Young boy drawing in temple ruins near Siem Reap

Donating Blood in Cambodia: My Experience

Visiting Cambodia? Chances are, you’ve heard how much they need tourists to donate blood. So … donating blood in Cambodia. Should you do it? Is it safe? Where should you go? I’m SO happy you asked!

There’s no question that Cambodia is an unforgettable experience. Visitors are drawn by the incredible Angkor Wat temple ruins, and the monkeys trying to steal your soda are so charming. But it’s the strength of the Cambodian people that will burrow inside your heart. And make you want to give.

It was by chance that I learned about donating blood in Cambodia. And now as I reflect on my trip, it was the best part. 

The situation: Donating blood in Cambodia

Dr. Beat Richner plays cello at his children's hospital in Siem Reap, Cambodia
Dr Beat Richner’s cello concert in Siem Reap

I didn’t expect to donate blood in Cambodia. The thought didn’t even enter my mind until I was sitting in a free cello concert performed by the hospital’s founder, Dr. Beat Richner. Instead of money, he pleaded for clean blood.

We happened to arrive in Siem Reap on a Saturday, which was the night of Dr. Richner’s free weekly concert. While touring the city on a tuk-tuk, my sister and I saw the sign promoting the concert and asked our guide about it. 

So, we went to the concert that evening. And then returned the next day to donate.

Now, I need to tell you a few things about me.

First, I’m rather squeamish about blood tests; they make me nauseous. Second, I had never donated blood before; I’m a small person so my doctor advised against it. And third, I wasn’t so sure about the hygiene of a hospital in Cambodia … despite Dr. Richner’s obvious pride about the European-level care they provided.

But, I did it anyway. Mostly because my sister was determined to donate, and I couldn’t let her do it alone.

And because at that cello concert, I learned a sobering stat. Now my memory is failing me and I can’t find this online anywhere, but there was something about 80%. Eighty percent of the children who died just needed a clean blood transfusion, or 80% of the children who came through their doors needed clean blood. I’m sorry I can’t verify the stat, but whatever it was, it was staggering to me at the time. I couldn’t walk away from Siem Reap and not leave behind some blood.

But why don’t Cambodians donate enough blood?

The problem was – and still is – that certain diseases relatively common in Cambodia prohibit them from donating. Diseases like malaria, hepatitis and HIV. Tuberculosis, which weakens immune systems, was rampant when I went, so dengue fever became an epidemic. And one dengue fever patient needs FOUR BAGS of blood.

Also, there’s a superstition in Cambodia that donating blood makes you weak and unable to work. The only local donors willing to risk it are those with children at the hospital. Assuming they’re a match. And have clean blood.

So, visitors to Cambodia who are willing to donate blood are sometimes desperately needed. Especially during lower tourist seasons.

My experience: Donating blood in Cambodia

A nurse pricks a blood donor at children's hospital in Siem Reap, Cambodia
Donating blood in Siem Reap

From the guard at the gate to the staff member who ushered us through, to the nurse who drew the blood and the doctor who stopped by afterwards to thank us … They beamed with a gratefulness that made me feel like blushing. And crying.

We were immediately ushered into a quiet area in the back. They walked us through the simple paperwork and finger-prick to test for blood type and certain diseases. Seeing the near-instant changes to the blood was SO cool! I had no idea how quickly these tests could be done, and seeing it for myself was fascinating.

We were given a soda and hooked up. I must have been a little dehydrated because my vein collapsed near the end. That part wasn’t fun.

When we were done, they gave us a snack and had us wait fifteen minutes before leaving, just to make sure we were all good. The cool thing was that they had us sit on a bench near the waiting area. That was the perfect positive reinforcement.

From our tour group of 12, my sister and I were the only ones to donate blood in Cambodia. This makes me quite sad, except that my sister kept it from being 0. (Don’t you just want to squeeze her?!)

Was it safe to donate blood in Cambodia? Was it hygienic?

Yes. I was concerned about this, too. The staff was very obvious about using new, sterile gloves and needles.

My sister was a med student and promised she wouldn’t let us donate if she saw any red flags. She didn’t.

How long did it take to donate blood in Cambodia?

The actual process of donating blood at the children’s hospital took maybe half an hour. So, including travel, we were back at our hotel in about an hour. And then we headed over to The Red Piano for a “Tomb Raider” drink. It was delicious.

Where to donate blood in Cambodia

Kids jump into a massive puddle as it rains at Ta Prohm Temple, Siem Reap
Kids playing in the rain at Ta Prohm, Cambodia

Not all hospitals and blood banks in Cambodia are equal. Corruption, theft and selling of blood is a big problem.

If you donate blood at a Kantha Bopha hospital in Phnom Penh or Siem Reap, you can be confident it’s safe, secure and used for patients who really need it. This is because of their explicit vision: to provide cost-free, corruption-free treatment for all children in Cambodia. 

Kantha Bopha hospitals prevent corruption and theft by accepting very little funding from the government and by paying their staff fair wages they can live on. However, this means more reliance on financial donations. Most of this comes from Switzerland, where the founder is from.

Kantha Bopha hospitals care for 85% of Cambodia’s sick children. Four of every five children who come to the hospital are from very poor families without a hope of ever paying for medical care.

Kantha Bopha Hospitals in Cambodia: Locations

Donating blood in Cambodia is easy, as the Kantha Bopha hospitals are conveniently near tourist spots. In Phnom Penh, go to Kantha Bopha IV, which is behind Wat Phnom. In Siem Reap, go to Jayavarman VII Hospital, which is part of the Kantha Bopha hospital group and located between Angkor Wat and the Angkor National Museum. 

Hospital NameAddressHours
Siem ReapJayavarman VII Children’s HospitalCharles De Gaulle & Street 60, Krong, Siem ReapOpen 24 hours (but donate during regular morning/afternoon hours)
Phnom PenhKantha Bopha IV Children’s Hospital90 Chivapol, Phnom Penh (beside Wat Phnom temple)Open 24 hours (but donate during regular morning/afternoon hours)

Donating blood in Cambodia: What you need to know
Save me for later.

More on Dr. Beat Richner: A name worth remembering

Dr. Beat Richner – the Swiss paediatrician and cellist who performed for us that night in Siem Reap – was first sent to Cambodia in 1974 by the Red Cross. His mission ended with the Khmer Rouge and he returned to Switzerland.

In 1992, the Cambodian king asked Dr. Richner to rebuild and manage the Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital in Phnom Penh, which had been destroyed during the war. Kantha Bopha is the name of Cambodian King Sihanouk’s daughter, who died of leukemia when she was three years old.

The Khmer Rouge had devastated this country. They hunted and executed anyone with specialized knowledge, like all their doctors. They forbid “western medicine” and burned down their libraries. All of that skill and knowledge. Gone. 

As the first Kantha Bopha hospital got overcrowded, and then the second and the third, Dr. Richner kept building and treating Cambodian children. In 25 years, Dr. Richner founded five hospitals (four in Phnom Penh and one in Siem Reap). 

Dr. Richner’s medical philosophy

Dr. Richner was adamant about providing Cambodian children with quality care. He openly criticized the World Health Organization’s policies, which he characterized as “poor medicine for poor people in poor countries.” Quote from the hospital’s website:

It is our belief that every child has a right to proper medication. This, in turn, can only be achieved with the assistance of modern and fully functioning equipment, proper and effective medicine, and sufficient disposable medical material, all of which has very little indeed to do with luxury, and even less with first-class medicine.”

Dr. Richner’s legacy continues

I was very sad to learn that Dr. Beat Richner passed away in September 2018. In lieu of his weekly concerts, Jayavarman VII Hospital hosts a film screening about him every Thursday at 6:30 p.m. Apparently it’s quite good.

One year after Dr. Richner’s passing, 800 monks dressed in vivid orange filled his hospital in Siem Reap. You can see the touching tribute yourself at the hospital’s website. Brings tears to my eyes.

The Swiss Kantha Bopha foundation continues Dr. Richner’s vision, including financing and administering the Kantha Bopha hospitals.

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