Singha Towit has been making rice wine in Pursat province for 30 years. At 70, she
claims a glass of it gives her the energy to put in a full day's hard work without
tiring, despite her age.
"Everyone should drink a small glass or two each day," she says. "It's
good for your body and good for your skin."
Indeed, rice and herbal wine concoctions are believed to cure many ailments, according
to wine makers and regular users. Herbal wines are said to help enhance sexual stamina.
Muscle wines give energy and help build a strong body. In the countryside a glass
of rice wine is commonly drunk each morning after breakfast to induce energy for
the day ahead. After childbirth many Khmer women drink it mixed with honey and fruit
to restore their health, prevent food poisoning and to warm their bodies. Towit recommends
that a post natal woman drink it regularly until she is confident her body has recovered.
To make her brew, Towit first cooks the rice and uses salt water to separate clumps.
After adding yeast, the rice mixture is left to ferment for four days. Water is added
and after three more nights the rice floats to the surface. The mix is then distilled
in a pot sealed with a paste made from crushed rice hulls mixed with rice porridge
known as bor bor.
Towit sells her rice wine for 2,000 riel per liter to shop owners and local customers.
It is sometimes "improperly used," she admits. "Some people drink
too much and feel too brave. It gives them a mental disease that makes them crazy."
Kim Sern has been selling other brands of medicinal rice wines at Psar Cha for more
than ten years. One concoction made with Chinese roots is often purchased by old
cyclo drivers to sooth muscles and gain strength. Wine bottled with native snakes,
spiders or scorpions is said to relieve back pain.
Another wine of Khmer root medicine and crushed tiger bone, an ingredient Sern says
is readily available and not so expensive, is popular with men and women as a cure
for sexual diseases - including AIDS. She doesn't confirm its effectiveness.
"People don't come back to tell me if they are cured or not, but many come for
a period of time and then disappear," she said. Whether they recover or not
I cannot judge."
All her wines sell for 300 riel per glass.
For stomach ache, some of her customers swear by a rice wine with ginseng. One faithful
customer, 60-year-old Yay Mao, says she had stomach problems for decades - ever since
the Pol Pot regime - and was often unable to eat properly. She finally tried Sern's
rice wine with unripe banana. "I drink a glass every day before eating,"
she said. "Now I can eat anything with no problems at all."
The benefits and risks associated with alcohol have long been debated by health experts.
Numerous websites and medical journals claim that when taken in moderation - around
one standard drink per day - alcohol can reduce cholesterol, heart disease, stroke,
gallstones and Type 2 diabetes. Moderate drinking acts as a depressant on the nervous
system bringing relief from anxiety, relaxing muscle tension and reducing inhibitions.
Local doctor Prum Darachan, clinical service manager for Marie Stopes Reproductive
Healthcare clinic, says moderate drinking can improve digestion when taken at meal
time - as Yay Mao claims.
"I think some traditional medicine can cure some diseases," he says. "But
there needs to be strict control by the government. Many products receive no quality
control - such as locally produced rice wine - and often cause health problems rather
than cure them." Darachan warns that pregnant women shouldn't drink any alcoholic
remedies and he notes that excessive alcohol intake can contribute to heart and liver
But many local wine manufacturers claim their products will cure sexual disorders
and related complications.
The label on Angkunh Kingkuork Khmer Herbs Wine says it provides energy, sooths aching
muscles, and cures gonorrhea and syphilis. Prom Bora, whose family has been producing
the sugar cane and pineapple mix for more than 20 years, says it's always soaked
in tree bark for a week.
He says it is mostly purchased by men to cure impotence, urinary tract infections
and sexual diseases. He estimates they sell 6,000 bottles per month - more during
Another popular brew is Muscle Wine, a Chinese herbal wine introduced in 1963 by
Lao Hang Heng Wine. Manager Ung Kuong says the company gets good feedback from customers.
It claims to work to alleviatiate rheumatism and fatigue, facilitate circulation
and strengthen the kidneys. It also promotes good sleep, making customers "look
fresh, healthier and younger."
One final, possibly appealing attribute, according to Kuong, is that even when consumed
in excess it does not cause a hangover. "Drink it all night, don't mix it with
other wines, and wake up full of energy," he says.
As for the taste? "It's not dull," he says. "It's a hard taste if
you're not used to it."