For most people, surviving the horror of the Khmer Rouge would be enough trauma for a lifetime. But no sooner did Wattana Sin survive Pol Pot and his cronies than he started to lose his eyesight. Born in Phnom Penh in 1969, he lost four sisters and two brothers to the Khmer Rouge. But his professor father, his mother, Wattana and four other siblings survived working on a farm in Prey Veng province about 80 kilometres outside Phnom Penh.

Wattana’s dream was to be an architect. In 1990, he was well on his way, having been accepted into Phnom Penh’s University of Architecture. But due to retinitis pigmentosa, a kind of retina degeneration, his sight deteriorated so quickly he was forced to withdraw from school. Four years of depression and loneliness were to set in. Then a number of things happened to change his life. First, in 1994, his aunt arranged for him to meet his wife-to-be, Jantie, and the couple soon had their first daughter, Thry Luck (now aged 9). They later had two other daughters, Thry Roth, aged 7, and Jantina, aged 21 months. But it was Wattana’s love for daughter number-one that soon overrode his feelings of self-pity, and forced him to rethink his disability.

Determined to provide a better life for his family, he sought help from the Maryknoll Rehabilitation of Blind Cambodians (RBC) Skills Training Centre. He began by completing a course in English language skills and braille. Then he became interested in massage and, from June to September of 1995, he completed Part 1 of the RBC Therapeutic Massage Training Programme in Basic Massage Technique, a 500- hour, 14-week course.

The next step was a 166-hour Basic Anatomy and Physiology Massage Training Programme, from January to August of 1996. Then, for the next four months, he completed Part 2 of the RBC Therapeutic Massage Training Programme, a 595-hour course where the main technique taught was Shiatsu. During this time Wattana worked as a therapeutic masseur in the Centre’s workshop, sometimes servicing six to eight clients a day. His trainer was Sous Sothi, a blind Khmer masseur. After becoming blind as a teenager, Sous studied Shiatsu massage in Japan and then went on to live in Canada. Returning home to visit his family in 1995, Sous was persuaded to help train the staff at RBC.

In January of 1997, Wattana had became one of the five equity partners in an independent business known as Seeing Hands Massage, which operated from the National Centre for Disabled Persons (NCDP). It provided services for over 3,000 clients, including expatriates living in Phnom Penh, executives, diplomats, members of the Royal Family, and senior government officials. It also had an arrangement with the Hotel Le Royal, managed by the Raffles Group of Singapore, to service the guests at their spa.

As Wattana’s skills continued to evolve, he soon became a therapeutic massage teacher and, from August 1997 to January 1998, he gave theoretical and practical lessons in massage technique, hygiene, general knowledge and advice in receiving and treating clients in a professional manner.

But it was at the Hotel Le Royal in March of 1999, where he became acquainted with a Rosa Koo, a lawyer based in Singapore, who would change his life. “While talking to Wattana about his blindness, I was very worried that he may have a brain tumour that continued to grow inside his brain,” Rosa recalls. “So when I returned home, I spoke to some of my friends in Singapore, and one of them, Ms Julie Kim, knew a prominent eye doctor named Dr Daniel Sim, who suggested that we fly Wattana to Singapore for an eye examination. Dr Sim agreed to give Wattana a free consultation, and, after seeing Wattana, decided to operate on him, removing a cataract so more light could enter his eyes. During the eye examination, however, he discovered that both of Wattana’s retinas had degenerated beyond repair.

“Wattana stayed with me during the trip,” Rosa says, “and one day I brought him to visit the Association for the Visually Handicapped in Singapore to purchase talking clocks and watches, and it just happened that the Association was offering a course on foot reflexology. The president, Ms Jennifer Lim, kindly invited Wattana to participate. He passed the course with flying colours, even though it was conducted in Chinese. Soon after the lessons he even showed his fellow classmates some of the techniques taught by the instructor.

“I then brought Wattana to visit the Renewal Day Spa. The general manager immediately offered him a job. However, it took some time to obtain the proper papers. In the meantime, Wattana returned to Phnom Penh and resumed his work. When the work permit was approved, Wattana returned to Singapore in April 2000. However, he failed the medical examination on the grounds that he was blind. So I appealed to the Ministry of Manpower. The appeal was successful, but the license from the police department still needed to be approved. I expedited this process with personal visits to the Police Department. Finally, Wattana was granted both the work permit and the police licence.”

Wattana then became the first Cambodian masseur to receive a work permit and license from the Police Department to work in Singapore, and he was the only male masseur at the Renewal Day Spa, which is one of the most famous spas in Asia. While there, Wattana met and massaged many celebrities, including Gong Li and Michelle Yim.

Reflecting on why she helped Wattana, Rosa says, “I was very impressed with his positive attitude, his intelligence and his willingness to learn about everything. He loves to travel, and in Singapore asked to visit the bird park, the night safari and Sentosa, even though he cannot see. My friends and I admire his courage and cheerfulness, his fluency in English. He is knowledgeable about so many things, especially the news. All my friends were impressed with him, and we decided to help him together. He looks like Elvis Presley, and can sing Love Me Tender, Right Here Waiting, You Are My Girl and other songs very well.”

Ironically, it’s Rosa who feels indebted to Wattana: “After Dr Daniel Sim had given Wattana numerous free consultations, I felt embarrassed, so I asked Dr Sim to examine my eyes thoroughly and charge me for the examination. I have medical insurance, and I could pay him for the examination. During the examination, Dr Sim discovered that I had a retina detachment in my left eye and needed an operation immediately. So, in a way, Wattana's visit to Singapore saved my eyesight, even though I could not save his.”

And Wattana? Well, he hasn’t accepted the limitations that life puts on many blind people. He’s tried to live life to the fullest, whether it be hitting golf balls on the driving range, roller blading, jetskiing, tandem and water bicycling, swimming, bowling, dancing, playing the guitar, singing, rowing the dragon boat, riding on speed and banana boats or even sky-diving at Genting Highland Sky Venture simulator. The list just goes on and on. He’s even tried all the rides at Singapore’s Big Escape Theme Park.

Wattana is now back in Phnom Penh with his family. And these days he doesn’t get depressed. However, as one of the managers of the Seeing Hands Massage Centre, located near the Wat Phnom roundabout in Phnom Penh, he does get stressed when he gets too busy. And this happens often because, aside from the regular massage he performs, Wattana is the centre’s only trained foot reflexologist. The other massage therapists at Seeing Hands are also blind, and the assistants all suffer from some sort of handicap.

The name of the centre is apropos, as one of the Wattana’s clients attests. “When you get a massage from Wattana,” says Ian Jamieson, a world renowned stuntman, “there’s no doubt he knows what he’s doing. It’s as if his fingers have eyes. At no point in time did I feel this man was not qualified to be working on my body, and over the years I’ve had dozens of experts try and repair me. ” Seeing hands, indeed.

Besides his work, Wattana also plays a big role in helping his wife raise their three daughters. He’s hoping to one day send them to study abroad. Despite his handicap, Wattana has learned a skill that has allowed him to care for his family and others. He even hopes to set up a foot reflexology training centre in Cambodia. He’s an inspiration to both those with and those without physical handicaps.

Seeing Hands Massage

Wat Phnom Roundabout

Office: 016-856-188

Mobile: 011-858-093

 

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