SIEM REAP CITY – Following two strenuous days of races at the Water Festival this week, boatman Sgnoun Chai celebrated its conclusion on Wednesday with a night on the town.
“I went to get some drinks with friends after the boat racing finished, and later on I went to have sex with a prostitute,” said Mr. Chai, 28.
Despite buying sex, the boat racer made sure to use a free condom that had been handed to him at the festival by the local branch of an international NGO, Aids Healthcare Foundation (AHF) Cambodia. Tied in packets of red tulle bedecked with faux rhinestones, gold thread and red ribbons, the condoms were packaged to catch the eyes of the hundreds of young people, both racers and revelers, who flooded Siem Reap City over the course of the holiday.
Mr. Chai said he was happy to use the free condom once receiving it, and was disappointed that he missed a chance to get one of the free HIV tests that AHF was offering along the riverside.
“I love my health,” he said.
AHF Cambodia anticipated that many visitors to the Water Festival would have the same habits as Mr. Chai and responded in force, sending 30 staff members to pound the streets and riverbanks of Siem Reap City, pressing condoms onto passersby and administering what are known as “rapid HIV tests,” conducted on the spot with just a drop of blood from the finger.
“Maybe people will go out to celebrate, so we want them to use protection,” said Sat Meas, a 25-year-old assistant working for the NGO.
As Mr. Meas spoke, a colleague standing next to him was extracting blood from the finger of a boatman with the Hanuman Senchey Baramey Srey Kroup Leak team from Banteay Meanchey province.
He explained that after collecting the samples, the staffers took them to a nearby laboratory, where a quick HIV test took only 15 minutes to run. Those who tested negative would be informed quickly, while those with positive results would be asked to come into the NGO’s office for another blood test. If the diagnosis was confirmed, they would quickly receive medication and counseling.
Following an epidemic in the 1990s, Cambodia has been a global success story in reversing the trend of HIV infections. The prevalence rate of HIV among 15- to 49-year-olds is now 0.6 percent, down from its peak of 1.7 percent in 1998, according to UNAIDS.
The fight against HIV has now turned to focus on the country’s most vulnerable populations—intravenous drug users, sex workers and gay men—partly by expanding finger-prick testing to meeting points and drop-in centers that are easier to access than formal health centers. “Lay testers” have also been equipped to do these initial tests, which must be confirmed through a follow-up test at a licensed health center.
The test results from the Siem Reap Water Festival were slightly higher than the national average, Choeun Sinoeun, an AHF coordinator said on Thursday, with seven positive tests—four men and three women—out of about 950 people.
Interviewed while getting his blood tested on Tuesday, Meak Phearon, 26, a teammate of Mr. Chai, insisted that neither he nor his boatmates would be visiting any brothels during the festival.
However, contacted again on Thursday, Mr. Phearon said some of his teammates had hired prostitutes on Wednesday night and admitted to doing the same in the past.
“I protect myself by using a condom every time, whenever I have sex with the prostitute girls,” Mr. Phearon said, emphasizing that he had stopped paying for sex since getting married and was not nervous about receiving his test results —which, indeed, were negative.
“I felt confident that I had no HIV, but I only tried the blood test because they provided the service for free,” he said.
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