It's six months since I was last in Phnom Penh and the chance to go back to the Children's Surgical Centre has fortuitously come around again, thanks to BFIRST, the charity which sponsors my visits. On this occasion, I will be joining colleagues from Scotland and Singapore to teach reconstructive surgery techniques to the local Khmer surgeons. I'm very humbled to have the chance to return to this beautiful part of the world and to catch up with the colleagues and friends I made six months ago, not forgetting one very important patient.
The first day back
Phnom Penh wakes well before the dawn, before the sweltering sun punctures the cool air of early morning, before the heavy humidity of late May traps the city under its sultry weight. The metropolitan Cambodian makes the most of this time of half-light as Tuk-Tuks vie for space with scooters and pedestrians on the city's hazardous streets.
By the time I cross the Japanese Bridge over the Tonle Sap river, the heat is almost unbearable. Arriving at the Children's Surgical Centre once again, it's as if no time has past since the last visit. As if, after a weekend away, Monday had come around, and we were to pick up again from where we had left things the Friday before.
There to greet me was Dr Davy, the local ENT surgeon, who had helped me reconstruct a little girl's ear six months previously. She had arranged for the patient, Chuon, to return to see me for the second stage operation.
Ear Reconstruction. Chuon's Story
It was a real delight to see Chuon again. She had been born with a condition called microtia in which the ear doesn't form properly. The reconstruction had involved removing cartilage from her ribs and sculpting an ear shaped framework to place under the skin on the left side of her head. Her bravery, and her acceptance of the procedure at such a tender age had made a real impression on me. Fortunately today's operation to release the ear from the side of her head and to give it prominence, would be much easier for her.
Once again, the staff at the Children's Surgical Centre were very welcoming, highly skilled and enthusiastic and the operation was a great success. In the photo, Chuon and I had tried to talk to one another, but with my Khmer not being as good as it could be and without an interpreter it wasn't easy! But she was smiling and happy, and for my part, Choun's reaction alone had made the whole trip worthwhile.
Teaching the local surgeons
Visit to Angkor
After a long, tiring but thoroughly rewarding week working in Phnom Penh, I wanted to make a trip to Siem Reep before the long journey home. Over hundreds of square kilometres around this north western corner of the country, close to the border with Thailand where so many suffered during the time of the Khmer Rouge, are found hundreds of temples dating back well over a thousand years. I visited many of them, over two days but I could have spent two months and not seen them all. Of course, I visited the most famous of all, which is of course Angkor Wat (above), an immense structure of breathtaking beauty. I was there in the heat of the afternoon, when temperatures reached well above 40 celsius and the humidity was palpable. As the sun set, and the old stones exuded ever changing colours, I reflected on Cambodia, and the stark contrast of its beauty and its tragedy.
The Beautiful Country
Cambodia is a majestic place, and the Khmer are a gracious, happy and welcoming people. It is a country blessed by an abundance of natural resources and a rich culture. Yet as fish spill over the shores of Lake Tonle Sap in the wet season, and great forests grow through its ancient temples, most Cambodians are poor, terribly poor, and with no access to the healthcare much of the world takes for granted. To those with healthcare skills who wonder how they can help the impoverished and the destitute of this wonderful land, if you visit the answer will be clear. Time. Give them your time.