When he was just 10 years old, Brak Sophanna woke from a fever and realised that he could not move his legs. Paralysis was a devastating reality to face for a child – and even more so for one who dreamed of becoming a singer and composer. He gave up at first, he says.
Now, the 25-year-old has composed nearly 30 original songs, which have played on local television and drawn a few thousand views on his YouTube channel. He also teaches music at a charitable school on Siem Reap’s riverside.
Sophanna’s most popular song, written in 2015, is called Failure Is a Lesson. And his life experience is one he imparts to his students – even if they don’t face the same challenges. “I always told myself to move on and face it,” he says. “The more challenges you face in life, the stronger you become.”
When Sophanna was seven, his parents died and he and his brothers travelled from Svay Rieng province – where Sophanna was born – to Phnom Penh. There, they were adopted by a Thai couple.
“We were happy for a time,” Sophanna says. “But that time was so short. Something bad always happened.”
First, Sophanna became paralysed, at the age of 10. He learned that he would never walk again. He stopped attending school, and retreated into his home. After a year, he began to accept the reality and decided that losing his legs was not, in fact, to lose hope. He learned to sit in a wheelchair. “I stayed all day at home thinking about how my life had to go on,” Sophanna says.
Soon, his adoptive parents returned to Thailand, leaving the boys behind. In 2001, Sophanna moved to an orphanage in Siem Reap.
The tourist town is where Sophanna started to find his calling, again. He quickly made friends and began to capture the dream he had thrown away. In 2011, he learned to play guitar, write songs and sing – and, eventually, to perform.
Sophanna still faces challenges. No longer able to sit upright in a wheelchair due to hip pain, he teaches and performs on a reclining wooden seat. He is at peace with his condition, but it haunts him. “Sometimes I still dream that I can walk again,” he says.
But he’s moved on and up. “I have dreams to achieve, like everyone does,” Sophanna says. “As long as a I am still breathing, I still have hopes.”
He is achieving them. In August, he released an official music video for Failure Is a Lesson, and gained an audience. “I put all of my painful feelings and memories into this song, so I’m glad people like it,” he says. He’s recently completed another song, My Life Story, that will be released soon.
Speaking about his future plans, Sophanna breaks into a wide smile. “I accept the fact that I’m disabled; but everyone should also accept that I’m a singer and composer,” he says. “If you would like to live happily, you should be happy with what you have.”