sen monorom city, Mondolkiri province – The spirit of his dead mother visited Deuy Kam in a dream and taught him how to heal the sick. Klot Den learned the same curative skills from his uncle, while the spirit of a wild bird told Sopun how to mend broken bones.
As healers in the remote highlands of Mondolkiri province, Kam, Den, Sopun and others command great respect among the people for whom they make cures out of plants found in the forest and officiate at ceremonies to call on spirits for assistance in their traditional medical work.
These and other healers have now shared their knowledge, and remedies, for the first time in a new book. Published by the French organization Nomad Recherche et Soutien International, the book, “Traditional Therapeutic Knowledge of the Bunong People in North-Eastern Cambodia,” will be released later this month and gathers together stories, histories and medicinal recipes of the Bunong.
The traditional medicine in use in the northeast of the country was very diverse, said Nicolas Savajol, who wrote the book with Vanny Toun and Sam John.
Traditional healers “have different backgrounds, they have different ways of practice, different treatments [and] they know different plants,” Mr Savajol said. “There is no one way.”
The medicinal plants and practices in the northeast were distinct from the rest of Cambodia, but still open to influences from Khmer, Chinese and Laotian traditional medicine, said Mr Savajol. “Because it is oral [culture], the transmission is always dynamic,” he said.
And the knowledge of traditional medicine changed with the changing politics of the country. Under the Khmer Rouge, Mondolkiri’s ethnic minority villagers were relocated to the province’s Koh Nhek district, and the regime, which despised Western scientific practices, started a whole new practice of traditional medicine, Mr Savajol said.
But it is the intervention of spirits that is unique in Bunong traditional healing.
Healers hold ceremonies to ask the spirits to help treat people, and some healers find out how to cure people through spirit visitations in their dreams, Mr Savajol added.
“This is what makes the main specificity of the traditional medicine in Mondolkiri.”
The authors drew on research conducted by field workers for Nomad RSI since 1997. The text is accompanied by photographs, including a photo of a purple-flowering plant, under threat due to deforestation, which is used to treat malaria, and a vine with heart-shaped leaves that treats asthma and liver problems.
Different types of kun—a variety of ginger that is also believed to be a spiritual entity—-protect against black magic and lightning strikes, and is used to treat broken bones and ensure safe deliveries in child birth. Legend tells, according to the book, of how a monkey showed a Bunong man how to use kun instead of cutting pregnant women open and killing them in labor.
Traditional Bunong midwife Chrek Bran, 45, said last week during an interview at her house in Pech Chreada district’s Pou Chrei Chang village, that nobody taught her which seven ingredients from the forest were needed to make medicine for women after delivery. “I just knew by myself how to find the plants and trees,” she said. “It can help women to stop bleeding.”
Ms Bran added that traditional healers usually prepared ceremonies to protect pregnant women from the spirits while giving birth.
Nowadays, most Bunong people use a mixture of traditional and modern treatments, depending on whether they are closer to the forest or to a pharmacy.
Mr Toun, one of the Bunong authors of the book who comes from a village just outside Sen Monorom City, said that for a recent stomach ache he first went to a clinic to have a blood test, and then he was prescribed an expensive medicine.
Unwilling to spend so much money, Mr Toun said he consulted a traditional healer who provided a medicinal plant remedy, which cured him. “Just some traditional medicines, not all, can treat diseases,” he warned.
According to the book, Sopun, who has a reputation for healing broken bones, has treated about 10,000 patients from as far afield as Kratie, Stung Treng and Pursat provinces in his 45 years as a healer.
For his treatments, Sopun uses a particular kun that he found in the nest of a crow pheasant, or yareut. According to the book, the night after finding the kun, Sopun was visited by the spirit of the yareut, who told him to use the power of the kun for people’s wellbeing.
Sopun is currently passing on his healing skills to his son.