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Popping Pills in Phnom Penh

By: EAS Staff Posted: January-01-2006 in
EAS Staff

Apologies to all of you who locked onto this piece under false pretences, but this is not a groovy article about ingesting love inducing illicit substances. Rather it is the story of how one man suddenly finds himself to be a walking cornucopia of pharmaceuticals.

Prior to visiting Cambodia for the first time, I was a healthy specimen of a human being -never went to the Doctor, never took pills of any sort and rarely got sick. I ate well, exercised and generally enjoyed a high degree of well being.

However, after landing here and finding myself suddenly beset by all manner of infections and bothersome ailments, I now find myself scoffing no fewer than four different types of pills three times a day.

But let's go back in time a little shall we? Last year after a wonderful month of vacation in Cambodia, I left with a bag full of Angkor Beer shirts, some silk for my mother and a Golden Staph infection.

I had walked through some dirty flood water near Kampot market with a small wound on my leg. The resultant infection took several visits to a doctor back in Australia and a course of extremely strong wonder drugs to knock on its head.

I remember sitting in California 2 in extreme pain before I left Cambodia and a long term expat resident in all his wisdom imparted this gem of wisdom to me. "Anybody who has lived in Cambodia for more than a year has the ugliest &^$%^#@ legs you will ever see," he told me sagely. Truer words were never spoken.

After a second trip back to Cambodia (during which I escaped any health related issues) I relocated here permanently this year, and within my first month the Golden Staph returned. I nicked myself kick starting my dirt bike and the nasty little bugger got into my bloodstream-yet again my leg exploded in a burst of red, swollen pain.

Luckily I had come prepared with some spare antibiotics from Australia. These were quaffed and the problem was solved ... for about two weeks. Then yet another motorcycle-induced nick to my shin (I really must get an electric start) resulted in a fresh infection and this time I decided to go to a doctor. I was diagnosed as having a "drainage problem" (should I see a plumber?) and put on a different course of antibiotics which seemed to do the job. I thought back to that comment made in California 2 and realized that, yes, my right leg really is already looking extremely ugly!

The problem is not only my clumsiness. Cambodians are keen devotees of what has been described to me as "French poly-pharmacy". The most insignificant ailment or ache seems to require an immediate trip to a pharmacy, where an obliging local, who may or may not have any qualifications whatsoever, duly dishes out a multicolored range of remedies, from vitamins to antibiotics, all tied up in a clear plastic bag.

It seems that the more colors the better, and complete courses are never dispensed. Three antibiotics to do you for that day is the general rule, as well as a myriad of other pills which usually require a trip to the internet to identify.

Nobody ever asks you what you are already taking, and nobody seems bothered about any allergic reactions their little bags of health (for they are certainly not bags of joy) may trigger. Consequently, if you happen to suffer from a belly ache, a head ache and say, gout, all in a week, it is plausible you may be on up to 12 different tablets, all the colors of the rainbow!

Recently I was sent to Koh Kong for work and on my first night there, both my ankles blew up like balloons. I required the help of my partner to walk and after a day of waiting in excruciating pain for this mysterious occurrence to right itself, I had to admit defeat and visit the local bush hospital. I was diagnosed as having an arthritic condition, given a script for some Voltaren anti-inflammatory and some paracetomol and sent on my way.

"I should be sponsored by a drug company by now!" I muttered. So I complete this antibiotic course and two weeks later my ankles were still giving me grief so I decide to go to a foreign-trained doctor. And $150 in blood tests later and he announces that it was not arthritic, but rather a mysterious infection. Lo and behold, yet another script, this time for Amoxicillin. Now I feel like Phnom Penh's Pac Man meets Woody Allen, I am gobbling so many pills.

I am currently still on this regime. Who knows where I go from here if they do not work. Also, the pain and swelling has spread to my left elbow so I probably need some more pills?

Just to compound all of this (are you still even with me?), I got a sore throat last week and went to a pharmacy to get some lozenges. They gave me a tube of Lysopaine throatees and they tasted so good I chewed away on 10 of them before I thought to read the directions. Recommended dose: two per day. Warning: failure to adhere to recommended dosage may result in severe diarrhea.

So now I am on Lomytol to counter the Lysopaine, the Amoxicillin isn't doing what it is supposed to although the Voltaren seems to be and because I also now have a head cold I am taking Decolgon as well. I am thinking about setting up my own pharmacy because my knowledge of all things "Pill-y" is now voluminous and I feel like a Pez machine most days.

So there you have it. Through no fault of my own I have become a pill head. No euphoric loved up geezers in sight, no 180BPM techno to be heard and no new friends whose name I can't remember. Just a sea of blister packs in my bathroom and confusion-what should I be taking, and when?

Life in the tropics sure is fun, but it can be hell on your body. I now have those ugly legs I was warned about but I can self diagnose for a bunch of conditions, the local doctors love me and one thing is for sure...if pharmacies had a high roller room, I would be a whale.


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