preah vihear – On the long, tree-lined stone walkway that leads to Preah Vihear’s famous cliff-top temple is a simple but telling sign, in English, Khmer and Thai: “Hygiene leads to health and beauty.”
While architectural beauty has survived centuries and civil war here on this mountain top on the northern border with Thailand, health has not done so well—at least among the 90 or so RCAF soldiers that have run the tourist site since being integrated with the local Khmer Rouge unit in 1998.
“Seventy percent of the soldiers here have had malaria,” said Colonel Va Soum, their commander. The rate of infection increases, he added, once the rainy season begins.
But soldiers like Hi Toch—who has had malaria four times and is still suffering from the effects of his last bout—now have bed nets and medicine to protect them from mosquitoes for the first time, thanks to a donation made Monday by the National Malaria Center.
A delegation of officials from the European Commission, the US Embassy and the World Health Organization—all of which donated supplies through the National Malaria Center—traveled with NMC staff and Dr Mam Bunheng, Secretary of State for the Ministry of Health, by military helicopter to deliver 100 nets and enough medicine to last the soldiers about three months.
T-shirts, posters showing families sleeping on mats underneath the large, pink nets and pamphlets explaining the importance of using the nets were also handed over.
“Many people aren’t convinced that these are really useful,” said Roberto Garcia, co-director of the EC’s malaria control project in Cambodia. “They think just to own the nets [and not actually use them] is enough. They think that malaria comes from spirits.”
Spirits or no spirits, when you have jungle, you have mosquitoes, as Garcia says. And looking out from the edge of Preah Vihear’s cliff, you see vast green plains 600 meters below.
The famous Khmer temple—built in stages between the 9th and 12th centuries and until recently closed to tourists because of Cambodia’s long civil war—is only accessible by road from Thailand.
The area is so remote, said Colonel Va Soum, that “when people get sick, they ask for permission from Thai authorities to go to Thailand for treatment.”
National Malaria Center vice director Doung Socheat said transportation is also a problem for delivering supplies: by road, it’s a difficult, three-day drive from Phnom Penh.
He said the center organized the trip after receiving a report last week from the Ministry of Health that the area had a serious problem.
But it isn’t just soldiers who are getting sick. There are also up to 200 civilians in the area, including the families of Hi Toch and his fellow soldier, Oeun Son.
Oeun Son has had malaria twice since coming to Preah Vihear after the Khmer Rouge integration. Between the two of them, Oeun Son and Hi Toch have eight children—and every one of them has had malaria.