Alternative treatments have seen a rise in popularity in recent years, highlighted by the fact a therapist comes into my office and offers a variety of treatments every Thursday. So as we hopped into the van for the journey towards the Abhaibhubejhr Hospital in Chao Phraya, there was a sense of intrigue about what lay ahead.
The hospital was originally built for the King in 1909. Back then it was only for Royal family use, but since the revolution no royals have visited. It opened in 1941 as the Prachinburi Provincial Hospital and was renamed as the Abhaibhubejhr Hospital in 1966 before establishing the Thai Herbal Medicine unit in the pharmacy department. During a presentation given by the hospital we learned that the key face behind the whole process was Dr Supaporn Pitiporn, who had spent her life acquiring knowledge of Thai traditional medicines from local folk healers and self-learning.
I have always thought of myself as a liberal person, giving most things the benefit of the doubt. However when they produced a slide saying ‘ Angle Grass could prevent cancer’, I began to question the wisdom. What is blindingly obvious is the absolute belief in Thai culture that herbal medicines work, and although western science would seek proof that such medicines work, their belief is unwavering.
After a tour of the building, including a visit to the pharmacy where you buy pretty much any herbal remedy (the most memorable one was, and I quote one of the guides here, helped to ‘strengthen your ammunition’), it was onto the training centre where locals can learn how to give traditional Thai massages and about herbal medicines.
We needed our blood pressure taken (still not sure why) and even though mine was a bit high (still not sure why) it was onto massage number two of the week. Now. I must admit this one was a bit terrifying. Terrifying in the sense that there was A LOT of er, cupping going on, and even more massaging of my butt. Dearest readers I did not ask for this, and it’s always good to have a massage, so I let it happen. Plus he was bigger than me. The contrast in culture between westerners who treat themselves to a massage every day and Thai people who go every two or three days as a regular maintenance is fascinating. Maybe that’s why they’re known as the country of smiles.
Our group was then split into two – hand spa and nasal inhaler. Luxurious names I know. My group made the nasal inhaler first, which was basically a herbal version of Vicks. It’s made from nine different spices as well as oil, and we had to make some based on our own preferences. Put it this way – my backpack has stunk of the stuff since I made it, but boy does it work.
The hand spa left my hands feeling as soft as a babies butt, and me rather hungry. The centre has its own restaurant, and we were treated to some of the finest food I’ve had. The Massaman Curry and the sweet pineapple with glazed peanut on top were the highlights. Only two of us appeared to be eating them, which was fine by me. I devoured them.
Fully satisfied from the food, I had a snoop around the hospital before we left. British hospitals get a WHS Smith and a subway. These guys had a fresh fruit market IN THE HOSPITAL GROUNDS. Can you imagine if anyone suggested such a thing in England?
Back into the van we went and took a short journey to a local farm where the herbs the hospital use are grown. We took a stroll around the farm learning about the process involved of drying out the herbs and the way they pack them. There’s no cold compress to keep them fresh. Everything is done in a basic way that hasn’t changed for generations. Here was made herbal compresses, and I’m happy to go on record saying mine was abysmal. Had it not been for a little help then I doubt there would have been a finished product. Someone even found time to call my effort rubbish, much to the amusement of everyone else.
One thing that struck me – rather like Bangkok – was how dry everything was. I couldn’t believe the sheer volume of herbs that were produced. The lush grounds caused by searing humidity and occasional downpours of rain makes Thailand a perfect climate for growing herbs. Again, the people were extremely warm and welcoming. The couple who own the farm were always smiling, happy to chat to you, happy to share their story. They are proud of their culture. It’s a massive reason eastern Thailand can become a hotspot of tourist activity, especially if you want to see life as a local.