Living in a remote village, off National Road 1 near the Vietnamese border, Keo Proek is a well known face to just about everyone in Svay Rieng’s Svay Chrum commune, often seen bravely driving a worn-out, skeletal motorbike overflowing with goods for delivery to the Kroal Kor Market, 20 kilometres from his house.
What makes Proek such an object of curiosity in this rustic part of the country is that he makes this daily journey without the use of his hands, which he lost in a landmine accident in 1995.
Sao Ny, a villager we spoke to who lived nearby, gushed with praise for Keo Proek’s ability to cope with his loss and his devotion to supporting his family.
“He is handless but he is a hard-working man. He struggles and earns enough money to support his family. He can provide happiness for his wife and children better than some other men,” Sao Ny says.
When 7Days travelled with an Apsara TV crew to meet Proek in person, we found him busy at work ploughing a rice field.
From a distance, as he moved a pair of oxen with deft precision across the paddy, it was difficult to notice that he was the man so widely talked about.
Speaking to him on the field, Proek told us he can do many things to till the earth, even without his fingers.
“I can plough the fields, plug out young seedlings, and plant them back in the soil,” he says. “But the latter is a bit difficult for me.”
More arduous daily tasks, like digging the earth and pumping water from the village well, are actually quite easy for him.
Instead of gripping tools with his fingers, he uses his underarm to hold the handle of the hoe and the pump.
Keo Proek lost his hands 17 years ago, while working with a demining team in Malai district on the other side of the country.
“I woke up and saw the white cloth wrapped on both of my hands,” he says. “The first thought that came to my mind was, ‘How can I support my wife and children?’”
But hopelessness did not drive him down. He believes that as long as he lives, he will able to work within the confines of his new body.
“I was hurt both mentally and physically. But I decided to return to my home town and start from the basics.”
He then began to learn how to ride his motorbike by using what remained of his arms. He started to load goods on the vehicle and with practice, gradually increased the weight. Now he can ride his motorbike with at least 300 kilograms of goods strapped to the back, which he loads himself.
However, the 45-year-old does not consider his story to be noteworthy, and scorns praise. He believes that he is just one of many disabled deminers or soldiers who have been forced to adjust to misfortune.
“There is nothing special about me. Many disabled men in Cambodia can also do the same.”
Every day, he travels a 40 kilometre round trip from the Vietnam border to drop goods at the Kroal Kor Market. During the times he is not hired to transport market wares, he works as a bottled water vendor. His motorbike is regularly loaded with at least 12 30-litre plastic containers.
“It is not an easy job for a disabled man like me. But as a husband and a father, I have a responsibility to fulfill,” he says.
Proek thinks that the disabled should learn how to cope with their impairment, motivating themselves to work so they don’t fall into penury and begging.
"My work not only brings income to my family, but it also helps me to stay away from begging like other people. I think my job helps me to belong to society. I have enough money to build a house and raise my children happily with my wife.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Sou Vuthy at [email protected]