Although most people have a strong belief in modern scientific medical treatment, traditional medicine – and traditional treatment methods – remain indispensable to many in Cambodian society.
More than 400 traditional Khmer healers have undergone training and been recognised by the Ministry of Health, according to Chan Sophan, deputy director of the National Centre of Traditional Medicine.
In order to be licensed by the ministry, healers must meet certain criteria, including at least five years experience. Once they meet them and pass an entrance exam, they will be admitted to a five month course at the centre.
Sophan, himself a Pharmacist, told The Post that 10 courses had been run.
An ancient art
Traditionally, Cambodian healers learn their skills from relatives, most often their parents. This leaves the potential for a wide variety of views and techniques. The training seeks to correct this and standardise the profession.
“The classes are run over a course of five months. We do not require the same depth of knowledge as a modern medical degree, but of course to be admitted to the course, healers must be experienced,” said Sophan.
He said the purpose of the course is to share knowledge and professional awareness, so traditional healers would understand the ethics that the industry demands.
“The first Khmer traditional healer training was initiated by the Nippon Foundation of Japan. They supported six training courses, which began in 2009. The last of the Nippon-sponsored courses was in 2017,” he added.
Between 2018 and 2022, four courses were planned by the Cambodian Traditional Healers Association, at the behest of the centre. Unfortunately Covid-19 restrictions meant the trainings scheduled from 2019 onwards were cancelled.
Meet the healers
Phon Samedy, began his career as a traditional healer in 2011. He was encouraged to learn the profession by his father, also a healer.
Following consultations with – and encouragement from – older more experienced healers, he passed the entrance exam in 2018.
Based in Sangkat Boeung Tumpun, Khan Meanchey, Phnom Penh, he treats his neighbors as well as patients from outside villages. Earlier this year, he claimed, he treated his own gastrointestinal illness, with great success.
Since being recognised by the national centre, he has treated more than 800 patients. For a man still in his forties, this is a large number.
“The reason that I have more patients than most of my peers is because I like to go out and meet people. A lot of them have health problems, and mixing my scientific knowledge with my traditional medicine skills has been really good for my career,” he said.
“Although I have not discovered any new traditional medicines, my experiments with the formulas left by the previous generation of healers has taught me a lot. In addition, attending the course also added significantly to my knowledge,” he added.
He also mentioned the way that traditional and modern medicine go hand in hand in hospitals in most of the countries in the region.
“In China, or many ASEAN countries, like Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Singapore, to qualify as a traditional healer, you must study for years, just like modern medical doctors,” he said.
“In their hospitals, traditional medicine and modern medicine are equivalent in value. If a patient is diagnosed with a symptom, he or she will be asked if they would prefer traditional or modern medicine. Both sectors share the same value in saving people’s lives,” he said.
Seng Sam Ath, is 43. Like Samedy, he inherited his knowledge from his father. He has been practicing in Oddar Meanchey province’s Anlong Veng district for over a decade. In that time, he estimates that he has consulted with close to 1,000 patients.
He believed that there is room for both modern and traditional medicine, and that both come with risks.
“Both can have a strong effect on the wellness of a patient, indeed it is possible to overdose on either of them. This is why modern medical doctors and traditional healers require qualifications in order to practice,” he said.
He also claimed that there were even some forms of cancer which could be treated traditionally, without the need for surgery or chemotherapy.
A grateful patient
One of Samedy’s patients – Tob Pisey, a 39 year old police officer from Kep town and province – was treated for gastroenteritis and high cholesterol. After four or five months of treatment, he said, he was fully recovered.
“I have total confidence in him. Not only did I recover quickly, but it cost me less than the modern medicine – which did not work – that I was using before,” said Pisey.
He said that Samedy was recommended to him by his managers in the civil service.
“I was frequently sick with gastrointestinal issues and my cholesterol was very high. He prescribed me several kinds of traditional medicines, and I recovered. He also advised me on what foods I should avoid,” he said.
Working in tandem
As managing director of Meetheng (Cambodia) Ltd., a large pharmaceutical company, Heng Vicheth has 20 years of experience in the health sector. He said both forms of medicine are as important as each other, but did warn of unregulated products, often sold as traditional medicine.
He said that in developed countries, traditional medicine and herbal medicine were two completely different categories, whereas in Cambodia they were often considered the same.
“Traditional medicine has generally not been tested or refined to laboratory standards. Herbal medicine is sometimes referred to as “half-era traditional medicine” because it has been tested and the active ingredients are present in carefully measured amounts,” he told The Post.
“Some traditional medicine has not had toxins removed – one example is the tinospora crispa plant, which we soak in wine and drink as a traditional medicine. It can be dangerous if not prepared properly. In general, traditional medicine imported from the US or India, for example, has GMP standards and is recognised by the ISO system, meaning it will be safe and effective.
“Modern and traditional medicines can work very effectively together, provided the manufacturers and vendors of traditional medicine comply with the law governing medicines and maintain high standards. Sometimes, traditional medicine is more effective than modern pharmaceutical treatment,” he concluded.