Yaa Dong - the Healthy Spirit
As a tropical country with heavy rainfall, Thailand is home to an abundance of diverse plant life. Botanists have identified 14 different types of forest in the country containing more tan 15.000 species of plants.
Medicinal herbs, called samunphrai in Thai, have been the basis of Thailnd's traditinal pharmacology for many centuries. Around 500 different herb-based medicines have been counted in the country. But as Western- influenced development transformed Thai society to a greater and greater degree, attitudes toward this traditinal herbal medicine changed.
For quite a while it enjoyed very low prestige, being viewed as slow, backward looking and less reliable and effective than the medical methods and technologies brought in from advanced Western countries. But then a few years ago, a Thai herb called plaonoi, began being used in Japan to treat stomach ailments, and was patented by the Japanese as a medication. And in recent years many other Thai herbs have been taken to labratories in advanced countries, analysed, and found to contain medically effective substances.
Santi Watthana, a botanistat the Queen Sirikit Botanical Garden in Chiang Mai, conducts scientific studies and analyses of the plants used in the North to make yaa dong - whiskey to which herbs and other ingredients are steeped to make medicinal tonics. Explaining the purpose of his work, he said," In the North, especially rural areas, the use of yaa dong is very popular, and seems on the rise. In general, it is the roots, stalks,shoots, bark, and heartwood of the plants that are used. We have found that the reason whiskey is used to make yaa dong is so that the alcohol can act as a solvent. It is a better solvent than water, and also keeps the herbs from spoiling. In addition, whiskey raises the the blood to ciculate more quickly. When drunk in the right quantity, whiskey itself is a kind of medicine.
"In my own research, I'm not interested in their alleged medicinal effects. I'm only interested
in the botanical aspects. I want to collect data on the herbs brought from rural areas to make yaa dong, and then to spread information that can help preserve this natural resource to the people who prepare these traditinal medicines. T hat can help prevent the plants to be collected to extinction. I also want to identify the species that are used, so that some of them can be planted in the botanical garden.
"Wile studying yaa dong between July 1996 and October 1997, I compiled 91 formulas that made use of a total of 242 different medicinal herbs. i was able to identify 209 species and 166 genera. I was unable to find out the names of 21 kinds of plants, but succeeded in collecting 70 kinds of plants for cultivation in the Queeen Sirikit Botanical Garden.
"Recipes for preparing these herbs with whiskey differ widely, according to the technique that has been passed on to the herbal doctor who makes it. Studying the yaa dong made by 37 different herbal doctors, I have found very few matching formulars. Most of these recipies are pased down through families who are secretive about them with outsiders. But there are many kinds that are sold in pre-mixed form at shops that specialise in traditinal medicine, and we have been able to do research on else."
Prinya Utitchalanon, better known as "Dr Prinya", runs ashop where he sells traditinal medicines, including herbal remedies, at Tha Prachan in Bangkok. Some are ready-made mixtures ready to be added to whiskey to make yaa dong. In addition to selling these remedies, he advises customers on which of them is best for treating a given condition.
"Most of the formulas for making these old- fashioned medicines come from temples. Thats because in the past the temple was a community centre that people relied on for many things. Monks studied and passed on many kinds of knowledge. Most traditinal herblists, who sell these remedies, or who have establishments where they use them to retreat patients, were once monks.