Around the world, traditional medicine has been shedding its image of black magic
and is now being seen as an integral part of health care. Bou Saroeun and
Peter Sainsbury look at the role and basis of traditional Khmer medicine.
Bags of bark, dead birds and snakes hanging from the ceiling along with dried monkey
pelts, still with their alimentary canal attached: this is a pharmacy.
But while there are no pills or intravenous solutions it is wrong to assume there
are not any effective drugs for sale. It is just that their packaging is a bit different.
The pharmacy at Psar O'Russey is run by Hem Sean, 65, and her Khmer medicine doctor
Khan Mon, 64. They have been selling here since the Sangkum Reastr Niyum of the 1950s
Sean learned her craft from her father and he from his father. She says people ask
her to mix Khmer medicine for illnesses from acne to stomach ache, fever to typhoid.
"Khmer medicine cannot guarantee to heal their ills 100 percent but it can help
them some," she says.
Sean gets most of the plant medicine from Kampong Speu and Kampong Chhnang provinces,
and many of the animals from Ratanakiri.
When asked what she would prescribe for malaria she says she would make up a selection
of bark and herbs which were very bitter because this was very good for fever. This
is no surprise to French scientist Laurent Pordie, who has been studying traditional
Pordie, a doctor of pharmacy who has been researching hill tribe cures in Ratanakiri
and Mondulkiri, says traditional healers use quite a sophisticated system of cataloguing
plants based on their speed of action.
He has identified four anti-malarial compounds in one plant alone. "They all
have the same efficiency but how quickly they work differs."
He says doctors usually use the quickest acting plant first and then move on to the
others if the original doesn't work.
The availability, cultural acceptance and cheaper cost of traditional medicine has
been recognized by the Ministry of Health, which runs a national center to study
and research the topic.
The center's director, Cheng Sun Kaing, a pharmacist and medical masseur, has embarked
on an ambitious plan with the help of the World Health Organization to develop and
promote Cambodia's indigenous medical system.
Khmer traditional medicine owes much to the Indian Ayurvedic tradition, a branch
of medicine that is currently enjoying widespread popularity in the west. The Khmer
tradition derives its study and nomenclature of anatomy and physiology from Ayurvedic
medicine. Chinese and hill tribe techniques have been melded into the Khmer medicinal
One of center's aims is to bring together all this experience and knowledge.
Its first task is to record the plants and cures that are now in use. From there
the center will identify effective treatments for use in primary health care. There
are also plans to look for new treatments and manufacture herbal medicine products.
There is a positive spin-off in promoting the use of traditional medicine - it
is cheap and readily available, even in rural areas.
Kaing believes there is a complementary role for both western and traditional medicine.
He says neither is better than the other and often when one fails, the other can
However he says the standards of equipment used in the preparation of medicines differs
widely in each discipline.
"[The west] has better technology for producing medicines, and management checking
systems, and in high quality equipment. My department has to make sure the Khmer
traditional medicines are equally efficient and of good quality."
A woman buying medicine at Sean's pharmacy says she also uses a combination of traditional
and western medicine. "Some people get healed by the Khmer medicine after they
have spent a lot of money on western medicine."
"I took my children for a check-up at a traditional Khmer doctor and he ordered
this medicine for my children's sore eyes. Sometimes Khmer medicine is better than
The center aims to set standards for the use of traditional medicine, its production
and the training of doctors. However, one of Phnom Penh's most well known traditional
doctors, Ly Bunarith, started his job informally, brought about more through necessity
He says he became a Khmer doctor when the Khmer Rouge forced him and his family out
of Phnom Penh and into the jungle.
When his wife became ill through lack of food and heavy work he asked local villagers
what he could do to help her. They suggested a particular type of vine. When this
cured her he started to keep mental notes of all the remedies the villagers could
But Bunarith's wife got ill again, very seriously, and this time the local remedies
failed to work. He took her back to his homeland in Khien Svay district, where an
elderly man named Kath produced a curing tonic - this time with no relapse.
Bunarith was impressed and began studying traditional medicine under Kath. When people
saw how his wife had been cured Bunarith started to attract a following, earning
enough to open a practice in Phnom Penh.
Bunarith has worked and shared ideas with western doctors and believes the two disciplines
can work together.
"When I opened my shop, the Phnom Penh health department had all the Khmer traditional
doctors meet with western doctors to exchange opinions.
"The western doctors said that we were the same as them but the medicine is
Bunarith says he can treat most kinds of illness, however he says injuries like compound
fractures are best left to western surgeons.
For the moment business has slackened off a bit for Bunarith as some patients try
western or Chinese medicine, but he is not too concerned.
"The Khmer people like to try foreign styles but if their illnesses don't get
better they come back to the Khmer traditional doctor."