The Needle and the Damage DoneFebruary 17, 2012
“So you wanna come over to my place for a treatment?” The towering, barefoot man with a bed sheet wrapped around his waist drawled (henceforth known as ‘The Shaman’). The Tiger Lady was perched on her wooden platform at the side of the dirt road, her usual cackle on hold while she watched this negotiation with curiosity and suspicion.
We were in a village near the Bakong temple outside Siem Reap, where I was staying at a yoga retreat center. “Oh, this is my Indian garb,” he said, noticing my noticing of his attire, clearly a much better way of putting it.
The Shaman was a spiritual healer fresh from stints in Brazil, India and the Himalayas, though was born in that Mecca of spiritual energy that is Brooklyn, New York. He had been wearing actual clothes (Western garb) when I met him the day before, and had regaled me with tales of his exploits and travels, and what brought him to Cambodia (a bus).
As I was staring at him trying to count the number of things wrong with this picture (did I mention he had a recent major head injury that had left him unconscious for 2 weeks?), a tourist rode by on a bicycle. “Hey, how you doing,” The Shaman called to the tourist, who scowled and muttered a string of expletives, and peddled faster.
Suddenly I was indignant – who was this backpacker to judge anyone, with his fisherman pants and money belt – he was probably just fresh from an orphanage tour or slum visit. I turned back to my new friend / healer / fellow-Brooklynite, “Let’s do it.”
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I am a hardcore needle junkie, and can’t go more than a month without a fix. Acupuncture is an ancient healing practice originating in China that has exploded in popularity in the West. Its devotees seek it out to treat pain, stress, infertility, and a host of medical problems.
If you have a specific complaint – a strained muscle, headaches, etc. it is probably easier for the practitioner to diagnose. “I like it and it makes me feel good,” is the best reason I can write down on the form as to why I’ve shown up at their office, so practitioners usually have difficulty coming up with a treatment plan for me, but they do their best.
The initial exam includes testing your pulse and a thorough examination of your tongue (Is it white? Glossy? Are there bite marks?), all of which hold clues as to how your internal organs are functioning. Then they’ll press down on your stomach in various points around your belly button to see if there’s any pain in the internal organs.
If you’re needle-phobic, this definitely isn’t for you, as the thought of being used as a human pincushion is probably your worst nightmare. But it doesn’t hurt. You feel a tiny prick when the needle goes in, but then it fades. That’s when the fun starts. My visit with the Shaman took place in his living room, where I stretched out on a low wooden bed with a thin mattress.
After the exam and interview (basic health and lifestyle questions) he got to work. I had needles in the crook of my elbows, the webbing between my thumb and pointer finger, outside my wrist, at the sides of my knees and shins and one in my sternum. When he placed the one in the webbing between my big and second toe, I jumped 10 feet in the air, which has happened before. He explained that’s a tough spot to get right and usually means the needle has hit a nerve. After he adjusted it slightly it felt much better.
When he was done sticking me he left and went into the other room. I laid back and experienced an intense surging through my whole body, everything humming like I was plugged into a giant electric socket. I would periodically black out, my eyelids fluttering closed, then come to again.
I heard music, saw things floating above the bed, had strange half-awake dreams about people and things from my past, but I never felt completely awake or asleep. The energy would flow in waves up and down my body, then subside, then come back. Sometimes there was something close to pain, like an all-over burning feeling, but it never quite reached that level, it was more like very strong sensation. None of this was unpleasant, just very, very intense.
After 20 or 30 minutes he came back and removed the needles and gave me some water as I shakily sat up. I told him everything I had experienced, and he confirmed what others have told me, that most people don’t react quite that strongly. The effects (at least for me) were intense.
It felt like my whole body had been rebooted and refreshed, and my brain felt incredibly clear and at peace. I felt good but woozy for several hours after, and very sensitive to light, sound, color – basically any stimuli. Any kind of stress or anxiety evaporated and I felt bright, alive, focused. You can see the appeal. For those of you into drugs, I highly recommend it as it’s a high with no come-down.
After watching me stumble out of his house and wandering down the road to the yoga center, the Tiger Lady would no longer look at or acknowledge me, and (I’m guessing) yelled at her kids not to talk to me since the chorus of hellos quieted down (Tiger Lady is an old woman with a giant mane of curly grey/yellow hair and no teeth whatsoever who runs a little roadside food stand and lays on her side on a wooden table cackling all day. I would miss her friendship, but, well, not really. I was glad I had seen The Shaman.).
The Shaman lives in Siem Reap, and kookiness aside he has an amazing touch and his clients speak very highly of him. Here in Phnom Penh there is a Korean doctor on Street 334 between Street 63 and Monivong. His shoulder-length bleached blonde hair makes him look like a mix between a kindly grandmother and an aging punk rocker, but he is very good, and a bargain at $15/session. Then there is the Dutch man who has a physiotherapy practice, who is also excellent but slightly more expensive.
If you have contacts in the Chinese community there are a lot more practitioners, but I’ve been told they don’t speak English, so it would be difficult to conduct a session. If the thought of having acupuncture in Cambodia is frightening – and everything with the word Cambodian in front of it is more frightening: elective surgery, bikini wax – the practitioners listed above are all highly trained and qualified. Give it a go – what’s the worst that could happen?