If Apsara dancing or Khmer boxing results in a stretched hamstring or bruised arm, there is Khmer traditional medicine to sort you out. It is also useful if you have a run-in with a scorpion or a cobra, or worse, an unexpected Tuk Tuk.
Cambodian Traditional Medicine
Khmer medicine is a type of naturopathy using remedies, such as roots, barks, leaves and herbs to enhance the body’s healing ability, and it has been used to treat illness for ages.
Cambodian Traditional Medicine was formulated in pre-Angkorian times. It offers a holistic approach and avoids using s surgery and medication. Practitioners of this therapy are known as Kru Khmer, and it can also cure hangovers.
In rural Cambodia, traditional medicine is still widely used, alongside western medicine, with the government estimating that nearly 50 per cent of Cambodians use traditional methods.
Many Kru Khmer healers combine herbal remedies with rituals to cure patients with ailments ranging from a minor infection to a curse.
In Cambodia, a country where modern doctors are poorly trained and health clinics poorly-regulated, many people choose to place faith in Cambodian Traditional Medicine and the natural prescriptions being offered.
Changes to Cambodian Traditional Medicine
Traditionally, Cambodia’s Kru Khmer is learned from an older mentor.
Khmer traditional doctors are receiving recognition and training from the government. Medical books in Pali text have been gathered from pagodas throughout the country and collated and interpreted into the Khmer.
Many of Cambodia’s latest generation of Kru Khmer have passed through the National Centre for Cambodian Traditional Medicine, which began offering five-month training courses. Graduates receive accreditation from the Ministry of Health.
Although the techniques may seem strange to those accustomed to modern medicine, their efficacy shouldn’t be underestimated.
A recent development is that traditional healing is beginning to co-exist with modern medicine and often serve as a last resort for those seeking treatment.
Origins of Cambodian Traditional Medicine
The exact origins of traditional Cambodian Traditional Medicine remain unclear, but it is believed to have been founded and formalised from the Funan era to the ninth-century during Angkorian times. It was influenced by traditional Indian and Chinese medicines. These practices were combined with local beliefs and superstitions to create the foundations of Khmer medicine.
Temples in the Chenla-era Sambor Prei Kuk temple have revealed that hospital chapels practised traditional Khmer medicine.
The temple of Neak Poan in Angkor is believed to have been the central temple for Khmer medicine during the Angkorian era. Jayavarman VII ordered the construction of 102 hospitals throughout his realm.
Inscriptions in these hospitals describe the number of medical staff and their different roles. Such as hospital managers, medication-combiner staff, water-boiling staff, medication grinders and prescription distributors. One inscription has become the best-known quote of King Jayavarman VII: “Diseases of the people make him more painful than his own illness.”
Techniques and Culture of Cambodian Traditional Medicine
The teacher-student relationship between practitioner and patient in Cambodian Traditional Medicine is of central importance. Kru Khmers specialise in several categories. In the framework of traditional Cambodian medicine, the supernatural world can be both cure and cause of illness.
Khmer medicine shares with Chinese medicine three beliefs: supernatural; natural ideas; and maintenance of a hot-cold (yin-yang) balance. Four forms of therapy are delivered: spirit offerings; dermabrasion; maintaining hot-cold balance; and herbal medicines.
The knowledge of Khmer traditional medicine is instructed from teacher to teacher. Each Kru Khmer answer to his individual Kru Khom, through a spiritual connection, even after the death of his Kru Khom. There are intricate rules and rituals involved in this relationship.
Khmer medicine used to rely on written texts, recorded on palm-leaf manuscripts in the Pali language, and stored in temples all over the empire. Most of these original Khmer medicinal manuscripts are thought to have been destroyed in the Cambodian civil war, but some still exist, and they represent some of the most reliable sources to the origins of Khmer medicine.
Individual Kru Khmer healers may perform several roles, and Buddhist monks play a role in the practice of traditional Cambodian medicine.
What History Tells us of Khmer Traditional Medicine
Historians have long wondered what happened to this grand medical tradition. The Khmer thirteenth-century is considered a crucial tipping point in the history of Khmer medicine. The gradual decline of Angkor and the religious shifts to Theravada Buddhism appear to have affected the original medical culture. The Siamese conquest of Angkor is not thought to have destroyed Khmer medical traditions. Thailand appropriated the medical knowledge and preserved it as Thai instead of Khmer. The French colonial era is also thought to have affected and prevented the rise of the ancient Khmer medical tradition. The Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese occupation all continued this suppression of medical traditions. This long pressure over the centuries has resulted in fragmenting Khmer medical traditions.
Treatment by Cambodian Traditional Medicine
Not every Kru Khmer avoids treating serious illness. Many patients visit these practitioners when they have problems modern doctors can’t fix.
When a patient arrives in a pagoda, a Kru Khmer’s first job is to provide a diagnosis. A Kru Khmer will dip an incense stick into a jar of powder made from wild boar fat, coconut oil, python fat and bee pollen. The patient has to lick it from the stick. If the taste is sweet then the ailment is purely physical, and if it’s sour, then the patient has a spiritual problem. The worst-case scenario is if it’s spicy. A spicy flavour means the patient is beyond saving and will die.
Patients usually stay in the pagoda for a week to a month. While there, they are sprinkled twice a day with holy water. Often, they are prescribed a potion to drink.
About 90 per cent of the people who visit the pagoda are believed to have been cursed by an evil spirit. The Kru Khmers say that people can be brought back from the brink of death by having them drink holy water.
And potions and powders aren’t the only methods of treatment. Sometimes, Kru Khmer will write a prayer on a betel leaf in Pali and have the patient eat it. Occasionally, a Kru Khmer taps a patient with respiratory problems on the chest with a carved piece of blessed wood.
Spookily, most of the patients don’t fall ill again.
After a patient’s departure, a monk gives them a Katha, an amulet to wear around their waist for protection, or a spirit cloth known as a yuan to hang in their house. Many Kru Khmer moonlight as a fortune teller, why not.
Cambodian Health Charities
Notwithstanding Cambodian Traditional Medicine, Cambodian health charities value western input. There are some great Cambodian Children’s charities that are not related to the much maligned orphanages. It is easy to find a charity that can use your expertise and/or donations.
If you have never volunteered before; make an exception today. It will change your life — for the better.