Traditional medicine and alternative therapies are commonplace across Cambodia with both locals, and an increasing number of foreigners, calling on them to prevent and cure health complaints. Editor Marissa Carruthers explores some of the popular treatments. available across the Kingdom. Photography by Charles Fox.
You’d be forgiven for thinking this was a scene out of a horror film. Lying still on a bed in a dimly-lit room is a woman. Covered by a towel from the waist down, she bares her back, which has a series of long, thin needles protruding from her shoulders and spine.
However, this is not a torture session; it’s Australian expat Demi Sloane indulging in regular acupuncture treatment. The 26-year-old decided to give it a go after friends recommended it to ease a nagging neck ache. “I wasn’t sure at first, and it was a bit uncomfortable,” the English teacher says. “Afterwards, I immediately felt the effects and my symptoms soothed.”
Acupuncture, which sees fine needles used to regulate the flow of chi, or energy, throughout the body is just one of many alternative treatments carried out across Cambodia. From cupping and herbal medicines to aromatherapy and reiki, locals and an ever-increasing number of foreigners, turn to these therapies for a health boost. While practitioners are quick to dispel the myth that they can cure serious illnesses, such as cancer, it is believed they contain certain natural agents that can help relieve, rebalance and preserve the body and mind.
“Many of these therapies have been around for thousands of years,” says Kim Ik Hoon, president of Oriental Medicine Acupuncture Clinics in Phnom Penh. “The basic theory of all oriental medicine and treatment is not to cure but to make the body fit and able to fend for itself to fight off disease in the first place.”
Malen Heng lifts her T-shirt and bares her back, which is mapped with brutal red circles. “I had a stomach ache so I went for cupping,” the 24-year-old shop worker says. Known in Khmer as choob khyol – literally sucking the wind – the ancient therapy is widespread across Asia, with between 60 and 70 percent of Cambodians turning to the treatment for relief, according to the National Centre of Traditional Medicine in Phnom Penh (NCTM).
With centuries-old origins stretching back to China, the tradition rose to fame in the Western world in 2004, thanks to Hollywood actress Gwyneth Paltrow. She walked the red carpet at a film premiere wearing a low-back dress that revealed a series of circular welts left by cupping, sparking a trend in the treatment. Other celebrities who swear by the practice include Victoria Beckham, Jennifer Aniston and Justin Bieber, who was snapped in July on Bondi beach with bruise marks on his torso from cupping.
Believed to treat everything from the common cold and diarrhea to stomach pains and headaches, the practice involves dozens of small glass cups being placed on the back. A vacuum is created either by heating the glass with a flame or using a hand pump to suction the air. This causes the skin and muscles to be drawn into the glass, leaving large welts and tenderness for up to a week. Practitioners claim this releases harmful toxins by boosting blood and energy flow while releasing an excess of “wind” in the body.
“I regularly get cupping and coining done when I feel ill. It makes me feel much better,” says Heng, also referring to the painful practice of kosas kiol, or catch the wind, which involves rubbing oil or balm on the chest, back and shoulders, and harshly rubbing a coin to scrape the area, causing red welts to appear. An estimated 80 percent of Cambodians use this as a form of treatment, claims the NCTM.
Although practitioners can be found across the country, from professional clinics to small stalls in the corners of markets for a few thousand riel, it is also a therapy that many locals carry out in the home. “My mother would often do coining on my father when he had a migraine from work,” says Heng, recalling being transfixed as a youngster watching the track marks pock her father’s back.
“It’s all about rebalancing the body and removing harmful toxins,” says Hoon, who moved to Cambodia from Korea a decade ago to set up Oriental Medicine Acupuncture Clinics, specialising in cupping, acupuncture and home-made natural hop drinks. He now welcomes regular local and international patients of all walks of life through the doors of his clinic near Russian Market. “It seems to be much more popular with everyone these days,” he says.
Resembling an alchemist, Jean-Claude Dhuez perches on a stool at a large metal counter. He carefully measures a yellow liquid into a test tube and adds it to a glass container that is already filled with a concoction of essential oils. He gives it a stir and pours the results into a small bottle before raising it to his nose, taking a whiff and letting off a satisfied smile.
A sweet, soothing scent sits heavy in the air of the small laboratory to the back of the BKK1 Samata Health and Wellness Studio. “This has energising properties, and contains mild antiseptic,” he says, passing the bottle of oil, which contains a methodical mix of ingredients, such as sandal wood and kaffir lime.
Having studied physiotherapy and massage in France, Dhuez moved to Cambodia almost 25 years ago to manage and train trainers at the national physiotherapy school. In 1997, he set up the country’s first physiotherapy clinic and started dabbling with aromatherapy. After extensively studying clinical and esthetic aromatherapy, he launched his own line of products in 2000 in the form of Amata Aromatherapy and Spa Products.
Today, he supplies his goods to a range of upmarket hotels and spas across the country to be used in both therapeutic and relaxing massage, as well as other therapies. “People often call this alternative therapy,” he says, “but an alternative to what?”
Aromatherapy, or essential oil therapy, uses combinations of naturally extracted aromatic essences from plants to promote holistic healing. Producing a folder bulging full of charts and chemical formulas from experiments carried out in his lab, Dhuez explains each of the essential oils contains different properties that can help with a range of issues, such as relieving tension, easing aching muscles and reducing stress.
“Some oils contain antiseptic agents, some anti-inflammatory, others are revitalising and energising. The list is endless and the benefits wide-ranging,” he says.
Lim Lang rummages through one of many drawers in the worn apothecary cabinet that lines the wall behind the cluttered counter of Lim Huy Chinese Herb Shop. She produces a bag stuffed with pungent dried herbs and adds a small handful to neat rows of plastic containers filled with dried petals, roots, herbs, seeds and mushrooms being prepared for the crowd of customers spilling out onto the street.
“We have many people who come to us looking for cures,” says Lang, who is the daughter of the Street 166 store’s founder, Lim Huy. With the use of traditional Chinese medicine widespread across Cambodia, the shop has made a name for itself since opening near the capital’s Orussey Market in 1992. Today, it maintains its title as one of the country’s top Chinese herb shops, with the family’s roots in the practice stretching back generations.
Having picked up the tools of the trade from her father before studying herbal medicine with the Ministry of Health, Lang and her family continue to satisfy local, Asian, and increasing Western appetite for herbal remedies to cure everything from stomachaches and fevers, to kidney problems, lack of energy and migraines.
With roots stretching back almost 3,000 years, Chinese traditional medicine involves the mixing of certain herbs, plant extracts, dried animal parts and other natural substances to treat individual health problems. As well as carrying healing powers, the medicine has revitalising agents, which are also believed to help in the prevention of issues.
For a stomachache, Lang suggests a mix of ground Asian herbs, dou kou and sha ren. Arthritis can be cured with dried fish stomach, and small balls of dried luo han guo fruit are ground and drunk in tea for sore throats. Ginseng is another common ingredient, used for stress and to detoxify the body, and dried red lingzhi – the shop’s most expensive ingredient at $60 per kilogram, and popular with Chinese clientele – is a mushroom that boosts virility and is beneficial for the heart and liver.
“We have something for pretty much everything,” says Lang. “While we know it will not treat life-threatening illness, it can help give the body strength.”
“It’s important that people take a holistic approach to their health,” says wellness coach and reiki practitioner Margaret Ulrich. “An important aspect to alternative therapies is they work to prevent long-term issues, which conventional medicine doesn’t address; that’s more about treatment.”
As ancient therapies are dragged into the modern world, an increasing number of people are embracing their use as complementary to other forms of medication as well as boosting the wellness of the mind, body and soul. As a wellness coach at Samata Health and Wellness Studio, Ulrich holds individual sessions to identify underlying issues and recommends a combination of treatments, ranging from therapeutic massage and acupuncture, to yoga and meditation.
“If you have a specific ache, it’s something that’s easy to identify,” says Ulrich. “But sometimes we just get overwhelmed with life, especially as expats, or there may be a persistent problem with underlying issues that needs addressing.”
Dr Loh Seong Feei, medical director at renowned Thompson Fertility Clinic in Singapore, says alternative therapies can complement Western practices. In 2013, Cambodian client Thay Putheaneath, 36, sought his help after six failed attempts at falling pregnant through in-vitro fertilisation (IVF).
He administered Thay’s husband, Singaporean businessman Vincent Toh, 53, medication to boost his sperm count and advised her to drink bitter herbal concoctions and undergo acupuncture for nine months. “I advised she try Chinese traditional medicine to make the body better and stimulate the regime to optimise the number of eggs,” he says.
After following the advice, the couple soon fell pregnant and gave birth to a healthy boy last year. “Most Western doctors like to rubbish these treatments because they don’t understand them,” he says. “I believe we can learn from all these different processes and they can be combined to see if they are any good for patients.”
That’s the approach acupuncture patient Sloane takes to alternative therapies. “I don’t for one second think acupuncture will cure me of a deadly disease,” says Sloane as she finishes her 45-minute acupuncture session. “I would, however, prefer to try it for a headache or cold rather than pumping my body full of chemicals, and I think the two can definitely have a place together.”