side– ‘How many people will come?’, ‘How will the response be?’, ‘What will we encounter?’, ‘Will we be able to cope with the numbers?’… To add to the sea of questions, it was the first time a medical team has visited this particular village.
A multitude of people were found waiting at the entrance of the school, the temporary ‘hospital’ for the next 2 days. Along the way as our van approached, groups of people were seen walking towards the school, some pulling wooden carts to ferry their children, others dragging their little ones by the finger in hope to get some medicines for their ailing bodies.
Children walked around with torn clothes, some half-naked and most of them without any shoes or slippers. Their hair streaked with a light tinge of blonde not from hair dye but as a result of severe malnutrition. Old women and men offer a smile to welcome us and I’m overcome by the sight of decaying and charcoal black teeth. I returned a smile with my best effort trying to hide the feelings that overcome me – feelings of empathy and despair.
In a place like Cambodia, cleanliness and hygiene is a concept hard to grasp or even understand. These people have so little to survive much less spare a few dollars to buy toothpaste or soap for bathing. They live on bare minimum, a shade above their head and enough to fill their stomachs. Finger nails packed with dirt are trimmed manually by biting on it. Water is a precious natural resource since it rains for 6 months and not even a drop for the next half of the year. And in those dry seasons, water is used for cooking rather than washing or cleaning.
Yet despite the poverty stricken conditions, nothing comes free. Parents still need to pay for their children’s education and medical aid is not covered by insurance or even subsidized by the government. In order to put food on the table, one has to work hard plowing and tilling their land in harsh weather conditions. Meat is a complete luxury for these rural folk since it costs USD12 for 1kg of chicken!
On the first day of the medical camp, we saw over 350 patients. Setting up stations to test their blood pressure, glucose level and finally meeting a doctor – we dispensed thousands of tablets, cleaned wounds, gave out vitamins and extended our hearts to these people. Children walked into the ‘hospital’ without parents, farmers miss a day of work just to get a basic medical health check, families streamed in and the hall was filled. The doctors didn’t have a minute to rest and the pharmacy buzzed with activity.