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Preventative approach key to Chinese medicine

Herbal shop thrives

The caterpillar mushroom is a special plant that has been known to Chinese and Tibetan medicine for centuries. It helped Nepalese athletes break world records.


Customers line up at the Lim Huy Chinese Herb Shop.

You wouldn’t get the impression that you are actually in a sort of pharmacy when you look at the plastic bags filled with exotic herbs that hang from the walls and the massive wooden medicine chest that dominates the wall behind the counter. The smells of ginseng, ginger and a mixture of potent Chinese herbs fills your nostrils as Leang “Michael” Lim chops up medicine for a customer. You’re just east of Orussey market on Street 166 at The Lim Huy Chinese Herb Shop, probably the most famous place for Chinese medicine in Phnom Penh.

Lim has been in this small family business his whole life. Starting at the age of 11, his father began to teach him the essentials of Chinese medicine’s healing powers. Lim knows exactly how to mix specialised and unusual herbs – many from China – to create the appropriate medicine for each of his customers, with an ancient knowledge of the effect of natural remedies handed down from generation to generation, surviving over centuries and finally to Lim from his father.

Compared to a Western medicine approach with antibiotics, the Chinese approach has hardly any side effects and the herbs are all natural.

“Chinese medicine takes time and the effects don’t occur immediately,” Lim says, adding “The Chinese approach to medicine differs from the Western: We cook soups and teas with healthy herbs and other natural ingredients to strengthen our body before we get sick. Western medicine only knows what to do if someone is sick already.”

Therefore the best medicine for Chinese is not the one that treats the symptoms most rapidly, but the one which prevents the body from catching a disease in the first place, Lim says.

When customers come to Lim Huy Chinese Herb Shop, and there’s always a crowd, Lim or one of his nimble family members conjure the suitable herbs for one’s needs out of one of the numerous drawers: For a stomach ache Lim mixes dou kou and sha ren, both ground Asian herbs.

A dried fish stomach relieves pain caused by arthritis and coughs. Eating ling zhi mushrooms will give you general vitality, while red ginseng helps for chronic fatigue or lack of concentration, but also strengthens virility.

Ginseng is noted for being an adaptogen (a product that increases the body’s resistance to stress), as well as having antioxidant properties.

Lim’s recommendation for administering the herbs and dried animal parts is to “simply make a tea or a soup out of it and enjoy”. For the Chinese, nutrition had always been the major key to a strong immune system.  

The effects of the natural remedies Lim is selling in his shop were first described about 2,800 years ago in Huangdi Nejing, also known as “The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine”, a landmark in the history of healing medicine. It pinpoints the importance of nutrition and gives advice on keeping one’s body in balance.

The most expensive item in Lim’s shop is cordyceps, a dried, longish mushroom just about the size of a match that costs $3,000 per kilo.

“One piece is $2 and for $16 you get enough to make a soup for one person. It makes your kidneys, liver and your lungs stronger.” Cordyceps is also known as caterpillar mushroom, a peculiar name given to this remarkable mushroom that, if eaten by  insects such as caterpillars and ants – causes the insect’s death – and then grows another mushroom from the dead insect’s decaying body.

The caterpillar mushroom is a special plant known to Chinese and Tibetan medicine for centuries and was made famous when it was revealed to have helped Nepalese athletes to break five world records in running at the National Games in Kathmandu in 1993.

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