When Dr Alfred Krappen learned about Cambodia for the first time, he was barely older than the children he treats in Siem Reap today.
“At the age of twelve or thirteen, I read reports from French archaeologists who rediscovered the temples of Angkor,” the German dentist from Geldern, a small town close to the Netherlands, said. “Immediately I felt the desire to see Angkor with my own eyes.”
Although Dr Krappen and his son Alfred Krappen Jr started travelling through Asia in the 1980s, a visit to war stricken Cambodia seemed impossible. But in the early 1990s a peace treaty was signed in Paris, the UN sent its first troops and tourists trickled into Cambodia. Among the first new visitors to the temples of Angkor were father and son Krappen in 1995, and again in 1996.
Six years later, their relationship with Cambodia grew well beyond the ordinary tourist paths. In a journal for dentistry, they read some words that changed their lives forever: “Small dentist station in Siem Reap needs your support.”
Dr Krappen and his son decided to answer this request from the Oral Health Department of Angkor Hospital for Children, and they returned to Siem Reap in April 2002.
“We found a small and simple dental treatment room with very old equipment, chaos and unpleasant 40 degree Celsius heat at 8am,” Dr Krappen recalled.
It took a week just to get the drills and other instruments into working order. Another four weeks were spent teaching local dentists. “They had to learn that a broken tooth can be preserved by fillings and does not have to be pulled out in 100 per cent of all cases,” Alfred Krappen Jr said. “Prior to our arrival, children were fixed to the chair with a whole-body rubber net and their teeth were extracted in a way that resembled torture.”
The two German dentists returned year after year and sent a fully equipped treatment room, including a chair, drills and operating lights, to Cambodia in 2003.
In their German clinic they do many presentations and photo shows about Cambodia to collect donations. Last year Dr. Krappen handed over an additional modern treatment chair costing US$11, 000, paid by money gifts from his seventieth birthday in 2010, with the Finnish manufacturer covering air transportation costs.
Whenever the Krappens visit Cambodia, they return to the small villages in the outskirts of Siem Reap. Classrooms are turned into improvised treatment rooms, and the students face their dental destiny with courage and silence. “It’s unbelievable that most of the Cambodian children never cry and scream,” Dr Krappen said. “It’s a different world from Germany, where parents must promise their children all kinds of luxury goods to make them stop screaming before I can start my job.”
But the German expert is sad about the missing discipline of brushing teeth in Cambodia.
“Here, I extract more baby teeth in one day than I do in Germany in three months.”
The poor condition of most children’s teeth is a result of widespread sugar cane juice consumption. “When I attend festivals such as the annual water festival, I watch with horror while parents buy gallons of pure sugar water for their kids, who drink it with a straw from a plastic bag. Add the lack of dental hygiene and you get inevitable damage and a lot avoidable pain for the children.”
Therefore Dr Krappen and his colleagues hand out a tooth brush and tooth paste, provided free by several German companies, to every child when visiting village schools.
This month the Krappens will look back on a ten year success story. Their next target is to collect another $10, 000 for an urgently needed mobile dental unit that can be taken to remote village schools.