The Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital is just around the corner from the lush, heliconia-filled gardens of Phnom Penh’s Raffles hotel.

But it’s a world away.

Every day, in the early morning and afternoon an orderly queue starts forming.  Arriving on foot, by tuk-tuk and scooter, and occasionally an old Toyota, women and their sick children wait anxiously for the ticket that will get them into the hospital and ensure their children get the medical attention they need.

The hospital sees some 3,000 children every day.

Some are so sick they have to be carried into the hospital - their bodies wrapped in colourful towels, but almost lifeless in the arms of their worried mothers.  Some arrive with intravenous drips embedded in their tiny hands a parent clutching the bamboo pole that holds the fluid bag. So much sickness and so much quiet desperation. It’s a sobering, and heartbreaking sight.

Like mothers and fathers across the world, all these parents want is for their children to get better.

But in Cambodia, getting better is not as simple as a visit to the local doctor.

While most large towns have clinics, they are few and far between in the rural areas where most Cambodians live. Even where there is a health centre, they have few resources and limited stocks of medication.

Cambodia spends just $119 per person on health. But many of the country’s population are poor, surviving on only a dollar or two a day. When a child becomes seriously ill, parents may be forced to sell the family cow or even borrow money to pay for their child’s treatment. Illness can turn poor families destitute.

And then there’s corruption. Transparency International rates Cambodia one of the world’s most corrupt nations 164th out of 183 nations rated in 2011. It noted a particular problem with the improper use of public funds and the existence of widespread bribery. Graft has also helped fuel a dangerous trade in fake drugs. From cradle to grave, ordinary Cambodians pay the price.

It’s no wonder then that so many people, even the comparatively better off middle classes, are drawn to the Kantha Bopha Hospital. Part of a foundation set up 20 years ago by the eccentric Swiss doctor Beat Richner, the organization operates two children’s hospitals – the other is in Siem Reap. All treatment is free, funded entirely by private donations.  

The main wards are clean and airy, there’s a well-stocked pharmacy and a blood bank. In intensive care, mothers sit by their children’s beds, holding their hands and hoping for the best. The fans work, the ceilings don’t have holes and no one is forced to sleep on mats or in the corridor. All that the foundation asks of the family is that they give a few minutes to donate blood.

In a country where simple healthcare is so hard to find, Kantha Bopha is an exception. The queues outside its doors are unlikely to disappear any time soon.