kulen district, Preah Vihear province – Overgrown by moss and vines, an immense, pyramidal temple, dating back to the 10th century, rises dramatically from the dust and brush.
In its shadow, Nang Da’s young grandson often has trouble sleeping. The fever grips him and won’t let go, says the old woman, who has blackened teeth and a bright pink-checked scarf around her sinewy neck.
The wealth of ages past overlooks them, but villagers at the foot of Koh Ker temple can’t afford mosquito nets.
In forested areas like this one, if mosquito nets are not used, on average 50 percent of the children are acutely sick with malaria at any given time, said Dr Stefan Hoyer, the World Health Organization’s country coordinator for infectious disease control. The mortality rate is high, especially among young children and those without access to treatment.
“Mosquito nets are a great prestige symbol for the villagers,” Hoyer said. Having one “is like having a car in their front yard.” Hoyer accompanied a delegation from the German Bundestag last week to hand out 300 mosquito nets, treated with insecticide, to the residents of Koh Ker and neighboring Roun Chek village. The mosquito net program is a collaboration between the National Malaria Center and the WHO.
But malaria is not the only health problem facing these people. Many have only one working eye due to corneal infections, and most have had their growth stunted from chronic malnutrition.
Their villages are so remote that they had never been vaccinated. The German legislators watched as the villagers received shots for diptheria, tetanus, polio and measles from the National Immunization Program. Vitamin A and deworming tablets were also distributed.
Nang Da and her friend Nuk Vuon bore the needles stoically and inspected the nets with reverence. Both the shots and the nets were a new experience.
The German legislators, who spent three days in Cambodia last week, were all members of the Bundestag’s budget and finance committee, and specialists in health issues.
In addition to the Koh Ker temple excursion, they met with National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Minister of Health Hong Sun Huot. They also visited a German-funded village health center and a provincial hospital in Kompong Thom province.
The delegates flew in a military helicopter to Koh Ker. The alternative would have been a bumpy, unpaved ride from Siem Reap—80 km that can take seven hours. In the rainy season, the road floods and becomes impassable.
German parliamentarian Waltraud Lehn watched the villagers—their feet bare or in dusty flip-flops, the men smoking rolled-up leaves—with a look of amazement.
“The whole village is here on foot,” she marveled. “They are so full of trust and confidence” in the health workers.
The Koh Ker temple complex consists of the seven-story pyramid, 36 meters high and 55 meters square, and an overgrown path through a jumble of mossy ruins. Elaborately carved lintels surmount majestic doorways; intricate, toppled columns fall against one another. Some experts say Koh Ker is second only to the Angkor temples in historical importance.
The villagers have been given custody of the temple and have received a $6,000 Unesco grant to maintain it. They seem to take in stride its ancient grandeur: village children scamper up and down the rickety wooden ladders and worn stone steps that climb the pyramid’s precipitously steep face.
As the delegation’s helicopter lifted off, the temple could be seen rising majestically out of the jungle—a priceless cultural treasure.
But for the villagers, something even more valuable had been bestowed on them that day. As Walter Scholer, leader of the delegation, remarked: “The most precious thing a human being has is health.”