so many rotten teeth! what I do in Phnom Penh – Cambodia


kitty at the dental clinic – those tiny teeth!

Wat Angk Portinhean, Phnom Penh. Three kitties try repeatedly to enter the room. The rug behind the door is their preferred sleeping spot. Maybe they want to escape the children running around the temple grounds, frequently picking up and playing with the tiny kittens. The children are excited to see us and smile a toothless smile. Caries is a problem here.

On some days, our patients come from schools and orphanages, sometimes people from nearby drop by to get some treatment. Most of them demand fillings, but it often ends in extractions. Sometimes I see another tooth with a small cavity – easy and painless to treat – and ask them if they want me to fill it. No thank you, I will come back when it hurts. Frustrating for me…

little patient

another patient

the clinic

coolest patient

through the window

cleaning teeth

head to toe

unfortunately normal here

Sometimes I bribe children with toys to get them to sit through a session of tooth cleaning. On some days, the monks from the pagoda come to get some dental treatment. As a woman, I am usually not allowed to touch monks, but what to do when the tooth aches…and I wear gloves during the whole procedure so it seems to be alright.

On some days we go to one of the villages outside of Phnom Penh. Poverty is more visible here. We load two foldable chairs, boxes with a mobile suction unit and turbines and hand pieces as well as a suitcase full of other equipment into a tuk-tuk and head for the slums. A school is our clinic for the day. A metal hut with concrete floors. Nothing sterile here, not to mention the chickens that enter the room from time to time. I stack four bright-red plastic stools to use as my chair.

mobile clinic strapped to a tuk-tuk

mobile clinic at a school

An extraction must end early because the patients states he has to leave for work. He sells rice. After extracting two rotten teeth with a 12-year-old patient, I see her enjoying a lollipop and a sugary drink a few minutes later. The amount of sweets and sugars consumed takes its toll. Prevention measures could be better.

Normally, work really is not that stressful, but here I have to extract 17 teeth in one day, do several filling and clean endless amounts of calculus, only stopping because I run out of equipment to use.

I am well aware that most of the people I treat have bigger problems than their teeth, but simple measures and the spread of knowledge could prevent a lot of trouble. Most people are really grateful for the free dental treatment they receive, it is nice to see some of them smile again, and that I am contributing something to it. For me, it is fascinating to stay longer in a place and to get to know locals and their everyday life. Although few speak any English, I pick up snippets from translations or simple observation. It also makes me more appreciative of the things I do have, such as access to medical care and information. It also teaches me a different kind of dental treatment, to improvise and find treatments suitable for the patients’ needs. But teeth are still teeth, and lots of therapies are done the same way.

chicken at my workstation

Helping is important, and I find volunteering is a good way to do just that. There are other sectors than dentistry, of course, in case you are not a dentist. 😉 But especially in Cambodia, some people try to make money off of other people’s misery. So do good research before entering any volunteer program, especially if it is short term. Nevertheless, it is a great experience and I encourage anyone to try it!


April 1st – May 6th 2017


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