Getting sick in a foreign land is a scary experience for travelers and expats alike. The minor amusement you find being lost in translation and surrounded by people speaking a strange and unusual language quickly goes out the window when you are sick and your health is jeopardy. Suddenly that language barrier seems insurmountable and all you want to do is find a doctor that speaks your language. Somebody to tell you everything is going to be all right. That they know what is wrong with you and how to fix it.
Alas, most foreigners living in Cambodia don’t have that luxury. Medical care in Cambodia is generally poor. The only city where you have access to an almost-acceptable standard of healthcare is Phnom Penh. The rest of the country is filled with underfunded, under-equipped hospitals with a number of under-educated doctors. This is not a slight on Khmer doctors either; you will also find a number of shady Russian, Ukrainian, and Chinese doctors as well.
So what do we do when we get sick? How do the expats stay healthy?
The majority of the expats I know living in Cambodia try and avoid doctors at all costs. Unless there is something seriously wrong, the majority choose to try and self diagnose and medicate or ignore their problems and hope they eventually get better. Neither option being a smart choice but generally considered safer than seeing a doctor in most parts of the country.
In the beach town of Sihanoukville where I live, they have opened a few “international” hospitals in the last few years, none of which are up to international standards, unfortunately. Despite a multitude of warnings, I have defied all logic and actually given three of them a chance. After all, until you find out for yourself it’s all just hearsay isn’t it?
At the newly opened Eriko Clinic, you have the option of either a Ukrainian doctor, with limited English abilities who prescribes drugs at random without asking any questions about other medications you might be on or giving any instructions on how best to take the meds he is prescribing. Your other option is a Chinese doctor with no English abilities whatsoever. When I saw him with an ear infection, he wanted to prescribe me serious antiviral drugs that would generally be given to people suffering from HIV or other severe life threatening viruses.
The CT Clinic
The CT Clinic is another option most expats living in Sihanoukville thought might be a good choice. At the time they opened they were supposed to have the best facilities in town and they even have a CT scanner, which you might have guessed by the name. The CT Clinic has mostly Khmer doctors that think of foreigners as walking dollars, with a small spattering of foreign doctors.
I saw the head doctor there complaining of side effects from a course of antibiotics I given by the Ukrainian doctor at the Eriko Clinic. Without even taking the time to look at me or ask me questions about my problems, he ordered a blood test and a CT scan. As he spent most of the time I was in his office being rather rude and looking at his phone instead of me, I asked him if perhaps he did not like me for some reason, as he was quite curt. He flat out told me most foreigners in Sihanoukville are bad people. At this point I just got up and walked out of his office.
Sihanoukville International Hospital
My next choice was to visit the Sihanoukville International Hospital located on Ekreach Street; the main road in town. It looked nice from the outside, but upon visiting with the Russian doctor there, it once again became clear communication was an issue. He kept insisting on a STD test even though I have been with the same partner for the last five years. He just kept asking if I wanted an STD test and if not there is nothing else he can do.
So what to do?
Well, when all other options fail and it has become clear that a doctor or hospital visit is in order, it’s time to hop on a bus and head to Phnom Penh. At least in the capital you have the option of a few hospitals that actually have English-speaking specialty doctors, sanitary room conditions, and some of the technology needed to diagnose and treat semi-major medical problems.
Phnom Penh Hospitals
Two of the best options in Phnom Penh are the International SOS Medical and Dental Clinic and the Royal Rattanak Hospital. Both are known for having competent foreign doctors and internationally trained Khmer doctors. You can choose who you would rather see. The service and bedside manner at both have been commended by many expats and the truth is they are really your only choice if you are not planning on leaving Cambodia for diagnosis and treatment. The SOS Clinic can even arrange for emergency medivac if you are in a life threatening situation.
International SOS Medical and Dental Clinic
I have personally seen the ENT specialist at the International SOS and I can attest to her thorough inspection and diagnosis. One of the best qualities I found in her was that she was willing to admit that my problem was something that could not properly be diagnosed in Cambodia as they lack the medical equipment. She did her best to help me the first time I saw her and when I came back the second time because my condition reoccurred eight months later, she referred me to a hospital in Singapore with specialists who could properly diagnose and treat me. The SOS reception staff was professional and the hospital was spotlessly clean. I wouldn’t hesitate to go back there for any medical needs I might have as I found it to offer some of the best medical care in Cambodia.
Royal Rattanak Hospital
In regards to the Royal Rattanak Hospital, I personally have not been a patient there, but did go with a friend of mine who was in a motorcycle accident and treated for a broken arm and some stitches. While being a bit pricey, the doctors were well educated and the hospital conditions were sanitary with professional staff. Communication was no issue and my friend felt relatively safe in their care. You will find many good reviews about them online, as well.
The Last Resort: Get Out of Dodge
The best way to stay healthy in Cambodia is not to get sick or into an accident in the first place. Take care of yourself, eat healthy and take vitamins to keep your immune system strong. Don’t drive around on your motorcycle like a maniac and take a tuk-tuk if you plan on getting drunk. If in need of major medical care, it’s time to hop on a bus and head to the capital or take your chances and roll the dice. If your problem is really life threatening and you are in need of surgery, your best option would be to head to Bangkok or Singapore. Both places have excellent medical facilities and relatively low costs when compared with the US.
Author’s Favorite Travel Gear
Casio G-Shock AWGM100 -It’s important to be able to keep track of time when traveling or you risk missing your bus, train connection, or wind up arriving at the museum you’ve been dying to see right as they are closing for the day. I’ve had this wristwatch for years and, despite how much wear and tear I subject it to, it is still going strong.
Nomader Collapsible – This leak-proof bottle is great to take along on any trip. When it’s not full, you can just roll it up and shove it in a pocket, and it can handle both hot and cold liquids.
Merill Moab Hiking Shoes – Despite how much I may want to, I can’t wear sandals every single day, especially when going on long hikes. When the day’s adventure calls for shows, I turn to my trusty Merills. They are breathable and have a good amount of cushioning. Plus they are extremely durable.