R eed-thin Chann Kheng, 45, ducks her head as she is sprinkled with holy water by
a monk chanting a Pali blessing during a traditional healing ceremony.
Then, picking up her two walking canes, Chann-who is partially blind and deaf-carefully
makes her way towards a bamboo sanatorium on the grounds of Samrong Andet pagoda
where she lives with 30 other patients.
For the last eight years Chann has suffered from psychiatric disorders and paralysis-of
which no one seems to know the cause. Abandoned by her family, she was taken in by
this temple in Russey Keo district of Phnom Penh three years ago.
"I sold all my possessions for medicine. My relatives were angry at me because
I've been sick for a long time. They brought me here and abandoned me," she
said in a loud voice after reading questions scratched with a stick in large letters
on the ground.
"I'll probably stay here forever because I don't have any family," she
With few western-style psychiatric facilities, many Cambodians turn to places like
Samrong Andet pagoda for support and treatment-as well as more basic needs such as
food and lodging. Resident monk Rath Saroeun has helped many people recover from
emotional problems, residents say.
"He never eats breakfast but begins curing the patients early in the morning
until late in the evening-only stopping at lunch time," says Oy Sophoan, 38,
who works as a cook at the temple. "He has a lot of energy."
Five years ago Oy herself was one of Rath's patients. Suffering from nervous agitation,
headaches and fever, she ended up in the pagoda after becoming unable to hold her
job at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
"A Kru Khmer [traditional healer] told me my illness was caused by black magic
from others. Spirits were inside me and I couldn't sleep. Then I was taken here,"
After several months at the temple her condition began to steadily improve with treatment
by Rath Saroeun, who administered herbal medicine and blessed her with holy water
and sacred inscriptions on betel leaves.
Happier and more relaxed now, Oy is proud of her position as head cook at the temple,
where she is looked up to by the other residents.
Cambodia is widely known to the world as a society whose people have been emotionally
exhausted and traumatized by two decades of civil war, genocide, and dictatorship.
Torture, starvation, and imprisonment have all taken their toll-both materially and
mentally-among all strata of society.
Studies by psychologists working in Khmer border camps and in refugee communities
in the United States show that many Cambodians suffer from what is called "Post
Traumatic Stress Disorder" (PTSD)-the war trauma commonly experienced by some
Holbrook Teter, a psychologist working with Khmers in San Francisco, California says
that PTSD frequently causes anxiety attacks, an inability to concentrate, headaches,
and heart palpitations.
In Cambodia, rebuilding the devastated infrastructure and maintaining the shaky peace
process has taken precedence over addressing the population's psychological problems.
The cash-strapped State of Cambodia administration is able to provide little more
than custodial care at several state-run institutions in the capital.
At Kolap #4 in O Bek Khaam quarter, street children, troubled adolescents, handicapped
people, and leprosy patients live together in squalid conditions.
The basic needs of psychiatric patients at Kolap #4 are taken care of by other inmates
and a midwife with no mental health training.
Staff at the center say that they cannot count on financial support from the Phnom
Penh muni-cipality's Department of Social Services.
"The department gives us 7,000 riel (U.S. $3) a day to feed about 100 people
here. We are told to do whatever we can in order to buy 15 kilos of rice," said
Ieng Song, director of the center. "Even a single aspirin pill we never receive
from the government."
Based on Buddhist philosophy, many Cambodians think that suffering-including emotional
problems-is the result of wrongdoings they have committed in the past towards others.
Mental illness is often seen as something to hide or be ashamed of.
"Everything depends on ourselves," said white-bearded Sem Sei, 67, a Kru
Khmer from Pursat. "We have to accept the result of our activity. Every person
has his own magic spirit which is his protector. If the person does something wrong,
it will punish him."
Puffing on an ivory pipe carved in the shape of a claw, Sem said he doesn't charge
for his treatment, which includes exorcism, tattooing, and herbal remedies from plants
collected in the Kulen mountains in Preah Vihear province.
Sem claims he learned how to be a Kru Khmer during a past life many centuries ago.
"No one taught me-I knew it myself because I prayed. I learned it in my past
life, in the 1200s, when I fought along with Jayarvarman II against the Siamese [Thais],"
he said pulling out a snapshot of himself meditating in a cave at Kulen mountain
in lotus position.
"People get headaches because they think too much," he said. "My treatment
is effective only if the patient strongly believes in me."
Sem said western methods of treatment should not be abandoned, but he can help those
for whom more modern therapies are not effective.
Once his patients are healed, he makes a string for them to wrap around their waist
and gives them invisible tattoos and amulets to protect themselves from being attacked.
"Even if somebody tries to shoot [the patient] the bullet will miss him,"
A Seattle-based group, the Khmer Buddhist Society, has launched an innovative program
in Kompong Speu province to train community leaders, monks, traditional healers,
midwives and others in mental health counseling.
Called the Resource Education And Community Healing (REACH) project, the center dovetails
traditional Khmer approaches with western mediation and conflict-resolution techniques.
"There are shortages in talking and communication skills in the present society,"
said REACH Director Yin Luoth. "Sometimes it is never taken into consideration
that negotiation is needed for settling matters."
As he watched two participants role-playing a counseling session Yin added: "
Our trick is to teach them to talk."
Redd Barna (Swedish Save the Children) Project Officer Pascale Crussard, a nurse
by profession, stresses the value of traditional Khmer healing practices.
"Though their medicine cannot cure physical disease 100 percent, I believe that
Kru Khmers can help more with mental problems," she said.
"While we western doctors have no solution except putting all the patients in
a mental hospital, we should encourage this activity by letting them live and be
cured in their community."
Samrong Andet pagoda is one place that provides a sense of community. A year ago
Hoc Nguon, 26, moved there after he became violent and stopped eating and talking.
"Sometimes he ran in the nude, and we chased after him to tie him up,"
Hoc's mother says. "Now he can smile and talk the same as normal people."
- Sara Colm contributed to this report.