Samantha Brown – Southeast Asian-based journalist and editor

A packed weekend in Phnom Penh

14.04.2005 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Travel ::

It’s rich with history, loaded with atmosphere and jammed with great restaurants and shops, but Phnom Penh is often overlooked by travellers in favour of Siem Reap, the launching point for Cambodia’s famed Angkor Wat. A weekend trip to the capital however, is easily done from Bangkok and yields rich rewards.

Phnom Penh offers accommodation ranging from US$1 a night backpacker dorms on the lake to the salubrious restored Le Royal where the best rooms go for hundreds. Our out-of-the-way pick is the quaint wooden-floored Del Gusto’s on Street 95, where rooms are US$9-15. Its cousin the Boddhi Tree also offers stylish but budget mid-range rooms, US$7-18. Both have attached restaurants with great food.

Friday night sees many package tourists kick off with sunset drinks at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club overlooking the Mekong or the excellent happy hour at Le Royal’s Elephant Bar, both worth checking out. Ruby’s tucked away on Street 240 however offers a slick alternative for an affordable glass of wine and a mingle with local expats. Elsewhere on nearby Street 51, where a swimming pool also beckons, is another fine choice.

You can order food at both bars, or hop along to Sugar Palm, a few doors from Ruby’s, which offers great Khmer food _ try their lush marinated fish salad _ with plenty of furniture and knick-knacks to snap up as souvenirs.

If Phnom Penh’s French colonial feel awakens a desire for French food and film, begin the night with a free movie at the French Cultural Centre, which screens them in their cute cinema from Fridays to Mondays at 6:30pm. Then head directly to the no-fuss Sary Rega’s on Street 75. Popular with French diplomats and backpackers alike, you can indulge in a three-course meal _ think prawn cocktail, sting ray in butter, chocolate mousse _ for around US$6.

Saturday morning, head to Tuol Sleng, the former Khmer Rouge interrogation centre known as S-21. It’s a sobering and moving experience: at this site some 17,000 people were tortured before being killed. It’s now a genocide museum and grim reminder of the horror that led to some two million people dying under the 1975-79 regime.

For lunch, head to Friends, a cheerful restaurant where street children receive vocational training as they restart their lives. Don’t miss their blueberry cake, and walk it off by ambling down to the Silver Pagoda, next to the royal palace, where admission and a guide will cost US$8. Khmer boxing fans might instead like to watch a live bout of the sport Cambodians claim Thailand stole. The matches take place at several TV studios from around 2pm Saturdays and the entry fee is usually around US$1.

For sunset, hire a boat that will cruise along the river (US$15 for two hours) so you can catch a glimpse of Cambodian rural life.

Back on land, the riverfront is packed with restaurants to sample for dinner. Check out local specialties at Frizz or head a little further north to Tok Thom, a little French restaurant with one communal table. After dinner try drinks at Teukei, a funky little hole in the wall, on Street 111.

Sunday morning head early to the Russian Market where you can fortify yourself for the day ahead with a noodle soup and thick Cambodian coffee.

The market is a great place to pick up rainbow-coloured Cambodian organza _ the market seamstresses will sew them into curtains or anything else for you (allow several days). It’s also a good spot for silks, silver jewellery and some antiques.

Haven’t shopped enough? Try Ambre on Street 178, where a Khmer-French designer sells gorgeous women’s clothes. Then Street 143, where Beautiful Shoes can whip up superb handmade leather shoes.

Grab some Chinese noodles for lunch at Peking Canteen on Street 93, just near the Central Market, where you can marvel at the art deco architecture.

And don’t forget to squeeze in some relaxation time. Bliss Spa, fronted by another lovely clothes shop filled with unique designs, is set in a stunningly restored old building on Street 240. Book in advance on 023-215-754.

Our favourite way to see Phnom Penh is by cyclo or pedicab. Hire one through the Cyclo Centre (speak to Sarany on 012-826-810) for about US$8 per day. A portion goes to the centre which offers much-needed services to drivers.

Unwavering loyalty for Khmer Rouge in final strongholds

13.04.2005 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Current Affairs ::

Sitting on the steps of the empty villa of a former Khmer Rouge commander, Cambodian San Roeun passionately defends the mass killers he fought for as a soldier.

Pol Pot’s ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge regime swept into Phnom Penh 30 years ago this Sunday, launching a nearly four-year pursuit of an agrarian utopia that would lead to the deaths of up to two million Cambodians.

"People who curse Pol Pot or blame Pol Pot, well that’s up to them," says 52-year-old San Roeun, who lost a leg to a landmine in 1981 but went on to make mines for the Khmer Rouge.

"But I myself do not curse him. Pol Pot was my hero," he says at the villa of former commander Ta Mok.

The regime was toppled by Vietnamese forces in early 1979 but their soldiers fought on in a fierce guerrilla war, finally beating a retreat to remote Anlong Veng district 450 kilometres (280 miles) northwest of the capital before collapsing altogether in 1998.

Pol Pot led a cloistered existence here, in a zone stretching from a plain stripped of trees to fund the resistance up into the lush Dangrek mountains where Cambodia meets Thailand.

The remnants of the house and bunker where he lived protected by guards are perched on an escarpment overlooking the district, their surroundings still littered with mines and, barring the occasional soldier, largely uninhabited.

Pol Pot died apparently of natural causes in 1998, shortly after being captured and tried for treason and murder, thus avoiding a planned UN-backed tribunal that will prosecute surviving leaders of the regime.

The gold-toothed San Roeun, clutching a checked krama — the traditional Cambodian scarf the Khmer Rouge made famous, bristles when asked what he thinks of the tribunal.

"There is no justice if this tribunal only tries the top Khmer Rouge leaders who controlled the country from 1975 to 1979. This tribunal should look beyond, to the period to 1970," he says.

"What will happen to the United States? They dropped many bombs on Cambodia. And former king Sihanouk, after he was ousted (by a US-backed coup in 1970), he appealed to the people to flee to the jungle" to resist the country’s new rulers, aligning his supporters with the Khmer Rouge, he says.

Sihanouk eventually lost many relatives to the Khmer Rouge and stepped down as their head of state while under palace arrest.

San Roeun helped build the bougainvillea-surrounded home of Ta Mok — one of only two leaders jailed awaiting the tribunal — and now acts as a caretaker here.

Behind the house are two rusting cages — "for prisoners", he explains. He has only good words for the one-legged Ta Mok, known as "The Butcher" for his hand in the regime’s deadly purges.

"Ta Mok was a good leader… He advised people on how to respect and love the nation. I myself had lunch or dinner with him and there was no discrimination from him," he says.

Bun Chhat, 46, a former singer for Khmer Rouge radio for 15 years, chimes in with his own praise for Pol Pot.

"I knew him very well because I stayed with him. I never disliked him because he educated me and invited me to do good things… The people who lived near him, the people who knew him well, they liked him very much," he says.

Support for the former regime also remains strong in the dusty border municipality of Pailin, a Khmer Rouge stronghold until 1996.

Kong Duong, today a senior civil servant in the information ministry, was a presenter for Khmer Rouge radio for a decade and is writing a book about working with Pol Pot.

"Nobody knew Pol Pot better than me. I lived with him. I knew his character, I knew what he would eat," the 49-year-old says.

"He expressed his love for people and the country. I believe he was one of the good leaders because he loved his people and country and was against the invading forces."

He concedes, however, that Pol Pot was also a cold-blooded killer.

"If he wanted to kill someone, he would invite the man to talk with him but he would never say, ‘I’m going to kill you’. The man would never know that it was Pol Pot who ordered him killed."

Kong Duong, who has two mobile phones, a gold watch and a gold pen peeking out of his shirt pocket, says the past should be forgotten and funding for the planned 56-million-dollar tribunal should instead go towards rebuilding Cambodia.

"As a Buddhist, I advise that we should say: let bygones be bygones."

Other former Khmer Rouge members in this municipality have not prospered as well as Kong Duong and still bear the scars of stolen childhoods.

Song Eth, a divorced shopkeeper in Pailin who was born the same year Pol Pot began his rule, says she has to accept money from a charity to help feed her three children.

She began carrying ammunition for the soldiers to the mountains when she was 10 years old and continued doing so until 1996.

"Life was difficult because when we carried ammunition to the soldiers, we did it only at night-time and we could not use lights. There were landmines and we were afraid of soldiers," she recalls.

Today, as she swings her youngest child in a hammock, she looks blankly when asked what she thinks of the looming trial of the leaders she once followed.

"I never listen to the radio — I don’t know about that," she says.

Cambodia maps out plan to lure tourists to Khmer Rouge sites

13.04.2005 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Travel ::

The veranda has collapsed, a lone green typewriter sits unused on a dusty table and only two of the 27 staff are here. But Anlong Veng’s tourism office has a grand plan to lure visitors to the final stronghold of Cambodia’s infamous Khmer Rouge.

It was to this far-flung district in Oddar Meanchey province, about 450 kilometres (280 miles) north of Phnom Penh, that tyrant Pol Pot withdrew in 1992 and where both he and the ultra-Maoist movement responsible for up to two million deaths drew final breath.

Nestled in the Dangrek mountains, Pol Pot’s final hideout just metres (yards) from neighbouring Thailand is reached by an unpaved, pot-holed road, still littered on either side by landmines.

"We are doing research to find out about potential tourist sites," says district tourism chief Sieng Sokheng, flattening out a photocopy of his masterplan that lists the 43 spots so far identified.

"The government regards these places as places suitable for tourists."

One of these is the fenced-off area where Pol Pot spent his last months under house arrest after being captured and put on trial by military commander Ta Mok.

His broken toilet and smashed medicine bottles still lie in the undergrowth.

Nearby are his remains, unceremoniously burned on a pile of tyres after his 1998 death, in a patch now protected with a corrugated iron roof headed by an altar where people have left offerings of fruit, cigarettes and incense.

At the end of the narrow path leading here, where chickens scrabble and bougainvilleas flourish, soldier Yang Phan says two to five tourists, both Western and Asian, tramp here daily. Minibuses occasionally disgorge up to 15.

"We don’t get any profit from them," he says, referring to the vendors at the shanty market of thatch and blue plastic tarpaulins which sprung up to take advantage of the border’s opening in late 2003.

"Of course, we want to see as many people come here as possible, but the road is difficult so I have no idea how they can come here."

An eight-kilometre (five-mile) drive away along the escarpment lies the remains of one of the former homes of "The Butcher", Ta Mok, along with the Khmer Rouge headquarters building, now a concrete shell covered with graffiti.

Today, Ta Mok is one of two former leaders languishing in jail awaiting trial at a UN-backed tribunal for which funding has nearly been raised.

Taking advantage of the stunning views over Anlong Veng and expecting tourism to flourish, soldier Rang Saruon opened a guesthouse next door in 2001.

With hammocks to swing in, chirping birds and flowers in the garden, it’s difficult to imagine the violence this place witnessed: in 1997, Pol Pot’s former defence minister Son Sen was brutally murdered outside the house with his wife and children on his boss’s orders.

"I knew that eventually more foreign tourists would come here and have no place to stay and eat," says 56-year-old Rang Saruon, from neighbouring Siem Reap province.

"It’s a beautiful site, you can see a panorama of Cambodia… and foreign visitors want to see the historical sites, the houses, where the former Khmer Rouge lived."

When he first opened, about 40 tourists per month stayed with him but that has dwindled to just 10 as the road to Siem Reap, the gateway to the famed Angkor temple complex, has dramatically worsened.

Further along the desolate road shaded by scrubby forest, with no signposts and few people to ask directions, are the remains of Pol Pot’s house and musty-smelling bunker, also perched on the escarpment.

A blue sign marks the entrance to the once-sprawling compound complete with a bricked-in reservoir, but the tourist hordes are a long way from arriving yet.

Tourism director Sokheng is undaunted.

"These are bitter places. Perhaps there are no other places like these in the world and so that’s why visitors want to see these places, see how they lived," he says.

About 200 Cambodian tourists each month come to visit the grave site.

"My guides have told me that some Khmer visitors have expressed their anger but they do not want to do anything to the grave," he says.

"They just say that he deserved to die there and have a grave like that because during his leadership he killed so many people."

Not everybody is thrilled with the idea of developing such sites into attractions, including Youk Chhang, director of the centre in Phnom Penh which collects evidence of Khmer Rouge atrocities.

"Memory cannot be commercialised. I’m uneasy about it — it’s immoral," he says, adding that the government should be working on preserving the mass graves across the kingdom.

A kilometre (half-a-mile) down the road from the grave, a different kind of attraction is being built: Cambodian defence minister Tea Banh’s brother and tycoon Ly Yong Phat are throwing up a casino and hotel to attract Thais.

Border market vendors such as Tuot Sokny, who moved here a year ago but has endured thin trade, are pinning their fortunes on this, rather than the macabre Khmer Rouge legacy.

"I’m hoping that business gets better when the road is improved and the casino opens. In (another nearby border town) Osmach, they have a casino and road, and more people come," she sighs.

Reclusive but free, Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge leaders wait for trial

12.04.2005 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Current Affairs ::

Ly Kim Seng stabs her hoe into the weeds threatening her watermelons on land abutting Cambodia’s border with Thailand. She pauses to explain that her husband Nuon Chea, Pol Pot’s deputy during the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, is too ill to accept visitors.

A child’s bicycle lies along the path leading to the mango-tree shaded house, fuchsia flowers dot a patch of grass nearby and lovingly tended potplants add an incongruous touch to the home of an accused mass-murderer.

One of those slated to be hauled before a UN-backed international tribunal to face charges of crimes against humanity and genocide, Nuon Chea, 78, spends his days pottering around his wooden house — when he is well enough.

"He suffered diarrhoea last night and is sleeping now… And my husband is partly paralysed from a stroke," Ly Kim Seng apologises, wearing tattered socks on her hands to prevent blisters as she toils under the tropical sun.

"I cannot go far away from him, I need to stay close by. If I want to go somewhere, I have to call one of my children to stay with him."

Shadowy Nuon Chea was commonly known as "Brother Number Two" — Pol Pot’s right-hand man — throughout the regime which oversaw the deaths of up to two million Cambodians during its rule beginning 30 years ago this coming Sunday.

He served as deputy secretary general of the ruling Communist Party of Kampuchea, was responsible for all of the party’s organisations and helped oversee the national security police. He also occasionally acted as prime minister during the Democratic Kampuchea government.

When it was ousted by Vietnamese forces in early 1979, Nuon Chea continued to fight against the government installed in Phnom Penh and eventually withdrew with Khmer Rouge forces to western Pailin.

From this remote border zone 375 kilometres (233 miles) from the capital, their guerrilla war was funded by rubies and sapphires ripped from the hills and plundered timber sold to rich Thai businessmen, and was bolstered by assistance from China.

Nuon Chea surrendered under an amnesty deal along with former head of state Khieu Samphan in 1998, the same year Pol Pot died after a show trial in another remote border town, and the movement finally collapsed.

Only two of those among the half-dozen or so former leaders expected to face justice through the 56-million-dollar tribunal, for which most of the funding has already been raised, are in jail.

Ly Kim Seng, who married Nuon Chea 48 years ago, fumes about the prospect of her husband being prosecuted.

"I’m very disappointed with this tribunal. Why have they organised this tribunal to sentence people like my husband, who is a real nationalist?

"Why don’t they try the leaders who really betrayed the nation, the leaders who occupied here?" she asks.

"My husband was never a soldier or a military commander. He was only in charge of education and gave his advice and ideas. He was never in control of the military."

But Nuon Chea will attend the trial in Phnom Penh, if necessary.

"I am not afraid and the same goes for my husband, who has said many times that he’s ready to go to court. Even if he can’t walk, he’s ready to go."

Ly Kim Seng is also bitter about her family’s meagre finances compared to other ex-leaders such as Ieng Sary, the Khmer Rouge’s foreign minister, who now lives in a villa in Phnom Penh and has a second home in Pailin.

Their house is owned by Ieng Sary’s son-in-law, while a plot given to Nuon Chea next door by Pailin’s governor, another ex-Khmer Rouge fighter, lies unused. Out the front is a shuttered house Khieu Samphan lived in before moving in to the outskirts of Pailin town.

"Ieng Sary, now he’s a rich man. He doesn’t want to meet poor people like us… He took a lot of money from the country and people," she accuses.

"My life and my husband’s life relies on support from our children."

It’s a peaceful existence for Nuon Chea, who makes a brief appearance at the window of the house wearing sunglasses and a T-shirt emblazoned with the logo of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party, calling for his wife.

"He always stays inside the house. Of an evening, when it’s cool, if his health is better he walks outside near the house," Ly Kim Seng later says.

In what may be small comfort for survivors of the regime he once led, Nuon Chea no longer sleeps well, according to his wife.

"He can sleep only in the early evening. He wakes up every night at around 1:00 or 2:00am."

Meanwhile, Khieu Samphan also lives quietly in his modest pale-blue concrete home, but is often seen around town, attending weddings and dinners.

His wife opens the door promptly to a knock and the French-speaking former head of state himself appears a few seconds later. He does not deviate from the polite behaviour he is renowned for, but will not be interviewed either.

"Excusez-moi, mais — Excuse me, I’m very sorry, but I do not receive journalists here any longer," he says, shaking his head apologetically and closing the door.

Idling on islands

07.04.2005 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Travel ::

Life glides by slowly perched in a hammock overlooking the swirling Mekong River in Laos’ Four Thousand Islands. Sipping a Beer Lao and watching the ever-changing colours of the river is meditation not just popular with locals but with an increasing number of independent travellers.

Si Phan Don, as the locals call it, is a collection of some 4,000 islands wedged into the broadest section of the Mekong _ it’s over 10 kilometres wide in some places _ in the far south of Laos.

While some are no bigger than a patch of alluvial dirt and a coconut palm, others are expansive and support small villages, where rice-paddies are dotted with gilded temples and crumbling French colonial buildings.

Think tropical holiday with a difference: the heat is sizzling but instead of white-sand beaches, try dangling your legs in the swirling river from your private balcony at the eco-friendly raft-hotel, Salaphae, on Don Khon island.

Airy and tasteful rooms go for around US$20 a night, easily the most luxurious water-fronted accommodation on any of the three main islands in the river archipelago. The old French hospital Sala Don Khone, set just back off the river, is another fine option oozing charm.

Rent a wobbly bicycle and go exploring along the narrow and sun-dappled dirt trails.

Don Khon and Don Dhet across the way are well and truly on the backpacker trail these days but the islands retain a laid-back bucolic charm, where farmers till the rich soil much as they did a century ago and fishermen still silently toss their nets in the early hours of the morning.

There’s not too much to see or do _ that’s really the allure _ but there are a few items to cross off the tourist list if you must.

The railway bridge linking the two islands that the enterprising French built as part of their ill-fated railway project is difficult to miss and a historical reminder of their misplaced optimism.

Indefatigable explorers thought they would be able to navigate the Mekong through the Khone Falls just to the south of Don Khon by bridging the two with a few kilometres of track to bypass the falls.

Their might, alas, was nothing in the face of the massive falls and their dream of shipping out China’s fabled riches _ the river begins in Tibet _ via the 4,000-kilometre Mekong to Vietnam was dashed.

Today, just the ballast remains of the railway, which can still be followed by bicycle through alternating lush jungle and emerald paddies to the rusting French pier. Chances are you’ll dodge strolling saffron-clad monks, school children and an array of farm animals on the way there.

From here you can hire a boat to see the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins, which swim in pools along the Cambodian border and are best seen in the late part of the dry season around April and May.

As the sun falls in particular the islands really come into their own with fantastic light showing off scenes that seem artfully painted. At night, all is dark and blissfully quiet. The islands are off the main electricity grid, though generators are gradually popping up. With a brilliantly big star-speckled sky though, you hardly need power.

Food on the islands is basic but delicious, and centred around spicy curries and salads served with sticky rice. Lao coffee, with condensed milk two fingers thick nestled at the bottom, is also ubiquitous.

Legend has it that the first backpacker showed up on Don Dhet and was so impressed with the place he asked a local fisherman to build him a hut and provide him with meals in return for US$20 a month.

Depending on who’s talking, he stayed six weeks to six months, but when he returned to native Canada, word spread and the travellers trickled by.

Due to an abysmal lack of public transport in the landlocked country, particularly in the far south, these backpackers have not been chased away by package tourists, with bamboo huts going for a dollar a night being the standard set-up.

A few hours north by boat is Don Khong, the largest of the islands. On this island, you can’t beat staying at the seductive colonial Auberge Sala Done Khong. This large teak house has some stunning rooms _ starting at US$25 _ with a pretty garden to pass by the heat of the day.

Once you drag yourself out of the Auberge, try to cycle the 30-kilometre trail that circumnavigates Don Khong. Don’t worry though if you flag half way _ many succumb to the enervating heat and at best do a half-loop, taking in wooded villages, riverside wats and an endless stream of waving children.

You can always do the other half next time.

Free private hospitals saving the lives of Cambodia’s sick children

01.04.2005 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Current Affairs ::

Pen Naun sits breastfeeding her two-month-old baby in an airy but crowded hospital ward with scores of other fraught Cambodians, many lying on mats covering the terracotta-tiled floor.

Receiving free treatment at this gleaming six-year-old private hospital run by a maverick Swiss doctor who plays a cello to help fund its operations, they are among destitute Cambodia’s luckiest patients.

Naun, 31, travelled with her vomiting son Phan Chandoeun for three hours by pick-up truck along bad roads from a neighbouring province hoping that he would receive free diagnosis and treatment at this ultra-modern children’s hospital.

"First I went to a private clinic in Poipet (a town near her home), but the drugs did not work so we came here," she says.

The mother-of-three had to borrow 200 baht (eight dollars) from a neighbour to pay for the clinic visit and drugs, a substantial amount in a country where more than a third of the population lives on less than a dollar a day.

When the vomiting didn’t stop, another neighbour told her about Jayavarman VII hospital on the outskirts of Siem Reap, the gateway town to Cambodia’s famed Angkor Wat temple complex.

Her son, it turns out, was suffering from potentially fatal acute encephalitis. He was admitted two days ago and is likely to stay for five more.

"A private clinic would not have been able to diagnose this," a doctor at the hospital says.

Cambodia’s health system is shattered after nearly three decades of war which ended in 1998. Rife corruption, along with tiny salaries paid to doctors and nurses mean many take second jobs and make rebuilding an uphill battle.

"A lot has been done, but on paper we don’t seem to have made much progress," UNICEF’s country representative Rodney Hatfield concedes.

In Cambodia, the number of deaths of children aged under five per 1,000 rose from 115 to 140 from 1990 to 2003 despite mammoth efforts to improve health. And rural children suffer more: the rate was 50 per 1,000 live births in Phnom Penh compared to 229 per 1,000 in the kingdom’s northern provinces.

Jayavarman VII along with two other hospitals in Phnom Penh also run by doctor Beat Richner are anomalies in Cambodia’s health system, offering free treatment in spotless facilities served by more than 1,500 well-paid staff.

Doctors earn between 600 and 800 dollars per month while even cleaners earn 200 dollars a month, a very decent salary in Cambodia and far more than the 30 to 40 dollars per month doctors earn in the public system.

The three hospitals in 2004 treated 759,000 outpatients, admitted 70,000 children and carried out 15,800 surgical interventions.

Richner’s stance on free treatment, however, has earned him criticism from multilateral organisations and donors who prefer to see a user-pays system in place and who he says have accused him of subverting attempts to strengthen the system.

"This is absolutely stupid to do this liberal, capitalist idea for the health sector if people have no cash … Our idea is that all children have the right to be treated. It’s only subversion of corruption," he retorts.

"This is an emergency."

Cambodia’s health minister Nuth Sokhom says the hospitals are a "sensitive" issue.

"Some are concerned about free-of-charge services, the ones who are helping us strengthen the health system. So we are in a very difficult situation, which we have raised with the friendly countries as well as with the NGOs," he says.

"We have to have a compromise between the two."

Richner says that without his hospitals, whose annual running costs of 15 million dollars are almost completely provided by international donors, 60,000 more Cambodian children would die each year, mostly of infectious diseases.

"These children are at the mercy of donors," says the doctor, who holds twice-weekly cello concerts in a theatre attached to the hospital to elicit donations from the relatively well-heeled tourists who flock to Angkor.

"Money or blood," he demands of the old and young respectively, many of whom respond positively. In the past year tourists gave 2.2 million dollars and on average, about 300 per month give blood, 30 percent of requirements.

There are currently 800 beds at the hospitals, but with 1,100 patients some have to sleep on the floor. Extensions to Jayavarman VII and Kantha Bopha I in Phnom Penh will raise the number of beds to 1,400 when complete.

Richner was working as a doctor in the kingdom in 1975 when the genocidal Khmer Rouge seized power. He was invited back in 1991 by then-King Norodom Sihanouk to rebuild Phnom Penh’s Kantha Bopha I hospital.

For years he has been critical of the corruption and small salaries paid to health workers, refusing to work directly with the ministry of health and also arguing that the UN’s grassroots approach will not work while salaries are low.

Richner, who was named Swiss of the Year 2002, concedes that primary health care work is needed.

"Of course it’s important, but you must create facilities and the facilities must have people who are working. These health centres do not work because there are no people inside, because they have no salaries," he says.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has declared a war on the rampant corruption right across government and described the hospitals as models for the country, will this year hand the doctor 1.6 million dollars, bypassing the ministry.

"Without our system, he knows 60,000 children will die. So he knows about this corruption and that’s why he gives directly to us," Richner says.

The government gave 300,000 dollars a year for two years prior to that.

"My worry now is still the money. This is not sustainable."

Richner will head to New York soon, hoping that his cello-playing and intensive public relations will raise enough to cover running costs for the next decade.

"Then I hope that the economic situation in Cambodia will be better and then all these hospitals can have this level that we have."