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Date published: Wednesday, 28 August 2013 14:18
Date modified: Tuesday, 10 September 2013 16:41



Traditional healing knowledge in Surin has roots in various ancient belief systems like Buddhism, Hinduism and Khmer animism. As such, one can find a diverse set of practices related to illness and wellness. Well-being is multi-faceted and holistic. Health, for one, is achieved through a balance of various elements in the body. But, beyond the physiological aspect, there is the belief that one also has to have a good relation with nature and the cosmos. At a deeper level, there is also the spiritual realm, where prayers, rituals and meditation work to bring about wellness. Thus, it is clear that any efforts at protecting this intangible cultural heritage must take into consideration the multidimensionality of this element.

The safeguarding of traditional healing knowledge in present-day Surin happens in various spaces. At the community level, one can see how villagers take the initiative to cultivate their own herbs and vegetables in their family gardens. This way, they get to regulate what they eat and are assured that their food is chemical-free. Certain communities have also worked to restore denuded forests from which they can forage for food and medicine. They also perform consecration ceremonies in order to protect these forests from future destruction. Within these communities are also found different types of healers who have different functions, abilities and specializations. There is the general professional healer (moh tanam), the midwife (mae mop), the spiritual diviner (bol), the spirit medium (moh muat) and the massage specialist (moh jap tasai).There are also non-government organizations like the Tabanprai Center which, through its vast network of healers and allied groups, supports traditional healing through a variety of means. Aside from the usual activities like herbal medicine production, training and community work, the Tabanprai Center also provides spaces for various rituals which its traditional healers perform. For example, one can find a Buddhist monk doing egg diagnoses side by side with a Khmer animist moh tanam performing a ritual to dispel malevolent forces.

An unlikely space for the safeguarding of traditional healing knowledge would be the government health system. The Surin Provincial Health Office produces and promotes the use of herbal medicines as an alternative to pharmaceuticals in its health facilities. It integrates traditional medicines into its treatment flowcharts and demonstrates how much money is saved when local medicines are used in place of imported drugs. It also honors the region’s many folk healers with certificates of recognition and by documenting their practices. It also employs traditional healers in its facilities. For example, traditional midwives are brought in to give post-partum care to new mothers in government clinics.

The future of traditional healing knowledge in Surin seems positive, with many sectors involved in its safeguarding. People are well-aware of the complementarity of modern and traditional modes of healing. However, the younger generations show less interest in the ways of their ancestors. Among those willing to learn about traditional healing, it seems like only the more physical techniques and medicines are favored. Less importance is given to the ritual and spiritual elements, which is a pity because traditional healers believe that true wellness must also come from within.

Kok Sawai: The Forest that Gives Nourishment and Healing

The village of Kok Sawai features a community- managed forest which the locals planted to revive a denuded landscape in 2002. Aside from food plants, the forest also provides herbal medicines, water resources and other environmental services. It is also protected by consecration rituals and sacred altars placed throughout the area. It is open to people of other villages, so long as they do not over exploit its resources.

Many members of the village have an intimate knowledge about medicinal plants and their various uses. The villagers also favor traditional methods of healing for their most common afflictions. They are eager to share what they know with people from other villages and take pride in how their knowledge can help people attain healing.

Ban Natang: Where Food is Medicine and Medicine is Food

The forest is a source of food and medicine for the people of Ban Natang. Several kinds of food and medicinal plants are available in abundance and most of the foods available are also used as medicines. The village also has family gardens where households grow herbs for their own consumption. Those herbs help them in curing various illnesses. The gardens have plants, vegetables and trees that have multiple purposes. For example, the ‘keleg’ tree which can be used as food, medicine and also as wood. At the local primary school, the children are taught how to cultivate vegetables and herbs as a part of their education. This is a good way of transmitting the traditional knowledge. Ban Natang also has a number of traditional healers who are actively involved in treating the sick. The methods of traditional healing are still practiced, not just in the villages but in the hospitals as well and are very much supported by the community. This way the traditional medical knowledge is continuously applied and kept vibrant.

The Tabanprai Center: Safeguarding Knowledge and Rituals of Healing

The Tabanprai Centre was established by the Pipitprachanat Foundation in 1979. It was started to support and encourage traditional medicine. The center works with various other institutions to practice, produce, promote and distribute traditional medicine. Its network of traditional healers come from all over Surin and draws their knowledge from various systems (e.g. Buddhist, Hindu and animist Khmer). Aside from delivering healing services at the center, these healers also teach and pass on their knowledge to any and all who are interested in learning about these ancient practices. These healers, however, feel that most people are only interested in the techniques and are not as open to the spiritual/ritual aspects of healing.

Surin Provincial Health Office: Synergizing Traditional and Modern Modes of Healing

An unlikely site for the safeguarding of traditional medical knowledge would be the public health system, particularly the Western medicine-oriented hospitals. Being aware of the importance of herbal medicine in the people’s lives, the Ministry of Health in collaboration with localities has undertaken various projects to promote traditional healing, mainly herbal medicines. These efforts began in the early 1980s, when the government began efforts to combat the use of illegal medicines. With the promulgation of the “One hospital, two systems” policy in the late 1990s originated at the Kabcheong Hospital, the use of traditional medical knowledge in hospitals began in earnest. They developed production facilities for herbal medicines and formulated schemes to substitute Western medicines with herbal ones. They also employed traditional midwives to deliver post-partum care to hospital clients. In a few years’ time, they will be putting up a larger building which will be able to produce herbal medicines for the whole of Surin.