Tok from Cambodia: one of the most inspiring people I've ever met on my travels

One of my most unforgettable experiences in Cambodia occurred when I first arrived in Siem Reap, and was wandering the dirty streets lined with beggars to find a hostel. As I was doing so, I noticed a book stall on the side of the road, and being a writer, of course I stopped to have a browse. As I scanned the titles, the owner emerged from the other side of the stall – a dark-skinned, 30-something year old Cambodian man, who tragically had his left arm amputated at the wrist, and even more tragically, had his right arm amputated at the elbow.

‘Hello,’ he smiled in a thick Khmer accent.

‘H-hello,’ I stammered, doing my best to smile and suppress the pang of anguish that had instantly swept over me.

‘America?’ he asked cheerfully.

I shook my head.

‘Australia, mate.’

He nodded enthusiastically.

‘Ah! Kangaroo!’ he laughed.

I laughed along with him, but it was fake, forced laughter, even though the man continued chuckling genuinely. Due to the language barrier, I knew that that was unfortunately the end of the conversation, so I returned to looking at the books, all the while wishing that I could continue talking to him. I really wanted to know his story. I really wanted to find out what had happened to him. And above all else, I really wanted to know how he’d managed to keep such a sunny disposition despite everything he’d so obviously been through. But I knew I’d never get the chance.

After a few minutes, I decided to get a copy of Life of Pi, and a second book about Asia’s sex slave industry to try and better understand it. I pointed to the books, indicating to the man that I wanted to buy them.

‘Ten dollars, American,’ he said.

So I gave him the ten dollars, smiled as warmly as I could, and walked away to continue my search for a hostel, filled with a gut-wrenching sadness for the guy. 

Eventually, I found a place to stay. I checked into my room and started unpacking, thinking about the Cambodian man all the while.

That poor bloke, I lamented to myself. It must be so hard for him to go through life that way ...

Then, as I was taking the books I’d bought from him out of their bag, a piece of paper fell to the floor. When I picked it up, I realised that it was "his story" - and to this day, it's one of the most inspirational I've heard.

Tok’s Story

It happened in 1988. I was a government solider, in command of three or four men near Banon Village, in the western province of Battambang.

It was a mad time. There were three separate resistance groups – the Khmer Rouge, supporters of King Sihanouk, and those following (former premier) Son Sann.

I didn't actually want to be a soldier. In fact only about half of us wanted to do the job – many people were forced to fight against their will.

On the morning of the accident, I'd been training new recruits on jungle warfare techniques and survival skills.

I was taking a break from training when it happened. I went to get some food, but there was thick foliage all around us, and I had to clear a path to get through.

I bent over to pick up something on the way. How was I to know it would go off?

I don't remember much else after that. When I woke up, I looked down, and saw that both my hands were gone.

I wanted to kill myself. There was no future for me. What could I do? How could I get a job, get married and support a family? How could I even eat?

There was a grenade in a bag attached to my waist. It was there from the training exercise earlier.

I arched my body around and tried to reach it. I wanted to pull out the pin, but my friend saw me just in time and took the grenade away.

I was taken to a government hospital in Phnom Penh, where the authorities paid for my treatment because I was a soldier. I didn't have enough to eat, though, and my family had to send food parcels.

Gradually, after the pain subsided, I stopped wanting to kill myself, and dared to think about having a future.

I was in that hospital for nine months. When I eventually left, I was too embarrassed to go back to my family and let them feed and pay for me, so I stayed in Phnom Penh and became a beggar there for over a year. I was very unhappy during that time.

My mother eventually came to the city to find me, and she took me home and looked after me.

But I had to go back to Phnom Penh for more treatment on my arms, and I used up all my money on hospital bills and ended up back on the streets.

Then an aid worker found me and brought me to Siem Reap.

I was given a job working with Rehab Craft, selling local crafts and gifts to tourists visiting the temples at Angkor Wat.

Life was beginning to get better. Then I met a woman, got married and had two children.

I also really wanted my own business, so in the year 2000 I gave up my job with the charity to set up my own stall selling books on the streets of Siem Reap.

I'm very happy now that I have a family and have this job. Life is worth living again.