Every Saturday night dozens of people, mostly tourists, head to the Jayavarman VII children’s hospital in Siem Reap. They arrive by tuk-tuk – or on foot if you’re like me and get grumbly about having to pay to go somewhere if you can walk it in less than an hour – in the dark at the large, quiet grounds of the hospital. Spotlights illuminate the flowing jazz script on a large billboard on the grass by the roadside “Beatocello, Free concert every Saturday 7:15pm.” Ah the magic word, free.
There is an auditorium, refreshingly air conditioned, large enough to hold two hundred people, maybe more, which during the day time is used for meetings, lectures, things of that ilk.
A minute before 7:15, a man who could be anywhere from his mid fifties to late sixties, quietly walks up to the stage and brings out a cello from a hard, white, carrying case. He has chin length, curly grey hair, that is starting to thin a little as nature intended. He has a friendly, portly figure, and a warm expression. He sits on a chair on the front centre of the stage and without a word, begins to play. It is the most unassuming, least pretentious beginning to a show I have ever witnessed.
This is Dr. Beat Richner, the name Beatocello is from his former life in Switzerland when he made a name for himself as a comedy cellist. He came here in 1975 as a doctor working in Phnom Penh, no easy time to be in Cambodia, falling slap bang in the middle of Pol Pot’s regime. In the last 40 years he has set up 5 children’s hospitals offering completely free treatment to any children brought there. An achievement which makes most of us feel completely inadequate.
The Saturday night concerts are fund raisers. Dr Richner performs four or five pieces, but primarily he tells you about the work that’s going on at the hospitals and how it’s funded. At the very start he asks for you to donate either money or blood (many children come in with haemorrhaging and the first thing they need is a blood transfusion), he does it very charmingly and with humour, and then talks passionately about the hospitals and the story of their funding. If memory serves he said they make about $5 million a year from these performances. The evening ends with a short film that was made in 2008, but the footage spans from the 70s when Dr Richner was extremely skinny with more hair, through to the breaking ground of the most recent hospital.
A few days later I was speaking very enthusiastically about Beatocello, the doctor, and the lack of a public health care system in Cambodia. My companions included an Australian medical student who was on placement in Battambang, who offered the opinion that Dr Richner is not that highly regarded since he refuses to share information and findings with other Cambodian hospitals. The student also informed me that Cambodia does have a free health care system in place.
This left me a little confused. There are always two sides to every story. I tend to work on the theory that there are no grey areas but that everything is both and black and white, it just depends from which angle you look at it. The politics run deep in this issue so I can’t proffer an informed opinion, but I’d be tempted to take my cue from a couple of Cambodians I’d met who emphatically declared that they would not have treatment in Cambodia, but would instead make the trip across the border into Thailand to receive medical care.