By Mark Jochim, Jan 2009
Visitors to Thailand are sometimes taken aback by seeing so many people constantly sniffing from small plastic canisters. Occasionally, one even sees Thais walking along with two of these inhalers stuck in their nostrils at the same time. This isn’t a case of the entire population suffering from nasal congestion, nor are people participating in some strange kind of a mass drug high. What you are seeing is a popular form of samun phrai (สมุนพราย), or traditional herbal medicine, known as yaa dom (ยาดม), which literally means medicinal inhaler. The most common of all Thai accessories, one can find these for sale next to cash registers in pharmacies and convenience stores throughout the Kingdom. Millions of Thais sniff yaa dom inhalers to clear congestion from pollution, mask odors, and make their nose feel cool. The little white nozzle plugs into both the nose and the national psyche.
The inhalers come in various shapes and sizes, from more commercial brands, such as Poy Sian, to more traditional versions featuring actual herbs. The latter were once more prominent in the provinces, but are now becoming increasingly popular in Bangkok. The roots of yaa dom, along with other traditional Thai medicine, can be traced back 2,500 years to the time of Gautama Buddha and Shivago Komaraphat, the physician for the original Buddhist order of monks and knows and known as the “father” doctor of Thai medicine.
According to writer Philip Cornwel-Smith, in his book Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture, “Fashion, tradition and hypochondria may play a part, but a breathing problem exists. They way the Thai now live traumatizes the nasal passages, causes constant chills and dulls the immune system. Constant ducking in and out of ice-cold air-conditioning isn’t the sole culprit; millions wake up wind-dried from sleeping through the gusts of a fan. Then throughout the day, stress-induced over-breathing gets the chairbound urbanite panting through his mouth. Respiratory illness is gagging Thailand. The capital’s fumes and cement dust permeate the Central Plains, while smoke from burning forest and fields choke Northern valleys throughout the hot season.”
It’s also important to remember how important scent is in the Thai subconcious. “Perfume powers the culture, from tangy shrimp paste and aromatic jasmine rice to the floral water tincture nam yaa uthai. Scent’s ability to transport the mind has religious uses, as with incense, garlands and nam ob, a pungent, powdery liquid used in rites as well as grooming. Constant bathing and clothes washing ensures one’s personal bouquet makes the ‘sniff kiss‘ a mutual pleasure. ‘If you do smell, you have the chance of having it pointed out to you,” Kat’s column in The Nation points out. But there is a popular remedy: “Mentholated” powders leave your body feeling like one gigantic breath mint for hours.’
According to Wit Sukhsamran, a practitioner of traditional Thai medicine there aren’t any addictive ingredients in the inhalers, although there are some specific physiological effects which could lead to addiction. “The combination of camphor and menthol can have an effervescent effect, which can lead to an addiction among some users. Since the membrane between the nasal passage and brain is thin, it allows for quick absorption and nourishment of the brain. So, it’s a more immediate effect. It is also this phenomenon that results in [unwholesome] acts, such as sniffing glue, becoming so addictive among users.” Yaa dom works by stimulating nerve endings, which allows improved blood flow, which subsequently counters conditions of fatigue, nasal congestion, nausea, and vertigo.
Royal Thai mandated yaa dom inhalant mixtures are taught at the temple of Wat Pho in Bangkok, while literally thousands of other forms, in addition to commercial brands, can be found throughout the country. There are probably as many versions as there are practitioners of herbal medicine and healers. Broadly speaking, there are chemical-based or herbal forms of commercial yaa dom available on the market. The Poy Sian brand is a popular form of chemical-based yaa dom, featuring a mix of the oils of broneol, camphor, eucalyptus, and menthol.
Of the commercial herbal inhalers, Jarungjit is a popular brand, featuring pommelo and several other herbs, which are ground together. The most popular ingredients in homemade mixtures or those produced in rural areas, are various chopped herbs. A common form includes a base of black pepper, camphor oil, citrus peel/pommelo, cloves, and mace. These are commonly packaged in a small jar or glass bottle.
So while at first glance it could easily be assumed that the widespread use of yaa dom is a kind of society-wide addiction, it might be more accurate to conclude that its popularity is due to a combination of factors: a long-held cultural tradition (traditional Thai medicine); a counter to rapid industrialization (its use for countering foul urban smells, such as those generated by pollution); along with a fashionable consumer-driven trend towards “health consciousness”.
To learn more about Thai herbal medicine, a fabulous resource is the website for Tao Mountain.