Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Needles and herbs: the yin and yang of health

Needles and herbs: the yin and yang of health

Needles and herbs: the yin and yang of health

In the third of a continuing series highlighting the multifaceted role of the

Kingdom's Chinese community, Post reporter Phelim Kyne gets a clean bill of

health from Phnom Penh's practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine.

Chinese pharmacist Dr Wu Jing Swun labels a herbal concoction. Traditional Chinese medecine shops are booming in Phnom Penh

"ALL the best medicines and good food in the world cannot help one achieve longevity

unless one knows and practices the Tao of Yin and Yang" wrote Ko Hung, Third

Century AD Chinese alchemist.

"Balance," Dr. Shung Jen Ya says in trying to explain the essence of Chinese

medicine. "Balance and harmony, body and spirit, that's what real traditional

Chinese medicine attempts to achieve."

As Shung speaks, an elderly man, his face impaled with a quiver of acupuncture needles,

glances up from his cot at the back of Shung's cramped Shanghai Medical Clinic and

then returns to his late morning nap.

"He's senile," Shung says with a shrug. "Acupuncture is the only thing

that helps him."

For Shung, the road to his establishment of a traditional Chinese medical clinic

on a side street off of Kampuchea Krom three years ago involved a Damascene conversion

from decades of practicing modern western-style medicine in his native Shanghai.

"I realized that there were lots of medical conditions and sick people who were

just not being helped by modern medical techniques," Shung explains.

"[Traditional] Chinese medicine is effective in many types of medical conditions

which modern medicine really can't help."

Shung is just one of a growing number of doctors of traditional Chinese medicine

who are setting up shop around the Psah Thmei district of Phnom Penh.

Offering what they claim as the fruits of 2000 years of Chinese medical expertise

combined with a select variety of modern diagnostic and treatment methods, Phnom

Penh's traditional Chinese medical clinics aim to fill a gap in a city in which medical

treatment consists of imprecise diagnoses and prescriptions provided by untrained


Healthy Herbs


Dr. Lai Xiao Hui opens one of the many wooden drawers that line the north wall

of his Tai Shan Medical Clinic on Street 139 and pulls out a handful of what to the

untrained nose and eye appear to be scented wood chips.

Dr Shung Jen Ya: "Balance" is the key

"Herbal medicine is the heart of traditional Chinese medical practice,"

Lai says, putting the pieces of cork tree bark back into its drawer. "Herbal

medicine is natural, gentle and has no side-effects."

According to Lai, qualified practitioners such as himself can provide customized

herbal medical prescriptions for virtually any illness, though with one proviso:

"Herbal medicine works slowly, on the whole body," he cautions. "People

impatient for quick results shouldn't ask for herbal medicine."

Chinese herbal medicine operates on principles first codified in the first and second

centuries AD in the pioneer Chinese medical texts The Yellow Emperor's Classic of

Internal Medicine and Chang Chung Ching's Discussion of Fevers.

In both these works, specific herbs were identified for their "natural affinity"

to particular body organs and the effect the herbs have on the body as a whole.

For example, fresh ginger is associated in Chinese herbal treatment theory with both

the lungs and the large intestine and is used to induce perspiration, while seaweed

has affinity with the kidneys and bladder and has a combined diuretic and laxative


The Director of the South China Medical Center on Sihanouk Boulevard, Dr. Zhang Yong

Jiang, says the efficacy of many modern drugs has led to an adjustment in how herbal

medicines are now prescribed.

"Our policy is to use western medicine for acute conditions, and reserve herbal

treatments for chronic conditions," he explains.

Over at the Beijing China Medical Clinic on Kampuchea Krom, however, Dr. Yan Xing

Hua says herbal treatments and modern western drugs can be used in tandem.

"They can't be used together at the same time," he says, "but it's

possible to take both kinds of medicine at different times of the day to maximize

the benefit for the patient."

However, Yan stresses that the capacity of herbal treatments to address the wider

bodily ailments that cause acute conditions to manifest themselves make them inherently

superior to modern western drugs.

"If you really want to kill a cold virus, modern western medicine is of limited

use because you need to address the (wider body) environment in which the virus lives,"

Yan says. "Chinese medicine is more effective at adjusting the bodily conditions

that allow things like viruses to thrive."

Surprisingly, in spite of the Kingdom's thriving trade in endangered animal parts,

those cruising local Chinese clinics to sample tiger penis, a famed traditional Chinese

virility treatment seem bound to be disappointed.

"Too expensive," Dr. Lai says of such exotic ingredients. "My patients

can't afford to pay what they'd cost."

"Illegal," says Dr. Zhang resolutely. "The Chinese Traditional Medical

Association has banned the use of all endangered wildlife parts.

Over at the Shanghai Medical Treatment, however, Dr. Shung is slightly more forthcoming.

"I've got some deer horn, but it's not cheap" he admits.

Pinpricks and Rubdowns


Along with herbal therapy treatments, the city's Chinese medicine clinics provide

more physically demanding traditional routes to health and happiness - acupuncture

("jyan-jeo") and accupressure ("tway-na").

Acupuncture is an ancient system of medicine based on the theory that health is dependent

on the strength and balance of an electrical "life force" known as "chi".

Blockages or depletion's of "chi" can be rectified by the insertion of

needles at vital points along the "meridians" or pathways along which "chi"


"Some people are afraid of the needles," Dr. Shung admits, "but if

acupuncture is done correctly, there is no blood and no pain."

Mindful of the concerns of needle sharing in the AIDS era, all of the Chinese clinics

use hygienic, disposable needles. Acupuncture treatments average around US$1.5 per


Acupressure is a form of rigorous medicinal massage in which the practitioners thumb

is pressed deeply into a meridian, muscle, joint or nerve, rubbed rhythmically for

10-12 minutes and then released.

"Don't think of it as 'massage' because that word is too closely associated

with prostitution in this city," urges Dr. Lai. "It's a medical technique

to release stress, reduce muscle pain as well as improve powers of concentration."

Clinics of Last Resort

With their routine combination of modern and traditional Chinese medical treatments,

Phnom Penh's Chinese medical clinics have become magnets for local AIDS sufferers

for whom drug treatments common in western countries are either unavailable or unaffordable.

"These are just from this week," Dr. Yan says as he grimly flicks through

a pile of "HIV positive" blood test reports. "A lot of AIDS patients

come to us for help."

Up the street at the Ba Qing Ling Sexual Disease Research Clinic, Dr. Ba Qing Ling

has made a career from offering special formulations of herbal therapy and modern

drugs to treat STDs, including AIDS.

"In isolation, neither Chinese nor modern western medicine is effective in controlling

the effects of HIV," Ba says. "But used together, the Chinese herbal medicine

can strengthen the overall immune system while the modern drugs can work directly

on controlling the spread of the virus."

The Temple of Tao

For purists, however, there is one traditional Chinese doctor in Phnom Penh who

scorns the use of western medicine by Chinese practitioners and specializes in what

he calls "pure and original" Chinese herbal medicine.

From a distance Dr. Wu Jing Swun - with a bristly crew cut and stony demeanor - looks

more like a PLA martial arts instructor than a doctor.

A photographic display posted outside Wu's "Taoist Clinic" on Street 130

- depicting Wu in aggressive poses with a wooden pole - furthers the impression that

Wu would as quickly pummel malingerers as he would treat the sick.

Up close, however, Wu is warm and personable, and anxious to explain the effectiveness

of his pure herbal therapy methods.

"People come to me after they've tried everything else, when other methods have

failed them," he says proudly. "When other doctors have given up, I've

been able to cure them."

Wu directs the credit for such miraculous recoveries on the efficacy of the herbal

medical formulas he personally concocts at the back of his clinic.

"Real medicinal herbs from China and the knowledge of how to use them,"

he explains. "That's a very powerful combination."


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