Thursday, August 12, 2010

Cup Chawl

Fresh coining bruises, Cambodian Cup Chawl
Me, with fresh coining bruises
As a rule I am deeply skeptical of traditional Southeast Asian forms of medicine and, given the option, will always opt for a western approach. Generally speaking, traditional SEA medicine is useless at best and harmful at worst. Smelly liniments, herbal teas, massage and old wives tales. But I am a something of a convert when it come to the practice known as cup chawl ('coining' or 'scraping') - a common procedure used across SEA in which the skin is repeatedly scraped, using a coin or coin-like object, raising long welt-like bruises in a tiger stripe pattern over parts of the body. The procedure is used to treat minor ailments, aches and pains, headaches, colds, light fevers, menstrual cramps and the like. When in Southeast Asia you may notice the occasional person with bruises born of cup chawl peeking out from under their clothing.

I've never received a satisfactory explanation of how it is supposed to work. Cambodians have told me that it helps restore the "balance of hot and cold" in the body. Others have said that it is to relieve an excess of "wind" in the body, which does correspond nicely to the name - 'chawl' in Khmer translating to 'wind' in English. This seems to relate to the Eastern notion of yin and yang and the necessity for balance between the two. Still sounds like hocus-pocus to me. One local friend tried to put a more scientific spin on it suggesting that it helps to promote blood flow, but I think he was just speculating, trying to make it more palatable to my western ears. Explanations aside, my experiences with the practice itself has been a positive one.   

More than a decade ago here in Cambodia, suffering from back pain of unknown origin and having exhausted most of the available western options, I relented to pressure from my Cambodian maid and allowed her to take me to a traditional doctor (a massage shop) to get coined. I figured that at worst it would be a difference that didn't make a difference - that it wouldn't help, that I'd still have the same back pain plus a few minor bruises and a story to tell.

Coining tools. Left from Cambodia. Right from Vietnam
They laid me out on a thin mattress and coined the front and back of my torso, tracing the pattern of my ribs, scraping the same places over and over again, focusing especially on the afflicted area of my back. It went on for the better part of an hour and was not painless, but not a wholly unpleasant procedure either - like an odd sort of focused massage. Within two days, a problem from which I had been suffering for weeks had disappeared. The back pain was gone. A result of the cup chawl? Impossible to say for sure. Perhaps it was a coincidence, but a happy one at the very least.

Since then I have had it done a few more times for similar problems, usually when I have reached the end of my rope, but almost always with a positive outcome. I don't know why it works, or even if it does actually work, but I do seem to consistently get better within a few days.

I just had it done again for the first time in more than a year, bruised tiger stripes front and back, to deal with some rib/back pain probably born of being old and spending too much time hunched over a computer. Cup chawl hurts, especially as they apply an alcohol based liniment while they do the scraping, but I am anticipating feeling better in short order.

Years back, being the western-centric, science-oriented old-man that I am, I never could have imagined myself engaging in, let alone touting what I would ordinarily consider mumbojumbo medicine, but cup chawl has done me right. I am a satisfied customer and would recommend it to others.


  1. Once when I was channel surfing I came across a news story about the practice (not Khmer - maybe Channel News Asia?).

    First, it should be noted that the number one function of skin is not to hold our "insides" on the inside or to protect us from germs. Skin is the largest ORGAN of the body and it's function is elimination, hence sweating, etc. We usually only think about feces and urine as the body's way of eliminating waste.

    With this knowledge, it is easy to understand that the scraping is loosening up toxins that are "stuck" and allowing them to be eliminated through the skin.

  2. I always wondered about this as i saw the marks sometimes on my GF;s front and back and she could not fully explain what they were or the purpose.