So I Caught Dengue Fever in Cambodia

In nearly two years of living in Cambodia, I think I had only taken three sick days during that time. There were two cases of conjunctivitis/pink eye (an appalling amount of people suffer from this during the flood season) and a minor case of food poisoning from a fancier restaurant. Even when I was a student in Thailand in 2007, the worst I suffered were a pair of 24-hour bugs. My good luck ran out last month when I caught what was later determined to be dengue fever. Yuck.

It’s a somewhat frightening situation considering the lackluster medical care in Cambodia. Fortunately, I was treated at the super expensive Royal Phnom Penh Hospital that was mercifully covered by my health insurance. Without the insurance, I’d have a much different opinion of the place, as the total bill for four nights came to a whopping $2,781.82 (USD).

How It Started

Dengue fever selfie

Dengue fever is a mosquito-borne disease, and I think it’s possible I caught it while camping out in the rural Areng Valley. Or it could have been from a mosquito here in Phnom Penh. The disease is rather nasty, as it lowers your blood platelet levels while causing intense fevers, painful headaches and sometimes liver failure. In 2007, there were 40,000 cases of dengue fever in Cambodia and more than 400 deaths.

Regardless of where I caught dengue fever, the disease came on slowly. On Tuesday I was extremely sore, which I chalked up to overexertion during a game of dodgeball. On Wednesday I had a bad headache and continued soreness, but I felt fine enough to go out for a couple drinks that night. As soon as I got home at about 11 p.m. things went poorly.

Almost instantly, I was shivering cold even without the fan or A/C on. I buried myself in blankets but it wasn’t enough to keep me warm. My fever that night peaked at nearly 103 degrees (39.4 Celsius). Still, I assumed it was just going to be a 24-hour bug. My headache was terrible. That next morning I knew there was no way I was going to make it to work. I still thought I’d be able to make it in on Friday and play some flag football at night. That didn’t happen, as my headache stayed strong and my fever remained high.

Treatment at the Royal Phnom Penh Hospital

The lobby of the brand-new hospital.

On Saturday I decided to go to the Royal Phnom Penh Hospital near the airport just to see what was wrong with me. After a blood test, they diagnosed me with dengue fever, told me I had to stay for at least three nights and hooked me up with an IV that never left my side. I wasn’t exactly prepared to stay, as I had no change of clothes, no snacks and left my laptop at home.

The hospital building is brand new and much nicer than the hotels I typically stay in. My room was spacious with a couch, table, TV and a large bathroom. “Fancy,” is how one of my visitors described it. The international staff, which included a mix of Western doctors, Cambodian doctors, and at least one Thai nurse were all pleasant enough.

Most surprising was that the food was actually pretty good and at least on par with most of the generic backpacker/tourist restaurants that line the riverfront area. The only problem was that the hospital is so new that the cafeteria wasn’t open, so if I wanted a snack or anything after dinnertime I was out of luck. I didn’t have much of an appetite, but on my first night I would have killed for a cup of tea in the evening or just a simple snack.

My home for several nights.
My home for several nights.

My routine in the hospital quickly grew monotonous. I’d watched one of the four English language channels (I even watched the Pirates of the Caribbean sequel – that’s how bored I was) or sleep. I had a tablet on me but my headache made it too difficult to even read. Nurses would come in regularly to refill the IV. Every morning my blood was drawn and during the night my temperature was checked regularly. Sometimes they’d flip on the lights with no warning to do this. If I was actually able to sleep this would feel like sleep deprivation torture. A highlight was watching an NFL game on my tiny phone with an average WIFI connection. I could almost make out what was happening on the small screen.

The Aftermath

All told, I spent four nights in the hospital and I’m fortunate that my case of dengue fever wasn’t severe. Some people suffer from kidney or liver failure. Others feel soreness for years after. Once my fever died down for a full night and I was allowed to leave, I only felt out of sorts for a couple days. I bicycled to work the day after I was released and that was definitely overdoing it. The day after I only worked half a day. Finally, by the weekend I felt fine but I wasn’t allowed to drink alcohol for two weeks because my liver – while healthy enough – was weakened by the dengue.

Even with my “mild” case of dengue fever, I’d give the experience low marks. Would not recommend. The positive, if I had to grasp for something, is that the Royal Phnom Penh Hospital was decent – especially by Cambodian standards. I suppose you get what you pay for, as nearly $3,000 is a fortune in Cambodia.





I'm an American freelance writer who spent a couple years living in Cambodia. Now I'm on the move again and traveling all over the place. I'm willing to try any bizarre liquor that's presented to me. Any recommendations?