Blind Bunong Man Finds a Place in Music

Chrab Chhor Oy makes a living by playing a Bunong traditional instrument, the kong reng (six-stringed gourd guitar), to attract tourists. Photo by Chhum Chantha

MONDULKIRI– In the northeast of Mondulkiri province, Bousra Waterfall is one of the most popular scenic parks in Cambodia. Located about 33 kilometers from the Kou Prey roundabout, the park has created many jobs for local people, especially the Bunong community.

Although blind, Chrab Chhor Oy is one of the beneficiaries. He makes a living by playing a Bunong traditional instrument, the kong reng (six-stringed gourd guitar), to attract tourists.

Chhor Oy prepares at least five to six Bunong songs daily for the performance.

“When I hear footsteps, I play until there’s no footstep any more. I only take short breaks,” he said.

His stage is along the way to the second level of the waterfall. It was specially arranged for him, with signs for placing his materials for the performance. These also include the homegrown peppers he sells.

Chhor Oy judges the tourists’ satisfaction based on their applause when he stops playing.

Eyesight lost in dark history

In 1995, Chhor Oy retired from being a soldier which was the job he started in 1987. However, after quitting, he depended on his old unit to survive due to his weak physique for rice farming.

After a year, he found a job harvesting resin in the forest but it led to his blindness, he said.

Chhor Oy said that his partner and he unknowingly cut the trees that were religiously prohibited in the deep forest, which made him ill for more than a month. The villagers believed it was a punishment from the forest protectors.

Chhor Oy said the illness could not be cured by doctors. He claimed that it was not until the villagers dedicated a pig and a buffalo that he felt better. He suddenly turned blind though there was no pain. His partner was fine.

His blindness meant he could not work to support his family, so he came to the waterfall to beg for money.

Acquire a skill, money is earned

In 2006, Chhor Oy, while begging at the park, was advised to do something in return to earn the money. An unknown man made an instrument for him and taught him the songs.

“I could not get much from begging, and then someone told me that I could use an instrument to earn from playing music,” Chhor Oy said.

“We used to play together for money. However, my partner died in 2014. I have been playing alone at the same place since,” he added. “I have been using the same instrument for the past 17 years.”

It took Chhor Oy less than a month to learn a song. Chhor Oy has had the instrument with him since the music lesson began. Not only did he learn how to play the songs, but he also improvised on the instrument to develop his performance.

The kong reng is usually played with six strings, but Chhor Oy added seven more to complete the notes, making the rhythm more fitting to the songs.

With this skill, Chhor Oy’s performance was recognized in 2012 and he was invited to perform at the National Museum in Phnom Penh. He was also featured by a TV company for their show.

The performer used to be guided on foot by one of his children to the stage at the waterfall. He saved enough money in 2019 for a motorbike, so now he has his place and a means of transport.

“Using this skill, I have contributed a lot to the livelihood of my family. Despite this disability, I am still making a living,” he said. 

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