Manoj Rao pays a visit to Phnom Penh’s Seeing Hands Massage in Daun Penh district every day when he is in town.
“I wouldn’t try any other place,” said Mr Rao, an Indian American who spends half the year in Phnom Penh on business and first visited the parlor about seven years ago after reading about it in a Lonely Planet guidebook.
Over the past ten years massage parlors for the blind have been popping up all over the country as Cambodia’s tourist industry has opened up and charitable funds donate more money toward training programs for the blind.
Seeing Hands is just one of 15 massage clinics with blind masseurs that have started doing business in Phnom Penh since 2000 and one of 30 in Cambodia, according to Boun Mao, founder of the Association for the Blind in Cambodia (ABC).
In a society where the blind are often marginalized, blind masseurs say the job offers them the chance to have a decent livelihood with a regular salary.
According to ABC and the Fred Hollows Foundation, which works with blind organizations in Asia, there were 146,250 blind or visually impaired people in 2006, about 1 percent of Cambodia’s population.
Doused with acid by a robber trying to steal his motorcycle in 1993 at age 23, Mr Mao, now 38, turned his suicidal thoughts and hopelessness into productivity. In 1994 he attended Rehabilitation for Blind Cambodians (RBC), a vocational training program founded in 1993 by Father John Barth of Maryknoll, a Catholic organization with a focus on international missionary projects.
There, Mr Mao received training in spoken and Braille Khmer and English, anatomy, physiology, pathology, massage techniques, accounting, and computer skills. He also underwent reconstructive facial operations. After finishing his training in 1997 he opened his own massage business with four other blind masseurs and continued his training in Thailand as the first blind Cambodian to study abroad.
Then, in 2000, Mr Mao took over RBC when Fr Barth began to shift his focus to eye hospitals. Mr Mao also took control of the blind massage training program under ABC.
Today, the program boasts roughly 250 masseurs and 38 trainers at clinics nationwide.
“They [the masseurs] all make good money; many supporting their extended families with their incomes. Prior to this, they were bored and passing time at home, since many believed they could not do anything productive,” said Fr Barth.
“I am very proud of those initial graduates of our massage training program,” he added. “Several of them picked up where Maryknoll left off, went to Japan for additional training thanks to the support of the Nippon Foundation, and have trained even more blind adults who have since set up branches of Seeing Hands around the country.”
According to Mr Mao, ABC allocates funds to start-up clinics making sure they have enough money to operate for three to six months, after which the clinics must sustain themselves.
Tath Nigah, one of the first five blind masseuses to be trained by RBC and the first blind female masseuse in Cambodia, said she began training others in 1997 at Phnom Penh’s Maryknoll Rehabilitation Center.
“We gave a massage training course and set it up like a small business, with the help of donors. We have been financially independent since 1997; the international trainers left in 1996, and then it was up to the Khmer masseurs, with the foreigners providing oversight and advice,” said Ms Nigah, 35, who has become well known for her strong massages and is featured in a YouTube video uploaded by a customer documenting her technical prowess.
Up Sophea, a 42-year-old masseuse from Kompong Cham province, who works at Seeing Hands, was born blind. But her job in Phnom Penh has allowed her to rent her own apartment, buy her own food, and enjoy an independent lifestyle.
For years she was a singer in a traveling orchestra that played at weddings and parties. But in 2002 she decided to train as a masseuse with her job as a traveling singer becoming too arduous. She manages to earn roughly $4 per day.
“I study my client when I work- the muscle, bone, tendon. It’s a good career and feels good to be on my own supporting myself,” she said.
Others who have trained as a masseur agree.
“I love my job a lot; this is my new life,” said Ung Sothy, a 35-year-old masseuse from Kompong Thom, who became blind at the age of 2 due to an eye disease and also works at Seeing Hands. “I can read many people from many different countries, and I can support myself and my family.”
For the customers, it is not just about having the knots in their muscles ironed out.
“It’s a feel-good factor,” said Mr Rao. “You’re helping someone to support themselves despite their disability. It’s good to see that. Their independence is impressive.”
Going forward, the trainers said they aim to continue teaching more blind Cambodians. “I want to share my knowledge to give the next generation hope,” said Ms Sothy.
Mr Mao said there is much more demand for blind masseurs in Cambodia.
“It has already grown ten times and is continuing to grow. There is need; people need treatment even more and understand health more,” he said. “If you’re lazy for doing exercise, you can get a massage- it’s good for you!”