Danny Baker explains why an unknown book seller from Cambodia is the most inspiring man he has ever met.
Two years ago, I went to Cambodia to do volunteer work at an orphanage. I hadn’t booked any accommodation before it was due to start, so when I arrived in Siem Reap I began walking the streets trying to find a hotel, and in the process of doing so, I noticed a book stall on the side of the road. Being an avid reader, I approached it and started scanning the titles before the owner emerged from the other side of the stall, smiling at me.
“Hello,” he said in a thick Khmer accent.
I did my best to smile back and suppress the pang of anguish that had quickly swept over me.
“Hello,” I said.
“America?” he asked cheerfully.
I shook my head.
He nodded enthusiastically.
“Kangaroo!” he laughed.
I forced myself to laugh along with him. He continued chuckling, and due to the language barrier, I knew that that was the end of the conversation. I returned to looking at the books, all the while wishing that I could keep on 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 ask him how’d he’d managed to keep such a sunny disposition despite everything he’d so obviously been through. But alas, I was sure I’d never get the chance.
After a few minutes, I decided to get a copy of Life of Pi and another book about the sex slave industry in South East Asia. I indicated to the man that I wanted to buy them.
“Ten dollars, American,” he said.
I knew that was overpriced for Cambodia, but there was no way I was going to haggle. I gave him the ten dollars, smiled as warmly as I could, and walked away to continue my search for a hotel, filled with a gut-wrenching sadness for the man.
I eventually 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 remember sighing. It must be so hard for him to go through life that way …
Then at that moment, as I was taking the books I’d bought from him out of their bag, a piece of paper fell out. I picked it up and started reading it.
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.
What Tok taught me
When I met Tok, I number of very stressful occurrences were taking place in my life that had plunged me into a life-threatening bout of clinical depression. Every day was a nightmare where I yearned to kill myself, and at times I thought there was no other way out. That’s what depression can do to you—it can drain any hope you have of ever recovering, and convince you that you’re destined to live a life of excruciating misery. But reading Tok’s story resurrected my hope. Knowing that Tok had been in that ghastly place, and—despite suffering such a debilitating injury—had managed to carve out a happy life for himself, gave me hope that I could do the same. After reading Tok’s story, I found it impossible not to believe in happiness, and I knew that if I could hold on to that belief, that I’d be able to beat my depression and live an enjoyable, healthy life in the end.
Recovery from a crippling depression is very rarely a solo effort—of course it takes the committed work of the individual themself, but it also almost always requires the assistance of a physician, a therapist, and a supportive circle of family and/or friends. But just as important is anyone who can make the sufferer believe that recovery is possible, because if they don’t have the hope inherent in such a belief, then depression will gradually kill them. Tok helped give that hope to me, and I know that after this post is published and people have had a chance to read it, that he would have given that hope to many others too.
That’s why he’s the most inspiring man I’ve ever met.
Danny did end up recovering from depression, and has since released his memoir titled The Danny Baker Story – How I came to write “I will not kill myself, Olivia” and found the Depression Is Not Destiny Campaign, which recounts his struggle and eventual triumph over depression and is available for FREE on his website. He wrote it so that sufferers of the illness could realize they are not alone—that there are other people out there who have gone through the same excruciating misery, and who have made it through to the other side. He also wrote it so that he could impart the lessons he learned on the long, rocky, winding road that eventually led to recovery—so that people could learn from his mistakes as well as his victories—particularly with regards to relationships; substance abuse; choosing a fulfilling career path; seeking professional help; and perhaps most importantly, having a healthy and positive attitude towards depression that enables recovery. Multiple-bestselling author Nick Bleszynski has described it as “beautifully written, powerful, heartfelt, insightful and inspiring … a testament to hope.”
Photo: Courtesy of the author