Alternative medicine in Chiang Mai

Mark Fahey looks at the use of alternative medicine in Chiang Mai, giving the low down on everything from body bio-electrographic aura reading to cupping.

By | Wed 27 Apr 2011

Residents and visitors to Chiang Mai can not escape familiarity with Thai massage. They have probably seen foot reflexology posters and brochures for aroma therapy in their guesthouses and coffee shops. Chiang Mai is, however, also home to many more unique and esoteric alternative health options, many of which are practices derived from ancient Chinese or Thai medicine. Proponents of these practices are enthusiastic about their effects, with stories of extended lives and ameliorated aches and pains, while some write them off as glorified snake oil. Some treatments date back to the days of papyrus medical tracts, while others are modern adaptations more suited for modern alternative health tourism. Here are some alternative health suggestions for the curious and, dare we say… adventurous.

• Chinese Cupping

This gem of alternative medicine dates back to Imperial China (250 AD), when it was the most common treatment prescribed for tuberculosis and other lung ailments. The procedure involves heating a cup-like object (originally, animal horns were the object of choice), placing it on a specific spot on the patient’s skin, and letting it cool. As the cup cools, a suction forms, which proponents say can remove toxins from the body. Detoxification is performed along meridian lines, using the ancient Chinese medicine system to link various spots on the body’s surface to the lungs, kidney, spleen, and other organs. According to the practitioners at Tao Garden Health Spa, the procedure can relieve muscle pain and colds, and the toxins can be seen leaving the body as the dark spot of blood that rises to the surface under the cup (similar to a large hickey). The modern cupping system uses an electronic suction with various cup sizes for different parts of the body but “If the guest is too fat, we use the big ones” Said one practitioner

• Body Bio-electrographic Aura Reading

Body aura reading is a modern technological twist on ancient Chinese medicine precepts. The technician has the subject press lightly on a small screen which brings up a finger-shaped starburst pattern on a computer monitor. The basic premise is described as “every organ comes from your fingers, and these can show problems in your body.” The readings from each finger are fed into some Chinese medicine-based algorithm which translates the finger auras into a body aura and a chakra diagram. I am embarrassed to report that my aura reports were less than stellar; among a wide selection of weak and stressed portions in my aura were my entire immune system, my lower back, my spleen, and my adrenal and thyroid glands. I’m proud to say that my heart, lungs, and urino-gental auras were relatively strong. According to the chakra diagram, my emotional left side and physical right side were rather heinously unbalanced, “unstable and not calm.” The recommended treatment can be anything from “striking certain parts of the body with bamboo sticks” to using the correct organ healing sounds (“Whooooooo” for the spleen).

• Acupuncture

The Chinese Taoist practice of acupuncture is said to date back to over 8000 years ago, and is still very much alive as an alternative health practice today. Practitioners place needles at points determined by ancient medical diagrams to facilitate long-term healing and pain relief. “The way that most people do acupuncture is wrong,” said Dr. William Shurtzer, MD, medical school professor, naturopath, and acupuncture practitioner in Chiang Mai, “they use too many needles stick them where it hurts…I could train a monkey to stick needles where it hurts.” Dr. Shurtzer is a strong proponent of integrated medicine, a fusion of western and eastern medical methods. He says “if I’m in a car accident, I’m going to a hospital, but if I have cancer, I’m not getting chemo.” Shurtzer, who was born on the Ryuukyuu Islands, says it is unfortunate that people have the misconception that Chinese doctors are always better acupuncture practitioners: “I can run circles around most commie-trained doctors.”

• Urine Therapy

For lovers of alternative health willing to go the extra distance, there is Urine Therapy (UT). Advocates of UT believe that drinking urine can have a variety of positive health effects, from treating snakebites to reducing tumors and treating AIDS. The idea of urine as a natural and free medicine can be found in ancient texts from Egypt, India, and China (one Chinese book recommended that urine “be taken three times a day, warm, mixed with a dash of wine”). Literature supporting the use of UT suggest that the treatment’s effect may be linked to readsorption of nutrients, urea, self-vaccination by urine antibodies, or urine’s ability to kill bacteria and viruses. Cory Croymans is a local practitioner of Reikki (18 years), ABET, and Craniosacral therapy alternative medicine who runs the Asian Healing Arts Center. She has been using UT for many years, but recommends that beginners start off with the less intimidating urine footbath or small amounts for ingestion. Interested parties are reminded that urine should only be collected mid-stream, and should only be consumed fresh.

• Deviating Douche

The Deviating Douche (DD) is another intriguing natural home treatment. The procedure is startlingly simple: cool your genitals. Cooling down the genitals is thought to remove accumulated toxins and excess materials from the places they have been deposited in the body, returning them to the digestive tract to be excreted. Croyman at the Asian Healing Arts Center has been using the DD technique for eight years, and reports having noticeably “lighter joints and better mobility,” as well as an increase in bowel movement volume due to increased toxin expulsion. She says that the DD is good for problems like headaches, and is convenient in SE Asia because most bathrooms are equipped with a cold water sprayer that can be used for DD cooling. Sitting on an ice pack is also effective.

• Traditional Thai Medicine

Although it has been largely displaced by western medicine, traditional medicine is still used in northern Thailand, especially as a secondary form of treatment when modern medicine is unavailable or insufficient. Traditional Thai medicine is divided into two categories: the royal system and the common (rural) system. Both forms of medicine have been either bolstered or suppressed by the Thai government at different points in history. The royal system is a well-organised and standardised method for diagnosing illnesses (skin diseases, infectious diseases, diabetes, tumors, etc) and recommending specific herbal remedies. Noppharut Vadhanabhuti, a local businesswoman interested in herbal medicine, says that studying the old system is important because it teaches you that “health is about food, herbs and vegetables can be medicine…you need to be careful and choose good food to eat.” The rural system is a bit more wild, with snake bile, crocodile parts, and various insects playing healing roles. Crocodile meat is still used in some places as a cure for asthma, and crocodile blood is made into pills and sold both in and outside of Thailand as an alternative cure-all.

Tao Garden Health Spa and Resort
is an integrative holistic health spa run by Tao Grandmaster Mantak Chia. Located 30 minutes out of Chiang Mai, the centre offers a vast variety of alternative health programmes including acupuncture, cupping, aura reading, hydrotherapy, detoxification, and exercise training ( The Asian Healing Arts Center teaches week-long Reikki courses and does philanthropic and thanatologic work in northern Thailand (