Asian medicine and herbal balms

herbal balms

In Southeast Asia, there are five main tourist attractions: beautiful beaches, food, cheap shopping, nightlife and the ubiquitous massage parlors. Hollywood has made the last two a kind of Southeast Asian stereotype. And, like it or not, in order to promote tourism, the beautiful young masseuse has become the main attraction in massage parlors. If you’ve seen Rush Hour 2, Detective James Carter and Chief Inspector Lee enter a massage parlor in Hong Kong and the madame shows them a group of half-naked exotic young Asian masseuses to choose from.

It’s not exactly an exaggeration. I live in Southeast Asia, I have traveled around Southeast Asia and massage parlors everywhere have beautiful young masseuses as their main attraction. Nine times out of ten, a spa/massage signage features the face of a beautiful young woman. There are documented cases of massage parlors being fronts for brothels although there are also strictly legitimate establishments.

Massage services are simply everywhere in Southeast Asia. Prices range from really cheap to very expensive. In Phuket, while I basked in the sun, my friend Osang had a massage right on White Beach from a middle-aged lady whose “equipment” consisted of three low benches, a mat, towels and a basket of oils. Talk about keeping the overhead cost low. No wonder she charged so cheaply. Whatever. She wanted cheap, she got cheap.

The irony is that in Asia, massage is traditionally part of medicine. Just like acupuncture, acupressure and herbal treatments. When and how massage jumped from being a medicinal therapy to a feature of the hospitality industry, I have no idea. Got a backache that won’t go away? Get a massage or a few sessions of acupuncture or acupressure.

Mild muscle ache? There are herb-based oils and balms galore for just about any complaint. In one place in Penang, Malaysia, where nutmeg is a big industry, nutmeg balms were sold in practically every store. If you’re not into smelly and often sticky balms, there’s an equivalent herbal brew for every health issue.

While America treats Oriental medicine as an alternative medicine based on a lot of old wives’ tales, Oriental medicine is far, far older than Western medicine. Unlike Western medicine which is laboratory-based, Asian medicine is based on philosophy. The concept of yin-yang, mostly, is all about balance. Sickness, in Oriental medicine, is about the body going out of balance.

The curious thing is how more and more people are turning to Oriental medicine when Western medicine fails. I know of at least two stage-four cancer patients who went to China after their Western-educated doctors have given up hope. It was too late by then but it is interesting how, subconsciously or otherwise, these patients actually thought that Oriental medicine could succeed where Western medicine has failed. Desperate move? Perhaps. Or it is also possible that very expensive and often inaccessible Western medical treatment is making more people look elsewhere.