STRONGER, WHITER TEETH
Huckster Sao Sareth balances a child on a 2-meter poll with his teeth. You too can have stronger teeth for merely 1,000 riel.
As the sun sets over the riverfront at Preah Kumlong (Leper King) shrine, a trio
of medicine men launch into their act: standup comedy, magic, kiddie boxing bouts,
animal tricks, flame swallowing and frenzied sales patter for all manner of medicine.
These homemade concoctions cure sluggish blood, sore joints, dizziness, itchy crotches,
sore teeth, fuzzy eyes, bad breath and syphilis. The three medicine men - Sao Sareth,
Keo Ly and Chha Kvay - are complemented by a trio of monkeys: Angkot, Avourch and
As Chha Kvay does a voice over narration, the monkeys do a warm-up act, parodying
the Chinese TV series Judge Pao Chin and the Thai soap opera Dao Prasuk. They do
a bit of boxing and are supplanted by street urchin contenders.
The crowd, 200 strong now, roars with laughter as little kids with outsized gloves
pummel the bejesus out of each other. Wielding a mike, Chha Kvay mimics the screech
and yowl of Thai boxing music, accompanied by a homemade drum and artillery shell
cymbal. Propped before an old station wagon, a garish poster advertises Tang Kim
Leng blood medicine, illustrated by a muscle man, roots, herbs, a deer, a tiger and
"This kid is Mike Tyson!" crows Chha Kvay, introducing a scrawny 12-year-old.
"If I don't let him fight, he cries."
In baggy shorts and floppy cap, Chha Kvay is suddenly a dignified referee, admonishing
the two boxers before him: "No elbows! No knees! And no ear biting, Mike Tyson!
You can gouge eyes, though."
As the two kids flail at each other, Chha Kvay jumps up and down till his baggy shorts
drop to his ankles, revealing bright blue underpants. The crowd howls.
The audience has doubled to 400 by now, clapping wildly as Chha Kvay awards victor
Mike Tyson with a purse of 500 riel.
Kao Ly appears with two flaming tapers, shooting fireballs into the sky to appease
the guardian spirits. Sao Sarath swallows a lit cigarette, makes it appear and disappear
from mouth, armpit and pocket. He does ring tricks, turning them into a handbag,
a cyclo, an ox-cart. He puts a bicycle inner tube into a straw bowl and covers it
with a cloth.
"I will turn this into a snake!" he promises. "But later. Trust me.
If you don't see a snake later, you can burn my car."
A 2-meter wooden pole is brought out and a street kid is seated on top of it. "This
kid weighs 30 kilos!" Sao Sarath cries. "And I'm going to lift him with
my teeth. This is no problem for my teeth because I use a special medicine."
Dipping a cotton wad into a tiny jar of purple liquid, Sarath swabs his teeth and
spits. "Do this three times a day for three days, and your teeth will be strong.
If it doesn't work, you can come here and get your money back. Only 1,000 riel per
The pole is balanced on Sarath's lower teeth and he triumphantly carts the kid around
the ring. The purple gunk sells like hotcakes.
"We also have a medicine for itch!" cries Chha Kvay, scratching his crotch.
Lowering the mike, he mimics masturbation. "Feels good too!"
Sarath bends over a street kid and appears to pierce his cheek with a metal ring.
Grabbing the ring, he leads the kid around the crowd.
"You feel pain?" he asks.
"Now how to get this ring out? We'll have to cut off your head."
Ring removed, Kvay takes over. The crowd is at its peak now, 500 strong, in a circle
Kvay whips off the cloth covering the straw bowl with the "snake" inside.
Face contorted with terror, he kicks over the bowl. Out falls the inner tube. Kvay
is dumbfounded. Saroth grabs the mike to assure the crowd the snake will appear eventually.
He covers the bowl, lights insense, spits water over the bundle.
"We have to wait for the magic to work. I promise you there will be a snake.
If not, you can push my car into the river. But it's not time yet." This crowd
is not moving until they see that snake.
Saroth revs up into his main pitch for Tam Kim Leng bone-and-blood medicine. "Take
it two times a day, morning and evening! This medicine strengthens weak bones and
blood vessels. It cures woman trouble and dizziness! And I guarantee it cures syphilis!"
To demonstrate the miraculous powers of this purple elixer, Saroth holds up a (live?)
chicken, cuts its tendons, breaks its legs and passes a knife straight through its
brain. The chicken doesn't like this. Saroth binds the chicken's legs with medicine-soaked
cotton and pours a slug down its throat. Dropping the chicken under a cloth, he asks,
"Can I bring this chicken back to life? Wait three minutes."
His partners go around the crowd giving out wine glass samples of medicine.
"No chemicals! No alcohol! Just natural roots and animal parts! How much you
ask? I'm not selling it yet. Let's see what happened to the chicken."
He takes away the cloth, grabs the chicken by its tailfeathers, and drops it. And
there stands the chicken, shaking its head.
"Now I'll sell the medicine! One bottle for 2,000 riel! Three for 5,000! But
pregnant women shouldn't take it."
As the partners unload scores of bottles on the crowd, the monkeys go into their
act: one is a soldier at attention, another is a rickshaw driver pulling around a
kid. The monkey tries to bite the kid and Chha Kvay yanks him away on his leash.
"Does the monkey have a face like mine?" asks Chha Kvay.
"Yes!" the crowd roars.
"Who is more handsome?"
Sarath bends over the cloth covering the snake bowl.
"Will you come out now?" he bellows like a movie villain and answers himself
in weepy woman's voice: "No! I don't want to come out!"
"You must come out! I command you!"
"Noooo! Leave me alone! Take pity on me!"
"No pity! You must obey me!
"Then you're going inside this bag."
Sarath and company sell ginseng lozanges for smoker's cough, a teeth-whitener and
droppers of eye medicine until, at nightfall with the crowd thinning out, he finally
tips over the bag and a black snake plops to the ground. Sarath beats it with a stick
to get it moving. The show would give an animal rights activist the vapors.
After the show, Sarath and Kvay reveal that they have been doing medicine shows since
they were children in Battambang under the tutelage of Sarath's father. They came
to Phnom Penh in 1993. Keo Ly joined the show three months ago. All are married with
"I make the medicine myself, from roots and leaves I buy in the market,"
Sarath says. "It's 60-70% effective. I attract repeat customers every day. I
earn between 50,000 and 100,000 riel each show. In the dry season, we play in the
provinces. Kampot, Kampong Speu, Kampong Som, Siem Reap, Battambang. The provinces
by the sea are the easiest to make money. People are wealthier there. I travel in
the car with the family. My wife does the cooking."
Have the demonstrations in the park this week hurt business?
"No, not at all."
In fact, since the third day of the opposition-led sit-in, a medicine show has been
thriving in the southeast corner of the park, attracting over 500 people a night.
First rule of showbiz: Go where the people are.