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                                                                                                                                      By Julie Debuire

Wednesday the 21st of march I left the busy Siem Reap for a way more quiet place down on the Steung Sen River, Beung Thom village. (You can have a look on the Map)
I went down with Sakhem, TLC's amazing Managing director. It took us 3 hours by car to reach Battambang where we stopped for a little while, had a quick dinner and relaxed our muscles!
Few hours later we arrived in Kompong Chnang, TLC's second office. There, I've met Mom (midwife and team leader) and Susophon (nurse), both of them are working with the River Team on the river. Edward was also there. Edward is a med student, volunteer at TLC for a month. While I'm writing these lines, he is in US, I wish him all the best, a very nice new adventure and experience. It was very nice meeting him.

The next morning we rode down to the pier and jumped into the boat. The last part of the journey could begin.
How could I describe the feeling you experienced when you're on the lake? When you see this huge lake in front of you, when you cannot distinguish water from sky, or sky from water, when they seem to belong to each other, when horizon never ends...
Hundreds, maybe I should say thousands, of floating houses, floating markets, floating gas station etc... When you pass trough this, when you let behind you the active life of the village and you enter the river, things change, perspectives change...

The boat gently sail all the way down to Beungthom Village. We passed some houses, we passed some fishers...
The landscape is beautiful. The Steung Sen River is really quiet, mangroves, trees, houses again...
For kilometers you will only see the shores.
You really feel like in the middle of nowhere.. but we'll talk about that later...

Few more minutes and I saw it, the mobile clinic... The one KIDS International Development Society and Impact UK helped TLC to build. Standing in front of you. Blue, red, yellow. TLC's and Cambodian's flags swaying softly in the wind.


I'm working with TLC for a month now, I've seen the other clinics under construction in Chong Khneas pier but this time, at this moment I was watching at the operational one. It was amazing.
As you might already know, this first floating clinic has been put into the water since 4 weeks, as a baby child, it's making its first steps, first moves. It is the beginning of a new era... I don't want you to think I'm exaggerating, I'm really not. It is amazing to see, to be a witness of TLC's and healthcare enhancement in this part of Cambodia, in this part of the world.
As I just told you, in these areas of the lake or the river, you really feel like you are in the middle of nowhere. Most of the villages don't have access to basic institution as schools, hospital, etc... They're living here almost by there own. No one would come in case of emergency. If a house is burning, everyone will help, in Siem Reap, if a house burn, everyone will try to protect their own home, no one will care for the burning one.
The people there are poor, they live with little, they're isolated, underserved.
Having a clinic that comes every 6-7 weeks for few days really change their live.
Doctor Korn Som Bun explained me that before, they used to work with a boat, TLC 1 and set up the clinic on the shore, on the land. But how do you do when the water is too high? When you don't have a place to set up a clinic?
Easy answer. Tragic answer.
You're not able to work anymore. So you just stop and wait.
Last year the team didn't show up for 6 months. When they finally returned, villagers asked them "where have you been?"... When you cannot work, when you cannot help the people you struggle to help due to natural causes you try to find a way to solve the problem. That is what TLC did. Water is high?  Cannot find any place to work properly? Let's build a clinic, a mobile one, a floating one. And here we are now. Thanks to donors and partners, the team is back and they won't have to stop for 6 months ever again
They will maybe be able to satisfied villagers request: "Please stay here forever"...

Solar panels, plumbing, walls, shower, kitchen, toilets, medical equipment (stretcher, medicine cabinet, stocks of essential medicine etc.), pump, curtains... to built this clinic you had to put all the pieces together.

Plumbing

Medical stuff

Medicine

Kitchen

Easy to say, complex to elaborate. You have to think about everything (when I went to Chong Khneas, to oversee the clinic under construction, Jon explained to the constructor that we need more tires (to protect the boat) and specially that we have to make holes in it to avoid dangerous mosquitoes, the one that transmit dengue or malaria for instance.). I'm not really experienced, that's a matter of fact, but trust me I never would have thought about that!) and you have to make sure de constructor execute your plans as you asked, as you planned which is not always obvious. Sometimes, people don't see the point. What is it for? Why do you need that?.

Yes this clinic, this functional clinic has something magic. That is my feeling.
During the day it's a real clinic.



For lunch and dinner it turns into a floating eating room.


At night it becomes a dorm with cots, mosquitoes nets, mattress: everything you need to sleep all night long either you sleep inside or outside. Insects also are happy with the clinic and you might have the chance to share your bed with some of them!

Back to the work.
As soon as the clinic is set up, people arrive. One mother with her child, one child, two kids, three persons, a five members family etc... Within few minutes the waiting room (which is the dock outside the clinic) is crowded with villagers. Every one is waiting for its turn.
Some of the kids are playing, some others stay with their mums, some of the people talk to each other and some others just wait.





First of all they have to meet Bunchun, the register. He collects names, weights, addresses, TLC's card (which could be a tricky thing when villagers don't pay attention to this kind of things... One card per person can be lost, shared or forgot.. easy...).

Bunchun
Then they will wait to see a doctor. Then, if needed (almost all the time actually), they will meet Sunsophon, the nurse whom deliver medicine.

Doctor Korng Som Bun

Sunsophon


After this cycle they will go back home. Sometimes they stay a little bit longer to spend time with other villager or to spend some time on board.

For the very first time TLC's staff welcomed a midwife/nurse, Miss Porn Kim, 53 years old working at the health center, a governmental one.
She came for a vaccine campaign.

Immunization
It's a new partnership. For the government it is too expensive to go to those isolated villages, so they don't, they abandoned them. Since TLC is going in the floating villages, it is now possible for them to join the team. Here in Cambodia, vaccines are really expensive and as an NGO you cannot buy them, it is forbidden. Furthermore, bringing vaccine requires an additional logistic, you have to keep and maintain them at the right temperature...otherwise they will be unusable. Anyway, even if we could manage all of it we are not authorized to do so. This woman is a midwife since 1993, she does have a good experience of the work but it is the first time she ever comes on the river, to the villages. Her point of view is very interesting. She thinks it is very good to help the population, to provide healthcare, to try to reduce poverty through healthcare. Of course she saw that this village is very isolated, children don't have school, majority of the people are illiterates, and public service is the big missing...
She is very happy to collaborate with TLC. Let's hope this first experience won't be the last one...

Numbers of villagers live quite far from the clinic and have to walk over 5 kilometers to come and go back. I will try to come back later with some stories about that.

In the afternoon that day, I've met a 50 years old woman. She was smiling at me when our eyes crossed each other eyes. I was taking pictures of the kids and showing them the result. At the beginning they just peeked in my camera. Furtively.
After few pictures, they really looked at the lcd screen and recognized themselves, laughing and smiling.

 
 
This woman came with the children and I took a picture. Then she came next to me and I showed  her frame.
She just laughs out loud!


She talked to me but, unfortunately, my khmer is very poor and I couldn't understand a single word so we asked Bunchun, he translated for us what she meant to say.
It was the very first time she saw a picture of her and she wanted me to print it immediately so like that, she will be able to show it to every one...
As soon as Bunchun translated me her request, she laughed out loud again!

As you can imagine, in the village, on the floating clinic it was just impossible for me to print the picture so we've made a deal. Next time I will come back I will bring the picture with me.
Her eyes, her look on her face was shining.
All this simple things, all those very simple meetings are just priceless.

I'm not a doctor, I'm not a nurse or a midwife, I'm not a part of the medical staff or a part of the permanent staff. I'm not Khmer and I don't speak Khmer. For them I'm a foreigner, and I really am a foreigner. Even if I know it and feel it and live it, in my heart I know and I feel we all belong to the same world, a world without borders. We are a part of the same family, human family. And even if you don't speak the same language, even if our culture is different, even if our codes are different, even if our way of living is opposite, we can still, fortunately, meet each other and find a way to connect. Find a way to be together. Find a way to help each other. These humble people can teach you a lot just by spending time with them, just by sharing a small part of their lives, even by sharing a smile. If you take the time to meet them, see their living conditions you will change your point of view and you will always remember what is really necessary. I guess it could really change western's point of view. It makes you appreciate what you have and relativize what you do not have.
At this point you might realized that you would like to do whatever you can to help them, to work together, hands in hands, to build a better future.

While I was walking in the village, I've seen very simple houses made out with wood and bambous.



I've crossed kids and when they saw me they were shy and smiling as always, some of them had a very sad look... The grown-ups I've crossed, of course they didn't speak english but they always said hello to me and smiled to me with a real smile, some of them were laughing and I can easily understand why! Western girl with a camera, sweating because of the heat and trying to fix in her mid what she was going through. Not so usual I guess. I could tell they were friendly.


Tourists go to villages to take pictures of beautiful landscapes with floating houses, unreal living scene, the kind of things they will never see in their countries. I really wonder what they keep in their mind and in their heart once they're back home.


 
When I first came in Cambodia in 2008, I've done the same things, touristics tours. Angkor Wat for instance. I've rent a small boat in Chong Khneas to spend some time on the  floatting villages. Few days later I've spent 9 hours on a boat to reach  Battambang, I've seen lot of houses on the shores, I've passed fishers on their boats. Kids swimming in the Tonle Sap and screaming "Hello!! Hello!!" when our boat was passing by. Then, in Battambang I've been to the villages, isolated ones. I've experienced these people's life and I never forgot it. My only wish was to come back here and try to do something.

Cambodia is not Pub Street in Siem Reap, Cambodia is not only Angkor Wat or temples. Cambodia is really more than that. You must to know that. Most of you probably already know it, try to never forget it.



I never did. I came back home with this feeling. Cambodia is an amazing country because Cambodian people is amazing. But Cambodia is a very poor country and needs help to stand up.
Cambodia may have beautiful landscapes or gorgeous temples, it surely has but Cambodia also has an History, an economic situation, a social one, a sanitary one, a political one. Wether you like it or not, this is the reality. Cambodia is not only what you can see on beautiful glossy magazines. Remember that and try to find your way out of the crowded places.


Only 10 kms out of Siem Reap you can discover real Cambodia and it reminds you that  Siem Reap Province is the second poorest one in the country.

When you go out on the lake or on the river, you can really experience and approach a part of what Cambodia really is.


When I saw the mobile clinic, when I went out on the lake and out on the river, when I've worked with TLC's teams I knew something else is possible.



 


It depends on us. All of us.