Norn gets ready to climb one of his palm trees. Photo by John Bennett.
GNOM Norn is unlike any other palm juice gatherer - he is blind.
During the juice season he scales 60 foot trees, relying on his sense of touch to
get him safely up and down, and sense of smell to ensure he has selected the right
He lost his sight in 1973 during the war between Lon Nol forces and the Khmer Rouge.
Norn says when it happened he thought his life was over - he assumed the KR
would kill him rather than support him.
But the 45-year-old farmer managed to survive by working as hard as anyone else in
the rice fields.
Following the overthrow of the Pol Pot regime Norn returned to his village but life
was difficult. He did not believe he could support himself. He said the children
of the village relentlessly ridiculed him. They told him he was a dead load on society
and that he should become a beggar. That was one slur Norn would not tolerate.
"Although I am blind I shall never go to beg," he said.
But the taunts, boredom and feelings of hopelessness continued to eat away at him,
until he eventually decided suicide was preferable to life.
He tried to climb a tree with the intention of throwing himself off, but when his
neighbors saw him, they suspected what he was going to do and stopped him.
But something from that climb seemed to plant the seed of an idea, and Norn told
his neighbors he was going to find a way to support himself.
"I have no eyes but I have my arms and legs to help me in my life," he
"I shall prove to all of you that I can live honestly by working."
Norn decided he would try and make his living from palm trees.
First, he learned how to find them by smell and touch, then he secretly practiced
climbing on small trees. Initially he was wounded by prickles and could not climb
very high, but was not discouraged.
Starting out for work in the morning. Photo by John Bennett.
After a month's solid training with his cousin he was confident he could climb any
tree in the Kingdom - and decided to become a palm juice collector.
He bought 20 palm trees, which he recognizes individually by touch. During the juice
season he awakes at dawn and, moving quietly so as not to wake his wife, goes to
his plantation. He moves slowly, feeling his way with a bamboo stick that he uses
like a cane.
Arriving in the field he starts to work out by touch and smell which trees he must
climb to harvest the fruit. He usually finishes about 8am or 9am and returns home
for breakfast and a rest.
His wife helps him unload his harvest and then prepares his fishing rod with bait
for him to go fishing. Relying on memory and smell he finds his way to a pond and
casts his line.
He said some days he catches a half kilo of fish or four to ten frogs - enough food
for a day for him and his wife.