I've been hearing rumors for awhile now that I, and the handful of other instructors who study with my teacher, practice, study, and teach, traditional Lanna medicine rather than traditional Thai medicine. While I would love to practice more Lanna medicine, the truth is that very little of what I do and teach is Lanna. In order to clear this up, I think we need to begin by demystifying some of the various categories of medicine practiced in Thailand.
- Pâet păen tai (แพทย์แผนไทย), which translates simply as "Thai medicine", is the most recent evolution of Thai medicine, having been codified in the 20th century and continuing to be modified in modern times. This systemized form of Thai medicine is taught at government approved schools. It stems from Bangkok, being promoted by the Ministry of Public Health and is taught in traditional medicine degree programs.
- Pâet păe boh-raan (แพทย์แผโบราณ), which translates simply as "traditional medicine", is also a more recent incarnation, being based on texts dating back to the 1800s. It is written primarily in Thai and Khmer script. The practice of this system varies according to region, practitioner, and which texts are referenced. This and the first category, Pâet păen tai, are where you see the more modern concept of sen sip (a subject for another day).
- Pâet péun bâan (แพทยพื้นบ้าน), which translates as "local medicine", is likely the most pervasive as it encompasses local practices found throughout the country. Doctors who fall into this category utilize regional variations of theory and techniques that pre-date, and often contribute to, the first two categories above. These systems are based on local texts and teachings and are generally quite old.
- Pâet péun bâan kŏng laan-naa (แพทยพื้นบ้านของลานนา ), which translates as "local medicine of Lanna", is a sub-category of Local/Indigenous medicine (Pâet péun bâan). Lanna medicine is based on texts and teaching in the Lanna language found in the northernmost reaches of Thailand. The term pâet péun bâan khawng laan-naa,while accurate, is not colloquially in use, and local doctors prefer the term mŏr-meuang (หมอเมือง), which simply means "town doctor". This is perhaps the oldest system of medicine in Thailand as local medicine has been best preserved in the north.
- Hill Tribe medicine is another umbrella term that covers the many different ethnic/cultural groups commonly called Hill Tribes. Since there is no one "hill tribe", it's a catch all term that is a bit overly generic in that it fails to acknowledge the many and decidedly separate Hill Tribe cultures.
In addition to what is listed above you can find Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine, Burmese medicine and of course, modern western medicine being practiced in Thailand. But what we are primarily concerned with here is the traditional medicine of Thailand, which all of the above categories fall into, with some being older than others.
The Lanna (or to be more Thai about it, the láan naa ล้านนา) kingdom was one of the oldest cultures of Thailand, dating from around 1262 C.E. to the late 1700s. It existed in northern Thailand, beginning around Chiang Rai and expanding across to Mae Hong Son and down to around Chiang Mai. Today the people of northern Thailand consider themselves to be Lanna, a separate culture from mainstream Thai culture, and speak Lanna language in addition to modern Thai. Lanna culture has in many ways been preserved where other parts of Thailand have adapted more to global influences. Because of this the medical practices of northern Thailand are some of the most rooted in consistent history; although of course, these days things are changing fast and the strong presence of western healing arts practitioners in northern Thailand is having a rapid and considerable impact.
While there is much cross over between Thai and Lanna medicine, Lanna medicine is a separate system with theoretical ideas and techniques not found in mainstream Thai culture.
My teacher is a traditional Thai medicine doctor who has studied extensively in both Northern and Central Thailand. He has gone through the Ministry of Traditional Thai Medicine's traditional medicine degree program in Bangkok, and has personal teachers in various parts of the country including some primary teacher's in the north. While it is true that some of his most in-depth and ongoing studies have been and are with Lanna doctors, what he teaches his western students like me is primarily Thai medicine, not Lanna.
What I, and others who have had the fortune to study with him have been taught has been a mix of all the different aspects of Thai medicine that he knows, but it has been heavily weighted on the general medicine of Thailand. Some Lanna medicine techniques have made their way into his teachings, such as tok sen, some traditional northern stretches, and cupping, but as one of his first students I have watched him teach for many years now and can easily confirm that I have only very recently seen him offer the tip of the ice berg of Lanna medical theory, something I believe he has only taught in one or two classes at this point and certainly has not taught enough for any of us to be practiced enough in it to implement or teach it ourselves. Far and away the vast majority of what I know, practice and teach, is traditional Thai medicine. I would love to say it is Lanna, as I am quite attracted to Lanna medicine, but that simply would not be true. I know a handful of lovely techniques, and so little theory as to be firmly in the infancy of study.
It's important to me to address this because to allow the rumor to spread that what we teach is Lanna is misleading. The differences in what I and my study siblings practice and teach from what most westerners are teaching lay not in a regional source separation, but more simply in having studied with different teachers, texts and levels of Thai healing arts.