Cross-Cultural Medicine: Folk Medicine/ Superstition


The informant SY is of Cambodian descent and dives into the beliefs of his culture and explains the beliefs of keeping spirits away and medicine used to maintain good health


Growing up, my parents would always tell me that some things can’t be done because it can bring bad luck to me and my family. I never doubted them and listened to their advice to protect myself. They would inform me about the good and bad spirits that are around every day. For example, cutting nails at night is not allowed because it can invite evil spirits into your home. They liked telling me, “Those spirits can bring misfortunes and bad luck that can harm you or make you sick.” Some people don’t really believe in this, but they still follow the rules just because they don’t want evil spirits or bad luck around them.

In Cambodia, people fear the evil spirits that roam around. They are said to cause bad luck and bring you misfortune. According to an article written about Khmer beliefs and superstition, “Among these phenomena are khmoc (ghosts), pret and besach (particularly nasty demons, the spirits of people who have died violent, untimely, or unnatural deaths)… they can cause trouble ranging from mischief to serious life-threatening illnesses” (Hays). These different kinds of spirits are the ones that bring fear to those who have khmer beliefs. This gives these people a reason to listen and follow beliefs/superstitions so that they can keep these spirits away from them.

When it comes to warding off these evil and unlucky spirits, there are different types of people who can get in touch with the spirit world. These shamans and healers have their own methods of keeping evil spirits away from people who seek their help. A culture-profile written about the Khmer lifestyle, beliefs, and background states, “A Khru Khmer (traditional healer) may be sought who will often travel into the jungle for herbs, roots and plants for healing… Traditional healers or spiritual healers will be sought for illnesses thought to be caused by spirits” (Wetzel, Kemp). These healers can use their knowledge to find the right ingredients that can keep the spirits away. They can also give people protective artifacts that can also help ward off the evil that is following or after someone. Different healers can provide people with different things like medicine, fortune telling, artifacts, and magical tattoos. 

Whenever I would get a cold or fever, my mom would tell me to lay down so that she could do some coining. This is a process where a coin is used to scrape the “bad wind” away. I was always reluctant to do this because it would hurt a little. She would always say, “endure through the pain, it will make your sickness go away.” 

Another method of curing illness that could’ve been caused by these evil spirits is by maintaining balance within your physical body and spirit. A research study conducted on the topic of traditional Cambodian medicine states, “maintaining “hot/cold” balance, and herbal medicines. Specific examples include use of tattoos/religious medals; healing ceremonies; dermabrasion; and consumption of “hot” or “cold” foods/medicines” (Richman). This study includes the idea of yin and yang used for healing and balancing your spirit. Hot and cold foods are also a way that you can get sick. Hot foods can be foods that are fried, baked, and mostly unhealthy. While reading through the culture profile and background of Cambodian beliefs, it quotes, “Cupping, pinching, or rubbing (also known as coining) are the most commonly used and are thought to restore balance by releasing excessive air” (Wetzel). Methods like cupping and coining can be related to the belief of balancing in your body. Coining is supposed to release the unhealthy hot air in your body and is said to be able to cure people who are feeling ill or have fevers/colds.


YS explains in great detail the ideas of superstitious beliefs that are fundamental to Cambodian culture with a focus on how these beliefs affect daily life and medical procedures. As mentioned, the fear of bad spirits called locally “khmoc,” “pret,” and “besach,” which are believed to bring misfortune and disease, is central to the fundamental concepts. This fear drives devotion to customs and beliefs, like not cutting nails at night to keep these spirits out of the house. YS also mentions the function of traditional healers, or “Khru Khmer,” who treat people for illnesses brought on by spirits by using spiritual rituals, herbs, and roots. Among these customs are coining, which is said to drive away evil spirits that appear as illnesses, and keeping a “hot/cold” equilibrium in the body, reflecting an indigenous understanding of health akin to the yin-yang concept.