Cambodia: Views on Medicine

Tiffany Suriadinata, Matthew Pyerkov


About 95% of the Cambodian population is Buddhist, following the Khmer branch that includes ideas of spirits and the supernatural that could be applied to animism. A dietary custom is the thought that food must be fresh, clean, and consumed in reasonable amounts. Cambodians will usually have fruit and vegetables from their country, and rice, a staple. Fish is cheaper and used more in dishes than beef and pork. Interpersonal customs include greeting others with hands together in front of the face and spelling out full names last to first, not first to last like in the West. Cambodians are brought up to be polite, especially the females. The women in a household cook, clean, do the laundry, and take care of the children. This role, though, is given great respect by the community. The men have more socially acceptable freedoms, such as choosing a spouse.
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Beliefs and Practices Involving Health, Illness, and Medicine

A major health concept is the analogy that Buddhism is the true medicine that will fully cure a person. Western medicine may relieve physical symptoms, but will not get rid of the "root cause". Buddha is the "Great Doctor," the knowledge of the Dharma is the medicine, monastics are the nursing staff, and the people are the patients. The Khmer believe that illness can be caused as punishment for disrespecting the spirits of natural objects or the dead, by incorrect religious beliefs, or from harboring bad emotions. Sickness is believed to be cured religiously by by meditation, repentance, reading from the Dharma religious book, or treated by using traditional methods such as coining or consuming homemade medicine with natural ingredients. Traditional healers, some jobs that are still in practice today, include Buddhist monks similar to psychiatrists that also may have been involved in astrology, whom are the only literate people in villages, a kru (shaman / sorcerer), an achar (ritualist), a thmup (witch, sorcerer or sorceress), or a rup arak (medium, usually male). Most Cambodians do not like to provide information about pain and suffering. When ill, they ask help from "sorcerers," and try to appease the spirits so they will not be bothered or have further misfortune. When a baby is born, names are given in a ceremony, which is given on an auspicious day. The parents will bring their child to a temple to receive blessings.

Most are comfortable in accepting Western medicine and traditional, and are open to any spiritual consolation, but communication problems (refusing to provide information, symptoms) occur often. There seems to be a common belief that once symptoms are gone, they are cured. There is a lack of value toward preventive screening and check-ups. Special objects and practices include amulets made by kru, spiritual worship, offerings of food, and protective charms.


"Among Buddhists death is regarded as an occasion of major religious significance, both for the deceased and for the survivors. For the deceased it marks the moment when the transition begins to a new mode of existence within the round of rebirths. When death occurs all the kammic forces that the dead person accumulated during the course of his or her lifetime become activated and set about determining the next rebirth. For the living, death is a powerful reminder of the Buddha's teaching on impermanence; it also provides an opportunity to assist the deceased person as he or she fares on to the new existence." (

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When a person dies, the family takes care of the body, washing it and wrapping it in bandages. Traditional belief states that the body cannot be used for organ donation, autopsy, or embalming. An achar and mourners will accompany the body in its coffin to its cremation. The ashes are stored, and sometimes a family member will keep a piece of bone for a protective amulet. A remembrance ceremony is held seven days or 100 days after death.