Tath Nika is a remarkably resilient and resourceful woman. Growing up as the youngest of five children – a challenging enough experience for most – in Kampong Speu province, Nika began to rapidly lose her eyesight from a very early age after contracting measles.
Growing up in 1980s Cambodia – a country still recovering from over a decade of civil war, lacking basic infrastructure for fully sighted people, let alone the blind – was not an easy experience for Nika as a young girl.
Determined that she did not want to be a burden to her family, but with limited employment avenues in a country then lacking substantial support and opportunities for the blind, she found her options limited.
But at the age of 18, she reached a turning point. Nika boldly embarked down a new career path that would prove to be her making, enrolling on a massage therapy training programme at Catholic NGO Maryknoll’s Centre for Rehabilitation for the Blind in Cambodia, Phnom Penh.
“I first learned how to massage near Saravan Decho pagoda in 1995, learning how to provide muscle and joint therapy,” the 42-year-old tells The Post, wearing bright pink pyjamas, sporting the permanent smile and cheery demeanour that she is so famous for within her local community.
The invaluable massage skills she learned allowed her to earn an income and be self-sufficient for the first time. After finishing her training in 1997 she began working full time in a massage parlour in the capital.
After several years doing this, in 2006 she once again took a bold leap, as she decided to establish her own massage parlour, Nika’s Seeing Hands Massage Therapy Center in Phnom Penh, which has operated out of her sister’s home on Street 95 for the past two years.
Nika says the purpose of establishing her parlour was to provide employment opportunities in a supportive and nurturing atmosphere for fellow visually impaired people.
“When I started this massage therapy centre, I did it so that blind people can have a safe environment to work, where they will not be taken advantage of, will receive a fair income and live a life of dignity."
“I am so glad that my centre can offer jobs to blind massage therapists and it is joy for me to know that they can provide for their spouses and children. I wish more and more clients will come to us for massages,” she says.
The massage parlour employs four blind masseuses, while Nika herself stills massages clients too. Nika hopes to train and employ three more female and two more male massage therapists in the near future.
“Our four staff [1 woman and 3 men] are experienced masseuses. They receive 50 per cent of what is paid by our clients. We charge $5 for one hour for Cambodians, while foreigners are charged $7 for one hour,” she says.
Ru Cui, a publicity associate for world famous travel guide Lonely Planet, is one such satisfied customer of Nika’s.
“I really like that it is blind people massaging here. They were highly skilled and really excellent in relieving my tiredness and stress before I head back on my long journey to the States,” Chinese-American Cui said.
Another client, Nicholas Jones, also sang Nika’s praises.
“Nika gives off a brilliant vibe and instantly puts you at ease when you walk through the door. Everyone working here is seeing impaired . . . but everything provided, such as towels and gowns, are sterile and in good condition.”
But though Nika represents an unquestionable success story, her journey as a business owner has not been without its challenges.
Manoj Mathew, an adviser to Nika in her business endeavours, has witnessed many of these first hand.
“Managing a therapy centre certainly has its challenges. One challenge is to find well-trained therapists who are comfortable working with both expat and Cambodian clients. Nika has to train each new person and teach them proper massage techniques,” says Mathew, an adviser to Nika, who originates from south Mumbai.
“Another challenge is that some customers are rude and ask sexual favours. It has not been easy to get over the misconception by some people that massage is connected to sexual activity. People used to look down on us blind masseuses and even my own family in the beginning found it hard not to look down on me as a massage therapist,” he added.
Nika’s good spirit and support to the blind community does not end with her business. In recent years she has travelled the globe sharing her skills and experiences with visually impaired people, most notably when she visited war torn African state South Sudan to advocate massage business opportunities to the country’s blind.
To further spread opportunities to the blind, Nika and Mathew decided to establish an NGO late last year to train more visually impaired people in massage therapy.
“We realised that we could help more people with disabilities so that they can also lead a life of dignity if we had an NGO,” said Mathew.
“My biggest wish is to help more blind and differently abled people to have access to education, skills development and employment so that each person can have a better living standard.”
The organisation, Promote and Develop Careers of Cambodian Disability Organization (PDCCDO), will contribute to social development, in conjunction with the government, by providing vocational and life skill training.
“Once the PDCCDO is properly established, we as blind people want to motivate blind and disabled children to attend schools, we want to support those who are both disabled and poor to receive an education, we want to provide special computer classes and foreign language classes, and provide massage training and other possible relevant vocational trainings,” Mathew said.
Nika’s Seeing Hands Massage Therapy Center is located on Street 95 in Phnom Penh’s Boeung Keng Kang III commune. It is open seven days a week from 8am-8pm. More info can be found on Facebook (@Nika’sSeeingHandsMassageTherapyCenter).