2 Week Specials, Public Health in Cambodia by Harry Jamieson
When I left for Cambodia I’d just finished my first year at university, studying Biomedical Sciences. Having studied for a degree that is based around helping other people, I was immediately drawn to a medical placement. The decision to travel to Cambodia was a lot harder than choosing the programme, because of the array of possible destinations offered by Projects Abroad. However, Cambodia provided me with a step into the unknown.
Arriving in Cambodia
I was greeted in Phnom Penh airport by a member of Projects Abroad staff and together we travelled to the apartments where I would stay for two weeks. The greatest impression was from that first encounter; experiencing the blast of heat, the sheer volume and chaos of traffic on the road and the vibrancy and variety of life on the streets proved to be a real culture shock.
At the apartments I was greeted by my two project leaders, who were both very welcoming and we became great friends. It was a delight to realise that volunteers and project leaders form such a close relationship, and are more than just a source of support throughout the duration on the project. They showed me the surrounding area when I arrived (where I could go to buy snacks and drinks, local laundrettes and the building where I would walk to get my meals).
The project had recently been reformed and included a focus on public outreach activities. Public outreach is based on delivering healthcare to communities who have no means of transport to access a hospital themselves or/and can’t afford the services. Our work saw us primarily visit Koh Dach Island, approximately a 40 minute tuk tuk ride to a ferry which transferred us across the Mekong River.
Koh Dach home visits proved to be emotionally challenging. The contrast of witnessing health complications that are easily treatable in the Western world and yet potentially life threatening in Cambodia with the realisation that the work you’re undertaking, no matter how insignificant it may be to you, is invaluable and so appreciated by the patients was strange to overcome.
However, it was on such home visits that the kindness of the Khmer people was realised more than anywhere else during my two weeks. I’d heard so much about the peaceful and warm personalities the Khmer people had before I travelled to Cambodia, but on Koh Dach it was shown that the reputation of their warmth wasn't exaggerated.
For example, one patient we saw more than any other was a 10-year-old girl who suffered from leprosy and diabetes. All sensation in both legs had been lost and the disease was progressing to damaging her arms when we first met her. The understanding in Cambodia is that leprosy is caused by bad karma and is believed to be more contagious than it actually is. The result was the girl had been forced out of school for two months, and despite her situation, she never once failed to greet us with a smile.
When we weren't participating in home visits, hospital visits were also carried out. We were privileged enough to be given tours round two of Phnom Penh’s main hospitals, and it was interesting comparing the healthcare and traditional Khmer medicine with the treatments and quality of services provided back home.
Travelling in Cambodia
As part of the placement with Projects Abroad, trips to various tourist destinations were provided throughout the two weeks, in order to split up the days of work. To have trips organised to such a variety of destinations was a relief and allowed me to appreciate the sights we saw.
Without a doubt the highlight was the trip to Siem Reap, where we visited the Angkor Wat Temple. Knowing this was one of the sights we’d be visiting, I searched for pictures to see exactly what it was we’d be visiting, and images in books and on the internet don't serve justice to how incredible the site is.
In contrast to the Angkor Wat Temples, we also visited the Killing Fields and the S21 jails, infamous for the suffering that occurred there during the terror of the Khmer Rouge and it proved to be a very emotional day.
Upon reflection, my experiences in Cambodia and the people I met provided me with an unforgettable experience. I am truly appreciative towards Projects Abroad for the care and support they gave me during my two weeks and I can't recommend the country high enough, it was a privilege to visit. Lia hai!