The technology available to health care professionals is rapidly improving in today’s Cambodia. But at the same time, traditional medicine is still commonly used. Cambodians have a lot of faith in traditional doctors – not only in the countryside, but in the city as well.
Most Cambodians believe that everything in the universe has a spirit and their ancestors continue to protect them, even in the afterlife. They believe that if something bad happens to them, it may be because their ancestors are angered.
Seng Sreypou is a 21-year-old clothes merchant at Deum Kor market in Phnom Penh. She said that once she had a serious headache and difficulty breathing, so her parents took her to three traditional doctors who tried to cure her disease without the help of modern medicine. She spent three weeks with the doctors, but she continued to get worse. The traditional doctors told her parents that her ancestors from a previous life were angry with her and had made her sick. Seng Sreypou’s parents continued to spend more money on these doctors.
Eventually, Seng Sreypou’s parents decided traditional medicine wasn’t working for their daughter and sent her to a modern hospital in Vietnam.
“All of my relatives from different provinces came to my house to pray according to what the traditional doctor said, but I didn’t recover,” she said.
It is clear that most Cambodian youth do not believe in traditional doctors and medicine as much as the older generation does. Because of this, traditional doctors typically target parents and grandparents because youth lack the authority to argue with them.
Long Panha, a first-year student at National Technical Training Institute, said that when he was 15-years-old, he stepped on sharp scrap metal and seriously injured his leg. Instead of sending him to a modern doctor, his mother sent him to receive traditional treatment.
“Because I spent so much time with the traditional doctor, I almost lost my leg,” Long Panha said.
“When I finally arrived at the hospital the doctor told me that he would not have been able to cure my leg if I had arrived any later. Luckily my mother sent me to the hospital just in time.”
Kim Sunly, a surgeon at Phreak Kosamak Hospital, said it was dangerous for people to go to the wrong place when they get sick. Someone who recovers after seeing a traditional practitioner hasn’t benefitted from effective treatment, he explained – but has recovered because his or her body was able to fight the disease naturally.
“People spend too much time with traditional doctors. When they finally switch to modern medicine the disease has gotten a lot more serious. So sometimes we aren’t able to cure them. People are not gods, but traditional doctors act as if though they can cure every type of disease,” he said.
But Aline, 27, who lives in Prey Veng Province, believes that traditional medicine can be an effective cure alongside modern medicine.
Seven years ago, Aline broke her hip and both legs in a traffic accident. After visiting the doctors at Calmette Hospital, she was told that she could never recover to normal and that she was now a permanently disabled person. Her mother did not believe them, and did not care how much money it took to heal Aline. She decided to send Aline to another hospital in Vietnam. The doctors there told her the same thing – the medical fees would be too expensive, and Aline would never be normal again.
As a last resort, Aline’s mother sent her to a traditional doctor near the sixth bridge in Bakheng commune. He said that if Aline remained strong and courageous, she would be healed in three months. For Aline, his words turned out true.
“It was marvelous,” she said.
“Every evening, I saw the master magician come to use his foot to massage my broken legs. Besides this cure, my whole body, from my waist to the soles of my feet, was covered with traditional medicines. After 21 days, I could even get up and walk slowly. It made me very excited.”
Even though her serious condition was improved through traditional medicine, she never believed magic was at play, and still continues to see a professional doctor.
“I strongly suggest that people who got sick should go to professional doctors,” Aline said.
“Otherwise they’ll just end up losing a lot of money and time.”