Monday, 7 December 2015

Discovering what really makes a person happy in Cambodia



COUNTRY: Cambodia
PROGRAM: UniBreak
PROJECT: Nutrition
WRITTEN BY: Kirsten Swan

After spending the first few days getting orientated and preparing ourselves (and resources) for our various projects, we were invited to participate in the World Diabetes Day awareness walk around Siem Reap on Saturday 14th November. We opted in, as we deemed this to be a great opportunity to raise awareness about a highly prevalent illness in Cambodia, as well as a pretty special experience to participate in World Diabetes day in a country other than Australia.

We woke early Sunday morning (4.30am) to be greeted at the hotel by our Angkor Wat tour leader. We departed to watch the sunrise over the temples, and spent most of the day enjoying a bicycle tour of the temples. This was a fantastic, active way to engage with the history and beauty of these cultural monuments. The rain clouds, while crowding our sunrise photos made for a refreshing shower during our ride through the bush. It was a great tour that provided us with bike hire, tasty snacks, a complimentary breakfast with all the trimmings as well as a delicious sit-down lunch in a small surrounding marketplace (this was well welcomed after how far we had ridden).
Monday marked the beginning of week two, our placement rotations at the Cambodian Diabetes Association (CDA) and Military Handicap and Development Centre (MHDC). We started conducting MHDC home visits, health education and English lessons at a local school, as well as individual consultation with patients at the CDA.

We quickly found that many presenting patients at the CDA were diagnosed as either Pre-diabetic or Diabetic, commonly with a number of comorbidities, such as hypertension and chronic pain. We also discovered that one of the most common ingredients that the patients cook with is MSG (Bchan), to add a savoury taste to their foods; this is high in sodium, which is known to increase the risk of hypertension if eaten frequently. We incorporated this into our patient education to discourage the use of salt and MSG as flavourings, providing other appropriate alternatives. This information proved to be well received by many people, who were unaware of the health effects of some aspects their diet, they were very thankful and enthusiastic to improve their health through nutrition and exercise.


We all really enjoyed visiting the school and teaching the children about healthy eating, personal hygiene (oral and hand hygiene) as well as how exercise can benefit our health. We also taught some English lessons in the afternoons. We found that playing a number of games utilising flash cards, colourful fruit/ vegetable toys as well as true and false questions worked well to engage with the students of varying age. We also established that the children loved playing the games “Hangman”, “Fruit salad” and “What’s the time, Mr Wolf”, as shown by their high levels of excitement. They were so clever and often didn’t require much explanation, mainly some visual demonstration to copy, we found their capacity to interpret and comprehend amazing!

The home visits were fantastic for us to learn how resourceful people become when faced with adversity. It was, at times, distressing to see the difficulties some families are faced with living with very limited resources and suffering from complex conditions with extremely limited health support. We aimed to provide these families with some basic public health education, as well as some practical exercises and nutrition advice to help improve their conditions and health status. It was eye opening to comprehend the way these families live, they were welcoming and were more than happy to invite us into their home and allow us to assess them. It was inspiring to see how happy these families are, emphasising that wealth is not a prerequisite for happiness.

We are feeling settled into life in Siem Reap, have found a few favourite caf├ęs and are looking forward to a couple of days off.

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