I am so grateful to the man who commented on my previous post about Cambodian traditional medicine, My Magic Cambodian Natural Medicine. John Lowrie was formerly connected with an NGO that sought to preserve the culture of the people of Mondulkiri. His blog, A Northumbrian Abroad, deserves a larger following and the book he sent me, Traditional Therapeutic Knowledge of the Bunong People in North-eastern Cambodia, is brilliant.
What little I knew about Cambodian traditional medicine until I picked up the book the other day I learned from Sopheak. The first time she made a brew for me was about eight years ago, when I had a horrible bout of diarrhea. She ran out of the house and came back half an hour later with a tea she had made from some tree bark. I was in agony as I waited for it to cool and wasn’t sure it would help. The first sip made the cramping in my stomach stop instantly and by the time I finished a cup, I was fine.
The book John sent me was written by an NGO, Nomad RSI. The NGO has been working in Mondulkiri since 1997. The preface of the book starts by listing the academic credentials of the book’s creators, but goes on to emphasize the respect they have for indigenous healers. While they don’t show disrespect for our Western biomedicine, they point out some of the differences between the two modalities and make an attempt to bridge the gap between them. In their introductory remarks, Calum Blaikie and Laurent Pordie write:
There are a great many ‘traditional’ health practices which essentially deal with the physiological and biological, just as there is much in the vast body of knowledge-practice that constitutes contemporary biomedicine which reflects particular cultural orientations, epistemological frameworks, socio-economic and political systems.
The book goes on to give snapshots of a variety of healers. Some of them learned from others, while a few learned from spirits. At least one, Chuch Den, “had a dream where a spirit had called her to become a midwife. This was a sign for her and if the spirit had not appeared in her dreams she would not be practising today.” Chuch Den learned midwifery from her mother, but another healer, Deuy Kam, learned directly from spirits and says he “will transmit his knowledge through his spirit after he dies, as his mother had done with him.” Still others were forced to learn traditional medicine by the Khmer Rouge, one of whose aims was to purge Kampuchea of Western influences. Too bad they did it the wrong way. No good comes from force, as any true healer can tell you.
My Experiences with Cambodian Traditional Medicine and ‘Magic’
We Westerners like to believe in reason. I began to see the limits of reason decades ago when I met the most extraordinary person I’ve ever met. Her intuition was undeniable and I have had experiences with her that defy logic. On the flip side, I’ve run into my share of charlatans and people who think they’re intuitive, but aren’t. Of course, the same can be said for anything. If there’s a buck to be made, some people think nothing of lying to make it and you meet self proclaimed experts (who aren’t) in every field. I think you need to keep an open mind, but a critical mind helps, too.
I’ve seen enough amazing things in my life that I was not incredulous when my wife told me a story about how a spirit appeared before her and taught her how to heal a wound she received when she was living in the jungle alone as a little girl. She jumped out of a tree and sliced her Achilles tendon on a shard of metal. Blood was gushing out. A man appeared before her and told her to mix spider web with mud and wrap it around her heal with a certain leaf. She did as instructed and the bleeding stopped. He told her to change the dressing every day and then vanished. The wound healed. I write about this and other experiences more extensively in my book. I won’t blame readers for not believing some of my stories, but most of them, as incredible as they sound, happened to me and I have to believe them. A few stories are second-hand, but I believe them because the people who told me the stories had nothing to gain and are generally as diffident as I am about sharing “miraculous” stories that might sound crazy to the average Western reader.
As Hamlet said to Horatio: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Our Western “philosophy” is one of reason. Intuition is such a rare occurrence in our reason-based society, most of us don’t believe it exists. Some who do believe in intuition consider it an extraordinary spiritual power. Personally, I think it’s a skill we’ve forgotten how to use. That’s what a psychic told us at a small gathering in Australia. He proved it to us when he taught us how to tap into it and let us experiment on each other. I’m sure it worked, but I’ve rarely been able to tap into it since. I once told a friend here in Cambodia about the experience. I thought he wouldn’t believe me, but he told me about his ex-wife, who often had psychic experiences. One day his car was stolen and she saw the exact spot where the thieves left the car when they stripped it. He is as practical a person as any, yet his ex-wife made him see that there really are abilities beyond the five senses and reason.
I first heard about the healer who gave me the natural medicine I’m using on my knee about five or six years ago. A relative of Sopheak’s was dying from cancer. The local hospital sent her to our house and I saw firsthand how close to death she was. The hospital recommended sending her to the Russian hospital in Phnom Penh first, to have tests to confirm she was dying from breast cancer. We did as instructed. The hospital confirmed it and said it was too late for any conventional treatment, so we sent back to her home village to die. Three months later, she returned to Sihanoukville, looking fit and happy. Unfortunately, she didn’t follow the healer’s advice and take the medicine for six months. The cancer returned and she died, but I’d seen his medicine work with my own eyes.
Years later, a wealthy man from Vietnam tried to cross the border, but was not allowed to enter Cambodia because the border officials were afraid he would die here. He sent his driver to fetch the healer. The man recovered and now the healer has patients coming from as far away as Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh. He apparently charges on a sliding scale: wealthier patients pay much more than poorer patients pay. I hope to finally meet the healer soon. I’ll report on what happens when I do.