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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Local cures: just a question of packaging

Local cures: just a question of packaging

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

and 60s.

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

medicine here.

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

way.

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

cure.

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

tablets."

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

than desire.

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

tell him.

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

different."

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."

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