Similar to the fairy tale of A Khvak A Khven (A Blind Man and a Cripple) – in which the crippled man had to sit on the shoulders of the blind man to travel in hope of a new life – two elderly disabled brothers wander through the villages of their province making a living by climbing coconut trees to harvest the fruit for income.
Pheng Chan, 57 years old, is led by his 67-year-old brother as they walk along the road to pick coconuts in Svay Tamnak village, Chumnoek commune, Kroch Chhmar district, Tbong Khmum province.
Chan, shirtless, with an axe at his waist, climbs the trees quickly and easily.
He uses his arms to cling to the trunk of the tree, as his feet push him further up, moving at a pace that an able bodies man would struggle to replicate. Reaching the top of the tree, he knocks on a coconut to see if it is ripe, and then attaches a string to the fruit. With a deft cut of his axe, he cuts the coconut free and then lowers it slowly to the ground.
Chan inspects each fruit on the tree, and when he has harvested each ripe specimen, returns to the ground as easily as he ascended. For each tree he climbs, the blind man hopes to receive 10,000 riel.
Footage of the two elderly men holding each other’s shoulders and of the blind man scaling a coconut tree was recently posted on social media, with many viewers expressing their sympathy – and admiration for Chan’s courage.
The nearly 12-minute video clip has been viewed almost 2 million times and has garnered more than 10,000 comments on Facebook, with both sympathetic and angry comments to the cameraman.
As his post hit over 600 likes, cameraman Monipiseth Lim wrote: “Don’t be angry with the cameraman. If I had not taken this footage, none of you would know about how this man makes his living. If he does not climb the palm tree now, tomorrow he will climb again anyway, because this is his livelihood. Stop scolding, this man is making a living the only way he knows how.”
Thanks to the video going viral, the brothers have received some donations from philanthropists – thanks to a fundraiser organised by the director of an online TV station who saw the clip.
Sem Bora, general director of TNM Online TV, has collected donations from philanthropists on social media who wish to improve Chan’s standard of living.
After seeing the video clip, Bora sent a team from Tbong Khmum province to meet Chan at his home.
“A few days ago, I handed more than a thousand dollars to Pheng Chan and his brother. I have $60 left in my bank account,” Bora told The Post.
That amount of money could support the daily lives of the two siblings for a long time, although if it will not stop them from giving up this dangerous career.
Chan has four siblings. He is the second child and the mentally ill older man who acts as his eyes is his oldest brother.
Chan was blind from childhood, when he suffered from kwashiorkor, an extreme form of malnutrition. At that time, he did not have the opportunity to go to school.
“I had the kwashiorkor at the age of six and never went to school between 1968 and 1970,” Chan told The Post.
Due to his visual impairment, during the Pol Pot era, he lived with his parents and the Khmer Rouge cadres did not use him like other children. He received the same donations, such as clothes.
When Chan became a teenager in his 20s, he began his career as a palm tree climber, although his life deteriorated in the 1980s when his parents passed away.
At the age of 30, he married a woman who sold the coconuts that he collected.
“With my wife, we worked to pick coconuts and sell them, and were able to earn 10,000 or 20,000 riel per day – just enough to survive,” he recalled.
Unfortunately, their love story ended when his wife passed away, leaving him with their two children.
“My wife died four years ago, leaving me and my kids alone. She was severely ill, and we had no money to treat her. We have a poor ID card, but life is still very difficult,” he added.
He said that he is now very old, but must work hard or he and his son will go hungry. He said he has always tried to be self-reliant and does not want to beg for money.
His eldest daughter dropped out of school when she was in sixth grade and is now married and working on a farm but his son is finishing 12th grade now.
“When I pass the exam – and if I have the opportunity to continue my studies at university – I will study information technology,” said his son, Pheng Bunnath.
Seeing the hardships of his elderly father, who has been pursuing his career in the dark his whole life, Bunnath is determined to support his father as soon as he can earn money.
“I will learn to work and then my dad will be able to stop climbing coconut trees,” he told The Post.
In addition to doing what he can for his son, Chan also asked for donations from philanthropists who would like to see him stop risking his life.
“I want my son to continue his studies in college, but I am worried – because I do not have the money for his tuition. With the help of generous people, my son will have the opportunity to continue to learn and I will have food to survive,” he said.
He said that his brother, a 67-year-old man with a curved spine, is the one who leads him to the coconut trees.
“My brother is alone, without a wife, without children because he has a mental illness. We were born in the same family, and we don’t know what else to do. He is my eyes and leads me through the village to the palm trees,” he added.
After 37 years as a coconut tree climber, Chan admitted that climbing while blind was getting more difficult.
“Some trees have ants, centipedes and scorpions that sting me sometimes, but I was never seriously injured. Now, I feel I am weaker than before,” he said.
As a young man who was full of energy, he climbed up to 20 coconut trees in a day for a fee of just 2,000 riel per tree. Now, he aims to climb five trees.
Having met with Chan, Online TV director Bora said that the living conditions of the two brothers were difficult and that the job was risky.
“He is willing to do anything he can, in exchange for filling his stomach and supporting his children,” he said.
Chan told The Post that it should be the time for him to stop working as a tree climber and said that anyone who helps him would likely be saving his life.
“I want to stop climbing coconut trees for a living, but if I stop I won’t have any money to support my son, who is still studying. If any generous people would like to help with a small contribution, I will stop working as a coconut harvester. Please help me and my family,” he said.