Its reputation for dodgy doctors may still be intact, but Cambodia is re-creating itself as the perfect destination for those looking for a new face, fuller breasts or a flatter stomach
This 26-year-old Khmer women recently had her breasts augmented at the hands of Dr Reid Sheftall. PHOTO SUPPLIED
World-CLASS health care is not usually one of Cambodia's international selling points, but in recent years, a number of medical centres in Phnom Penh have seen an influx of affluent patients from around the country and globe.
However, rather than life-threatening illnesses, it is hairlines, waistlines and panty-lines that foreigners, expats and middle-class Khmers are so eager to ameliorate.
Dr Reid Sheftall, a registered general and plastic surgeon from the American Medical Centre (AMC), has been at the receiving end of a cosmetic surgery boom that has seen unprecedented numbers demanding his services.
"Between 2008 and 2009 I think business has increased about 10 times," said the American professional, who began practising as a general and cosmetic surgeon in Phnom Penh nine years ago after extended periods volunteering and working in the region.
"I would go home for a few months and come back again and there would be 20 people on my waiting list, so I decided just to move over here," he said.
With its burgeoning middle-class and relatively underdeveloped health care system, Cambodia has been fertile ground for internationally trained professionals.
Dr Theung Chanseiha, a surgeon at the Cambodia-Russia Friendship Hospital and a manager at the Sok Hok clinic, trained in cosmetic surgery in France and Italy and has also witnessed this local development.
"Now plastic surgery is really popular in Cambodia, even with good-looking people," he says. "Sometimes people might just be unhappy with their nose, and now they can operate to make it smaller and prettier."
Dr Reid Sheftall in his surgery. IMAGE SUPPLIED
Happier at home
With no certified cosmetic-surgery training available in either Cambodia or neighbouring Vietnam, wealthier Khmers would previously have travelled to Singapore or Thailand to receive treatment of an international standard.
However, Sheftall explains, "there are no Western surgeons practising in Thailand, and people have come to regard American medical treatment as the elite".
Sheftall estimates that around 75 percent of his patients are middle-class Khmers, most of them women seeking breast augmentation, tummy-tucks or rhinoplasty.
"It can be a scary thing to have done, but I think people feel safer with Western doctors," he said. "Patients would tell their friends what they had done, and the Cambodian girls started pouring in."
However, it is not only among women that the trend is catching on, and Sheftall suggests that his male clientele base has grown to around 10 percent of patients in the past six months.
"There's been a real shift with more men wanting liposuction and treatment for baldness," he said. "Guys are more vain than you think."
And with cosmetic treatment in Cambodia a fraction of the cost of Western surgery, the image-conscious from around the world are being drawn to the country in a new wave of medical tourism.
People can fly over from the States, have surgery with the same Western
standard of care and a two-week holiday here, and still save about $5,000.
A tummy tuck can be purchased from the AMC for around $4,000 and a "boob-job" for around $2,500, compared to in excess of $10,000 in the US. "People can fly over from the States, have surgery with the same Western standard of care and a two-week holiday here, and still save about $5,000," Sheftall said.
Kimberley, a 49-year-old Khmer-American who asked for her surname to not be publicised, underwent tummy-tuck surgery with the American surgeon last week. She is among those now able to afford the luxury of a holiday-cum-makeover.
"I couldn't afford surgery in San Francisco, and I have my own business so it's hard to take time off," she explained. "But I could come here to visit relatives and have time to recover from the operation."
She said she would be quick to recommend that others in the US follow her lead. "Dr Reid explained everything he was doing, so I was clear about the procedure and the care has been really good," she said.
However, as more local clinics cotton on to the cosmetic surgery demand and begin advertising bargain procedures for as little as $200 from murky premises, the new-found status of the local cosmetic surgery scene is coming under threat.
With no government regulation of services in Cambodia, and some outlets claiming their doctors are taught in countries like Vietnam, which also has no certified training institutions, many of these practices are cause for serious concern.
"Plastic surgery is very new to Cambodia, and there are few skills among surgeons here," Theung Chanseiha said. "Cosmetic surgery can have a serious impact on patients if the doctors don't have proper skills."
Although plastic surgeons in Cambodia are required to register with the country's Ministry of Health, Sann Sary, head of the ministry's department of hospitals, told a Thai newspaper last month that many operated in illegal premises.
Despite this recent allegation, Sann Sary was this week unwilling to discuss the problem. However, doctors such as Sheftall have witnessed first-hand the not-so-pretty face of Cambodian plastic surgery.
"You would be horrified by some of the things women who come to see me have had done to them," he said. "Often clinics use suction cups to supposedly augment the breasts and make them fuller, but it only tears the ligaments away from the body, causing serious damage."
Sheftall sees these painful outcomes as a symptom of a cultural pre-occupation with Western archetypes. "Every culture has own norms of beauty, but because Cambodians see a lot of Western girls in the media, they develop an idea of that kind of beauty and start wanting big breasts and a high nose," he said. "Personally, I really want Khmers to appreciate the beauty from their own culture."
Unlike many other local practitioners, Sheftall, who also runs a charity to treat acid-burn victims, does not advertise his cosmetic services and frequently turns women away if he considers a procedure inappropriate.
"I'm not into the whole Pamela Anderson thing at all, especially on naturally petite Khmer girls," he said. "Often I just tell women not to even think about surgery, that they're pretty the way they are. I'm not here to make money; if I wanted to, I would be in Florida."