Here at the border camps for Cambodian refugees there are cleverly constructed bamboo and wooden hospitals with some of the best doctors, medicines and equipment the world can offer. A fully air-conditioned prefabricated operating theater graces one camp. Relief workers, most of them dedicated and efficient, keep something approximating a routine schedule, with evenings free for Chinese meals and birthday parties.

The camps' neat wooden huts, bordered by garden plots, and the children playing in wide fields laughing and shouting, are a far cry from the maze of makeshift tents of a year ago. Everywhere, at a primary school or a theater for traditional Khmer dance and music, scenes leap out to advertise the success of the Cambodian relief program.

It was not so long ago that these refugees were dying at the rate of 50 per day, that the children had the simian features of starvation, their matchstick limbs often too weak to endure intravenous feedings.

Ulf Christopherson, a veteran of UNICEF relief operations during the Indochina and Bangladesh wars, just funished a survey which proves his point that this emergency program produced some of the best results in the shortest time.

"We conducted a nutritional survey of the children in one of the camps and we found that only 2.5 percent suffered from malnutrition . . . compared with a figure of 30, 40, 50 percent a year ago," he said. "That is much better than any normal or average rural village in Southeast Asia."

Success beyond the imagination, or the expectation, of any average village has bred its own special problems and raised uncomfortable questions. By most reckonings, the entire Cambodian relief program -- for people at the border and inside the country -- has been one of the most expensive per person in history. Some $700 million was raised for an estimated 5 million Cambodians by a joint mission of the United Nations, dozens of private charities and bilateral contributions from countries of North America, Europe and Asia. And that figure does not include separate contributions from Vietnam, the Soviet Union, Eastern bloc countries and Cuba that are difficult to verify and calculate in dollars.

With such a budget, the border program, at least, went far beyond the emergency aspects of feeding, housing and providing medical care for the refugees. Kao-I-Dong camp, a holding center for Cambodians, is now known as "the Hilton." Barely a year ago it was a miserable collection of tents mired in mud that was home to upwards of 150,000 Cambodians. Today the entire border area has fewer than 130,000 Cambodians, a fraction of the half million who once crowded the region, and the camps, like Kao-I-Dong, have become spacious, self-contained universes.

The $71,500 spent daily at Kao-I-Dong provides its residents with programs that would be the envy of any developing nation: high-protein supplemental feeding programs for children under 5 years of age, pregnant women and lactating mothers; vocational courses for all who want to learn tool making, wood carving, basket weaving or fishery production literacy classes for children and adults who, during five years of Pol Pot's brutal revolution, were denied any education; and fine arts programs to revive the folk and classical music and dance tradition of Cambodia.

"There was overspending here, without question," said John Moore, coordinator for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees at Kao-I-Dong. "And I don't think you could have helped the overspending. . . Because of the former American involvement, the French involvement, what people see as Russian expansionism, there was a lot of interest here. Interest you don't have for programs in places such as Africa."

Moore believes the generosity of many private donors was motivated by anti-communist sentiments. The relief program was born after the Vietnamese army overthrew Pol Pot's bloody regime in Cambodia, after the chaos and uncertainty that followed. Since the Soviet Union underwritesd Vietnam's military machine at a rate estimately variously from $1 million to $3 million a day, the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia is deplored by neighborging Southeast Asian countries and the United States not only because one contry took over another but for fear of Soviet control of the Indochinese peninsula.

To many minds, the Thai-Cambodian border has become the new front line in the old ideological battle fought so fiercely in Indochina.

"Excuse me, but some of the Americans who come here are impossible," said one relief official who asked not to be named. "They think they are fighting communism by giving these people books and pencils. One man who is a Christian evangelical passed around lots of these T-shirts that said 'Jesus love me' to the children, who are mostly Buddhist and don't understand. I took them home, cut out that part, and inserted plain fabric. It's gotten that way here."

This emotional and political zeal has touched almost every aspect of the relief program. It goes to the very heart of the crisis. When relief officials questions whether too much aid has been devoted to Cambodians -- to the detriment of needy people in countries like Uganda -- they also voice doubts about the severity of the crisis itself, whether these refugees were fleeing from a country-wide famine.

"I don't think it was as severe as some people thought it would be," said Stephen Heder, a Cornell University scholar who, while interviewing hundreds of Cambodian refugees in their own language for his PhD dissertation, helped support himself by writing in-depth analyses for the State Department chronicling the crisis from inception to its present stage.

"It varied village by village. . . the disposition of the crops when the Vietnamese came, whether the people fled, if the fields were destroyed or burned during the fighting. . . It doesn't break down by region or province," he said.

In all likelihood, there were pockets of famine in Cambodia, as well as a serious food shortage common after any war. Many of those skeletal people who stumbled across the border suffering from malaria and malnutrition were Cambodians who had fled the Vietnamese -- often forcibly under Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge army. Consequently, the degree of the success of the program, whether it miraculously kept a nation of people from extinction or impressively saved tens of thousands from starvation, is now debated.

Paul Altisman, a UNICEF spokesman in New York, contends there was a famine: "In hindsight, after seeing the dramatic results, people now say maybe it wasn't so bad. . . . It was."

That the Cambodians did survive handsomely is an achievement in itself, especially given the complicated problems that existed here on the border. In the wretched chaos following the first waves of refugees, relief officials were pressed just to set up the shelters and organize the medical care and food lines for the refugees. The leadership vacuum was promptly filled by the various armies set to return to Cambodia to fight the Vietnamese. Soon camps were under the nominal or complete control of the Khmer Rouge, or one of the "Free Khmer" anti-communist groups or just plain warlords taking advantage of all the free aid.

Controlling these factions proved impossible at first, particularly since the Thais' political and strategic interests lay in encouraging resistance to the Vietnamese army just across their border. "The relief organizations would have had to import many, many more officials to monitor food distribution," said Helder, "in effect, become the government, and I don't see how that could have been done."

As a result, all Cambodian armies were fed by international relief. "Rice was used to feed all armies; Khmer Rouge, Khmer Sereiki (Free Khmer) . . . and the political military cadre of the Phnon Penh government," said Helder. "They controlled the distribution and just siphoned off what they needed.

Inside Cambodia the Phnom Penh regime set up by the Vietnamese paid the salaries of its soldiers in rice.

Along the border, "international aid was used for two nonhumanitarian purposes . . . to rescue and strengthen the anti-Vietnamese resistance groups operating from the border region," acccording to an unpublished confidential report of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the organization in charge of the camps.

Writen last August, the report explains in detail how the various armies used the rice not only to feed their forces but to control unwilling civilians in the camps where they were headquartered. Bloody disputes followed as surely as the monsoon season tapered off into the dry winter. "Manipulation [of aid] by various forces to further their political and military objectives to the detriment of many thousands of Kampuchean civilians became increasingly evident," the report continued.

"The past ten months have witnessed numerous armed conflicts caused in part by the attempts to control food -- the principal political and military 'weapon' in a famine-stricken country."

Altisman, the UNICEF spokesman, said the report was wrong and pointed to rules of the United Nations as well as the U.S. Congress prohibiting food relief to armies. But the 39-page report is replete with examples of just such abuse and with tales of rice being resold on the black market. At Nong Chan, a camp 20 kilometers north of Aranyaprathet, the major Thai border city, the report cites a December 1979 attack by one group that destroyed an International Red Cross hospital. The reason: "resentment of free rice distribution . . . which had resulted in a significant decrease in the market price of aid rice being sold by at [nearby] Camp 204."

Those days are over, by all accounts. Many of the bandits have disappeared or perished in their battles. The other forces have delineated and accepted their separate spheres of control. And food is now carefully distributed to women, individually, by relief officials.

"Food distribution works now, thanks to the June incursion when the population dropped by 50 percent," added Christopherson, of UNICEF.

For that is the other marvel: the smooth management of the camps populated by thousands now instead of tens of thousands. The population dwindled, first, when Vietnamese troops battled across the border on June 23 and pushed thousands of refugees back to Cambodia. (Some 40,000 from Nong Chan alone, according to the confidential report.) The Vietnamese recognized that the camps provided shelter to resistance forces as well as civilians.

To prevent the Thai-Combodian border from becoming as serious a threat to the Phnom Penh government as the Palestinian camps in Lebanon became to the Israelis, the Vietnamese crossed into them in June and again this month, sending the clear message to all refugees that their safety was threatened.

Some Cambodians have found homes overseas. A few have grown disillusioned with the idle camp life and returned to their villages in Cambodia. Now the camps have lost enough people that there is room to build a large fish pond in the middle of them. On the fringes there are vacant lots, sites of older, cruder huts now torn down and burned for charcoal to feed cooking fires.

Last year, when visiting the camps after the first wave of refugees hit, I had to walk up and down narrow paths bounded by long houses and bamboo frames barely covered by thatch or the blue tarpaulins of the United Nations. In each, extended families and sometimes the remaining inhabitants of an entire village were massed head to head, shivering in flimsy cotton sarongs from the bone-chilling cold of the tropical monsoon.

This trip I saw one long house, at Nong Samet, but it had sturdy thatch walls and roof, mats on the floor and wooden tables and benches. It is a primary school and some of the children reciting their lessons were actually fat. When I peaked in, little notice was taken. One year of intense press coverage had dampened their curiosity about foreigners with tape recorders.

The camps have the immaculate order of a culture displaced and enshrined, here, on foreign soil. The narrow paths are now roads large enough for vans and trucks and marked with signs naming them for past homes: "Angkor Wat Road," "Stung Treng Road," "Angkor Thom Road."

Bureaucracies, with committees and deputies, handle each facet of life: public sanitation, gardening, education, even recreation. At one camp a banner stretched across a "boulevard" welcomed a visiting relief team on behalf of the "Nong Samet Education Committee."

The only time the camps took on the teeming personality I remembered from just one year ago was during the border feeding program, an innovation born of necessity that feeds hundreds of thousands of Cambodians while allowing them to remain inside their country. Twice a month, thousands come in oxcarts and on foot from Cambodia's western provinces to pick up individual rations of 30 kilos of rice. The day of my visit 30,000 Khmers were waiting for food in the noonday sun. Ling Chaun, of Pursat, sat in one of the crowded lines.

"This is my third trip." he said, through an interpreter. "I walk two weeks, to come and return, because without the food my family would have little to eat."

Because of politics and the success of the border program, the spotlight has moved, inevitably, to relief for those inside the country. The more than 100,000 Cambodians who remain on the border will probably have to return home. 1The Thai government ended its "open door" policy months ago and refused to grant refugee status to Cambodians except those with close relatives abroad.

Yet most do now want to return. They have nothing but terrible memories of the war and the Pol Pot regime that killed at least a million people through executions and starvation in the name of a perfect revolution. As one woman told a relief worker: "If I return and die in Cambodia that is where I will be reborn, to another life of sorrow."

Occupation by the Vietnamese is a "liberation" similar to the Soviet "liberation" of Poland from Nazi rule after World War II. Although an unimaginably cruel dictator was overthrown, the people are left with a government controlled by an historic enemy.

But return they must. "When they finally believe that they can't be resettled, when they look at the alternatives -- life in the camps, or a return home -- I think they'll go back," said UNHCR's John Moore.

As they leave, the resistance enclaves are bound to wither, along with the relief assistance. "We are moving from an emergency to a development stage," said Christopherson of UNICEF: development for Cambodia, not the border.

This year's budget for the border will probably be halved, according to the UNHCR, another sign of a successful program whose need is diminishing.

And while Cambodia's political problems appear intractable, the generosity of the international community insured that the people would survive, perhaps to find their own solutions someday.