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Where faith-healing is your only chance

When word got out that there was a monk blessed with the ability to heal, desperate patients came from all over Cambodia. We were still more than a kilometer away from Wat Serey Soupein, but already, we found ourselves driving through a crowded village, which hadn’t existed just a few weeks earlier. The rainy season and the unaccustomed press of crowds had churned the dirty streets into mud, as hundred of people busied themselves with the activities of daily life, buying and preparing food, caring for loved ones, and praying for a cure.

Around a bend, the road opened up onto a huge field where hundreds more milled about, talking, waiting, hoping. At the end of the field, beside the small temple, was a large, bamboo hut, with no walls. Here, the most gravely-ill patients, lie waiting for the monk to cure them, knowing it was a race against time. Stepping into the hut, I saw rows of bodies laid out before me, like in a military field hospital. One man had an enlarged head, swollen to alarming proportions. He had some type of medical tube tapped to the top of his skull, inserted into his nose. With great effort, an old man, who looked barely alive, raised his head ever slightly to see who I was. On another bed, a young woman, completely reduced to skin and bones, lie suffering at death’s door.

The relentless Cambodian sun beat down on the temple grounds, making the heat intolerable. Of course, there was no air-conditioning for the patients.

One of the ambulatory patients, 23 year-old Samat, told me that he had come from Takeo Province, seeking treatment for stomach complaints. He had been in pain for two years, but the provincial doctor told him nothing could be done. He had heard about this place from people in his village who had been already been treated here.

“Some of them recovered.” said Samat, enthusiastically.

Samat told me that he had met the monk already, and was a bit better than before. But now he was waiting for a second session with the monk. He had already been waiting two weeks.

“Do you really believe the monk can help you?” I asked.
“Yes, I believe.” He answered with gravity.

While my heart went out to the patients suffering, and most likely dying, on these simple bamboo beds, this whole situation raised a number of deeper social issues, namely widespread poverty and a lack of education was killing people in Cambodia.

“Wouldn’t you be better off going to a big private hospital in Phnom Penh?” I asked Samat.
“I would like to go there, but I have no money.”

Health related NGOs working in the provinces have said that rural Khmers will generally try to treat all of their illnesses through traditional means, reserving the modern hospital as a last resort. Medical Doctors have complained that by the time the patient arrive at the modern hospital, it is generally too late to save them.

One of my guides gave me an example of how the local people used the modern hospitals. He told me about a recent incident, where lightning had struck a herd of livestock. Several water buffalo were killed, and the Sheppard boy was knocked unconscious. “The villagers believed he was dead, although it was probably some kind of coma or shock.” Explained my guide. “They killed a cat, and smeared the blood all over the injured boy. And this revived him. But, he still couldn’t talk, so they took him to the hospital.”

Most of these people had never been to a modern hospital. The provincial “doctors” who told these people they were untreatable may not have been doctors at all. They may have been Kru Khmer, traditional folk healers, who rely on potions and the placebo effect of belief to cure their patients. Or, they may have been medical technicians, sent out to the province, trained only in vaccination, but who wind up serving as general practitioners in remote villages. They may have been “pharmacists” people who sell prescription drugs, over the counter, often with little or no knowledge of medicine. I have actually interviewed more than one drug seller who was illiterate, and had just learned to recognize various drugs by the shape and color of the bottle.

In the provinces, many women rely on traditional midwives for all of their medical problems. Khmers often refer to these women as “lady-doctors” or “woman-doctors” when in actuality most have no medical training at all. A friend, whose sister is a “lady doctor” told me that among services she offered to her patients was “Make the virgin again.”

According to a recent report by a foreign, health related NGO, many of the fatal complications in childbirth stem from a lack of basic hygiene. The midwives don’t know that it is important to wash their hands and keep the mother and birth area clean. According to the same report, the umbilical cord is often cut with bamboo.

When I asked Samat what the exact diagnosis was, he said “pain in my intestines.”

This didn’t sound particularly scientific, so I pressed again, for the name of the disease or aliment. He didn’t know, and claimed that the doctor only told him that he had pain in his intestines.

A forty year-old woman, named Ruhuan, also complained about non-descript internal problems. She said that unlike most o the others, “I have even been to the doctor in Vietnam.” But they told her she was untreatable.

Khmers with money will often go to the big hospital in Ho Chi Min City when they need specialized medical advice. Once again, however, this woman didn’t know what was wrong with her. The illness had no name, just “pain in here.” She said, pointing at her abdomen. When I pressed her further, it turned out that she hadn’t been to Ho Chi Min. Instead, she had visited the same quality, provincial medical practitioner as all o the others, except that hers had been on the other side of the border. She claimed that after her first treatment by the monk, her troubles had decreased. And she was now waiting for the monk to see her again.

“Do you really believe this monk can cure you?” I asked her.

“Oh, yes!” She assured me. “One lady was brought here by family. The doctor in her village had already said that she was dead. But the monk brought her back to life.”

Mum, 60 years old, told us that she was suffering from infection in her intestines, which had spread to her heart. She had seen the monk once, and was also waiting for her second session. She had already been in the makeshift camp for one month.

Most of the people had no idea what was wrong with them. And clearly, they hadn’t been properly diagnosed or treated. I wondered how many could have been saved by a single western doctor and a truckload of drugs.

Although some of them seemed to believe in the monk’s powers, without any question, one man may have spoken for many when he told me, sadly. “I can’t afford to go to the hospital. So, I have no choice but to believe.”

I was very curious to meet the monk, and see what he had to say about all of this. Unfortunately, we were told that he had gone home for Pchum Benh. We did, however, meet an Ajan, a teacher of monks, named Chem Jan. He was 65 years old, and although still a layperson, was serving as chief of the religious community in the pagoda, as well as, working as an assistant to the monk. Chem Jan told us that the monk, whose name was Luke Mao, was only 31 years old.  He had been born near the temple. Luke Mao had been identified as a healer before formally taking his vows, and becoming a monk. He only became an actual monk a few months ago, and because of Pchum Benh the Buddhist festival, the religious authorities had asked him to move into the pagoda. Normally, monks are expected to remain inside of the pagoda for the remainder of the festival.

His patients had followed him from his previous location, near the scared caves at Pnom Kompong Trach. “More and more cars are coming.” Said Jan Chem, “So many people come for help.” According to Jan Chem 30-40 new people arrive each day.

I asked if Luke Mao was charging money for his services, but both Jan Chem and a number of sick people I interviewed assured me that Luke Mao was giving away traditional medicines for free. The people did have to buy their own food, however. According to Jan Chem, the number of patient now exceeded one thousand, and with most of them accompanied by their family, this make shift village now had a population of two or three times that number. A large market had sprung up beside the pagoda to service them all. But waiting could be a costly business, particularly for the patients who said they had already been there for one month.

Basically, the pagoda itself had become a biohazard, waiting to erupt in epidemic. You had a high concentration of frightfully ill people, living on top of each other. To make matters worse, there seemed to be only two toilets at the pagoda. “We just go in the bushes.” One boy told me. There was no running water. Patients said they were drinking and washing with the ground water.

Jan Chem told me that they were trying to build more toilets. “Local authorities came to help.” He said.

Thinking like the former investment banker that I am, I tend to quantify things, dealing only with numbers and cold fact. Fact: you can’t treat an illness if you don’t know what that illness is. Fact: lots of sick people living together is a really bad idea. Fact: there was no proof that this monk had cured anyone. Fact: if basic education and medicine were available to these people, they wouldn’t need faith healers.

Being a New Yorker, I am also extremely judgmental. “These people must be desperate to believe in this fairytale.”

While we were interviewing Jan Chem, a crowd of patients had gathered around us. Suddenly, my translator, Thavrin, went white, and pointed behind me, as if he wanted me to see something.

I turned around, and saw a woman, holding an extremely underweight baby. He was all skin and bones, and malformed. He was crying, clearly disturbed, and in great pain. She told us that he was five years old, but he looked as if he were less than one year. His mother and grandmother stood sadly by, as they helplessly watched this tiny, innocent child who was irrevocably sentenced to death.

And here was the human element thrown up in my face. These weren’t numbers, facts, or figures. These were people. This was a mother who loved her infant son. And this was a grandmother who wanted nothing more than to shower love and affection on a healthy young boy who could run and play with other children.

It wasn’t the child’s fault that he had been born in Cambodia, to parents who couldn’t read and who couldn’t afford to take him to a proper hospital in Phnom Penh or Ho Chi Min City. My experience with provincial people was that the family’s entire saving, however small, had probably already been cleaned out by charlatans and witchdoctors who prey on the poor and the ignorant.

To the extent of their economic means and their limited knowledge, the parent had done everything they could to save the life of their son, the same as parents would have done in New York, Paris, or Toronto. Their resources were limited, but the depth of their emotion wasn’t. When this little boy died, and he would surely die, they would feel the same pain and anguish as parents anywhere.

They say the hardest thing for a parent is burying a child. How much harder must it be then for a grandparent?

And what if you blamed yourself? What if you knew that there were modern medicines and doctors who could save your child, but you couldn’t afford them? This mother and child were a portrait of the fourth world, the poverty afflicted residents of undeveloped countries, struggling to cope with a modern world, beyond their perception, beyond their ability to adapt. They would eventually be ground into dust, which would be used to make the foundations of a modern world.

But this mother didn’t think that far ahead. She had no use for moralistic philosophy. She just wanted her baby to live.

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You can reach Long Leng of Phnom Penh Tours at

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