Pinching, Coining and the Mighty Tiger Balm
Over the last few weeks I have been battling a cold which I am finally beginning to recover from. Being in Cambodia where the healthcare system is under developed, my mind can’t help but drift into my childhood and think about some of the traditional remedies growing up and that are still widely practiced in Cambodia today.
One of my fondest memories of my father was how he would try to make me feel better when I was sick. My mother, who was a trained nurse, was the one who would actually take care of me, give me medicine, make me rice porridge (borbor) and nurse me back to health. But on the occasions I told him I wasn’t feeling well he would inject his own version of care. He would hold my face with his hands, tell me to close my eyes, say a few Buddhist prayers in Pali, make a circular motion around my head, then blow in my face and say “PHVANG!” three times “You are better now”! And for a moment I was. I believed the power of his prayers and the whimsical blow of his breath cured me of my ailment.
There were other times when I would see him work his traditional health remedies more in depth. When my mother would complain about having a headache, she would ask him to “gnee kbal” or rub her head. He would put her head on his lap, rub her temples, scratch her scalp and pinch the space between her eyes so hard it would leave two small red lines. Then he would take a strand of her hair, gently twist it around his finger then pull the hair abruptly, seemingly to snap it off of her scalp, a process called “do’rk sork” (pull the hair). She would let out a small yelp “EY YOYH!” but she still endured the pain. As a child I never questioned the logic of this. However as an adult I now wondered, wouldn’t this make the headache worse? But for them and for many other Khmers it worked.
Another common and painful health practice is coining or in Khmer “khoh khjol” or scrape (khoh) the air (khjol). Here the sick person, perhaps suffering from a cold, fever, aches and pains, migraine/headache, or any ailment, summits themself to the mercy of the coin. The sick person lays on their stomach, then the “coiner” dabs some tiger balm, baby oil, Vaseline, or anything greasy on the back of the patient. The coiner then proceeds to scrape the greasy balm on the skin with the coin until the skin begins to show a thick red hue on the patient’s back, an indication that the blood is circulating better in the body and that the bad air or the toxins are released out of the body.
In the end, the patient’s back looks like a red skeleton as if someone whipped them. It’s a painful practice but one that many Cambodian’s swear by to help them feel better faster. The idea is that the coining helps with blood circulation thereby making the patient feel better. When I was growing up, I vaguely remember at a young age being coined, perhaps when I was eight years old. I was in so much pain that I screamed. I don’t think my mother even got past one line. Needless to say, I’ve never been coined since, but I have remembered seeing my parents being coined. Another similar practice is cupping (chup khjol) whereby glass cups are quickly heated by a candle and placed onto the body of the sick person to suck up the bad air or toxins inside their body.
The most popular health accessory amongst Cambodians (and maybe for Asians in general) is the famous and versatile use of the mighty Tiger Balm. In Khmer, Tiger Balm is commonly known as “pra’ing kola” (kola oil, though not sure where the term kola came from). Cambodians swear by Tiger Balm for everything, and it seems as if it covers most things according to the bottle: “fast and effective relief of headache, stuffy nose, insect bites, itchiness, muscle aches and pains, sprains, and flatulence.” How one little bottle with strong vapors can cover that wide array of conditions is incredible.
Growing up I had a strong aversion to Tiger Balm and couldn’t stand the smell to the point that I had to leave the room. The odor is reminiscent of the western ointment “Bengay” which is usually for sore joints. However, Tiger Balm goes beyond just soothing sore joints and covers everything under the sun. In the past, I wondered the merits of its power when I smelled someone lathered up in it. I have seen it being used on insect bites, stuffy noses, a stomachache and rushed over to apply on a bruise after a nasty fall. The longer I am in Cambodia, the more accustomed I am to the smell, and in fact, it is now in my first aid kit.
Traditional vs. Modern
Cambodia doesn’t have a modern health system that many of our neighboring countries have. For serious ailments, most upper middle class and rich Cambodians and expats usually head to Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia or Singapore for quality medical care. If one must seek care, the best available is in Phnom Penh with Kantha Bopha, leading with the most renowned and reputable hospital for children in Cambodia. For emergency situations for adults (for example trauma after traffic accidents) many locals go to the more affordable Russian Hospital, which is run by the government. Private hospitals such as Calmette and the high end Royal Rattanak that recently opened near the airport are also options for the more middle class who would rather seek treatment in the country and can afford it.
There is still a large gap in access to quality care between the poor and rich and urban vs. rural. At the provincial level there are referral hospitals, however, not all of these hospitals are equipped to handle emergency situations nor are open when you need them. There are private practitioners throughout the country however their licenses are questionable. The recent outbreak of HIV in a village in Battambang by an unlicensed doctor accused of using infected needles is a recent example.
The problems with the Cambodian health system are far and wide and deserve its own separate post. With the expensive cost of modern healthcare, and the lack of trust many Cambodians have in western medicine, it is no wonder that many Khmers resort to traditional healing. A large majority of Cambodians still resort to koh chjol, chup chjol, g'nee kbal, and the good old Tiger Balm for fast relief. The ones that I’ve mentioned only scratch the surface and only cover what I have been exposed to. There are many other means of traditional medicine such as the use of Kru Khmer, a traditional and spiritual healer that I’ve never come across, but still widely used and highly trusted in the community, particularly in rural areas.
Therefore, if you see red circular marks on the person’s forehead, small red lines between a person’s eyes, thick red lines on a persons back, or smell tiger balm from a distance, they are most likely suffering from sort of ailment and sought traditional health remedies for relief.
*Do you have a traditional health remedy you'd like to share? If so, please share on the comments section. Thanks!*