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Monday, November 11: Day 203 – Go With the Flow

We have arrived in Cambodia on the water, but we had to park along another river due to the Water Festival and Moon Festival known in Cambodian as Bon Om Touk. Sean is our Cambodian guide.

Water Festival

How exciting to be here during the annual water festival! This marks the change of direction of the water flow of the river. Tonle Sap lake swells during the rainy season, and then the local river reverses course during the dry season as the lake empties. The festival usually lasts four days, but the first day of this year was a national holiday (Independence Day) so the festival itself will last three days.

There are dragon boat races during the festival.

We were able to get a front row seat right next to the king’s tent. We went through security and thought that it was odd that we had special seating.

Around 1.5-2 million people come to Phnom Penh for the festival.

They send rice, corn, and even cookies in floating rafts to apologize to the god of water.

We are required to wear a seatbelt on the bus, and they are very complicated and take a while as the seatbelt is on a roller. I have dubbed it seatbelt sudoku.

Today at breakfast my server gave me a drink. I said, “Thank you.” He said, “You’re awesome.” I like that!

Cambodia has a population of 17 million people. Ninety-five percent are Buddhist. Two percent are Muslim and one percent Christian. Hinduism and animism are widely practiced. The largest ethnic group is Khmer.

Cambodian features are high cheek bones, flat nose, and beautiful smile. Some young Cambodians have an operation to change their nose. Then their parents don’t recognize them after the surgury.

Campuchea was the former name of the country. The word Cambodia is from French. Farming is important but tourism is the most important.

Cambodians have many second hand cars imported from the USA. They are mostly Lexus.

The Cambodian Riel is their money, but US Dollars are routinely used as well.

We were told that snatching is prevalent. Secure your backpacks. Pickpockets are Chinese groups that rush in. Khahn said, “Avoid Asian Looking People.” That one brought down the house!!

The population of Phnom Penh is 2.6 million. All one needs to get around is a good motorbike, good horn, and good luck.

In 1434 the palace was built. It is older than the Bangkok Palace which was copied from this one.

We went on a cyclo tour of downtown.

The cyclo was invented in Japan in 1935. When you ride a cyclo, your money provides support to send their children to school.

The monarch of Thailand is the richest in the world with 43 billion dollars. Cambodia ranks as the 44th richest monarch. The Cambodian king’s wealth comes from owning a large portion of Cover Girl Cosmetics.

The National Museum in Phnom Penh has the best collections from Southeast Asia.

In their democracy one votes for a party not a person which is similar to the U.K.

Cambodia prefers cremation and puts the ashes in an urn which is then put into a mausoleum.

In 1876 the silver pagoda was built.

The Cambodians were ordered by the French to stop using the silver currency. They collected all of the coins and melted them to create tiles. The floor is made of 5,329 coins which weigh 13,000 lbs in total. Inside is a copy of the Emerald Buddha. The original was taken away and now resides in Thailand. They hope that it will return someday. There are other decorative items with precious stones like diamonds. No photos are allowed.

Traveler’s Palm always grows north and south. After that, you can use the wind to determine direction because during the dry season it blows one way and during the rainy season it blows the other way.

The Cambodian flag features Angkor Wat. Only two countries depict a temple on their flag; Cambodia and Pakistan.

The cobra symbolizes good life and prosperity. There are many heads on the monuments but always an odd number.

One time in the eight-day week of the lunar calendar, the king will come to worship at the Silver Pagoda. Sometimes he will hold a public forum. He will walk to the river today to open the water festival. There is a lot of security.

Pol Pot did not destroy the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda. When the War Was Over by Elizabeth Becker is a well reviewed book. She shook hands with Pol Pot inside the Silver Pagoda. I believe that was controversial and was featured in the New York Times.

National Museum

Our museum guide was introduced as Sean’s sister…but she has different parents!! Perhaps this is because a lot of brothers, sisters, parents and grandparents died during the Pol Pot regime and all survivors have a special bond. They are family.

The National Museum was built from 1917-1920 designed by the French and completed by Cambodians. The building had fallen into disrepair due to bat droppings which act as an acid fertilizer.

Many art pieces were taken out of Cambodia. In 1979 they started to collect them back again. In 2018 the Japanese returned 85 pieces. Many pieces are reassembled and missing pieces are still being sought. This statue had been decapitated and spent 130 years in Paris. The head and body were reunited. Now they hope to find the feet.

There are 10,000 holdings in the museum, but not all of them are on display. This one has a shiny belly from people rubbing it. He isn’t Buddha; he just has a great six-pack.

When the hip is to the side, he is relaxed. Standing erect means strong.

This statue is connected with good luck and fertility. If you drink and wash in the water, you will have children. If it doesn’t work, our guide said to go to the hospital!

Many statues have more arms…to embrace more beautiful girls. Actually, more arms mean more power and more ladies mean more wealth. A bride is on the left close to heart.

We were given time to look around at the rest of the museum. These two boys were clapping at the fish which is like Pavlov’s dog. Clap and then feed. These boys didn’t have any fish food so I bought some, and we fed fish in all four ponds. The eldest showed me that he could wiggle his ears.

There are 2,086 temples in Cambodia. From documents, they know that there are 4,000 more still hidden in jungle.

It was a revolution, the Republic against Khmer Rouge. It began in 1975 and lasted for 3 years 8 months 20 days until April 17, 1979.

In 1941 there were no schools in Cambodia. It was easy for the French to control. However, in November 1953, the French left Cambodia and later Vietnam.

Pol Pot

Pol Pot was a group of leaders which is thought to mean political potential. The leader of the Khmer Rouge adopted the name.

He was born in 1925 and went to Paris in 1945. He learned radio communication and was also a teacher. He joined the Communist Party in 1955. With his brother-in-law they founded the People’s Party in 1960. In 1965 he lived in the jungle. He visited Mao Tse Tung in 1966.

When he returned, Pol Pot evacuated the cities, abolished currency, discriminated against foreigners, defrocked religious leaders, and sent soldiers to the borders.

Security S21

This is where people were detained, interrogated, and tortured before being sent to the killing fields. It is one of hundreds of former prisons and used to be a high school. One usually stayed here for four months and then transferred to the killing fields.

Pol Pot wanted everyone to be a rice farmer, and he tortured and killed educated and accomplished people. When interrogated, if one said that they were a rice farmer, hands were checked for callouses. When interrogated about one’s occupation, the best response was taxi driver. Children were brain washed and turned in or killed parents.

Here is a list of rules at S21:

After interrogation they would advance to torture by some of the following methods to get you to say what was wanted: lie down and put water up your nose, whipped with salt rubbed into the wounds, pull out fingernails, cut off ears, cut off testicles, etc.

Four months was the longest that people stayed. In 1978 our guide Sean’s mother and father were executed, and he has not been able to find out any more information. His father went to get a pedicure and his former student was doing the pedicure. The next day, his parents were taken away.

The Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1979 and stopped the killing.

What happened to those responsible? Many were executed by vigilantes or became mentally ill or are living out sentences or still being found out and tried. Pol Pot never was tried. He claimed that “Only the enemy was killed”.

It is estimated that the Khmer Rouge killed 3.2 million people which was one third of the population of Cambodia.

Lucky Seven

There were seven survivors from S21. Only two are still living.

We spoke with Bou Meng circled in green who was 88 years old. His wife was killed. Her biography made by the Khmer Rouge can be read. They were both accused of being KGB or CIA. He had never heard of those organizations.

Don’t these photos look eerily familiar to the Jewish Holocaust??

Bou Meng was a recipient of a group beating. He was schooled as an artist. Pol Pot did not like his official photograph. They asked if anyone would draw a lifelike picture of him. Bou Meng raised his hand. If Pol Pot didn’t like it, he would have been killed. He liked it and it almost looked like a photograph.

He designed other propaganda posters as well. (Years later and ironically, he was able to accurately draw the goings on in S21.) He stayed alive for two years, but most people were transported out within four months.

His coping has been “What goes around, comes around.” And he looks forward.

The other man named Chum Manh was also 88, and he was kept alive as he was useful at fixing typewriters. He is circled in blue.

Each person in the prison was graded by age and sent to cooperative camps accordingly: ABCD





In 1977 Sean was 8 years old. His grandpa would repeat what he was to say over and over, “Your father was a rice farmer and your mother is a housewife.” They trucked him to a children’s camp.

Sean was working in the rice paddy and a fellow worker said that his parents wanted to see him tomorrow. He was excited and ran to the camp one mile away where his grandparents were located to tell them the good news.

They spoke to Sean very slowly to explain that it wasn’t true. The Khmer Rouge were going to kill him. Do not return. He then escaped with his grandparents. In the jungle they were discovered by a soldier. He sent them to another camp. His grandpa was interrogated and came out smiling.

The officer had been a former student of the grandfather. They stayed in the cooperative because if the soldier told on the grandfather, the grandfather could tell on the soldier.

Sean had no education during the Khmer time. In 1980 he started primary school. He was taller and older than his classmates.

How do you rebuild? This was their best strategy for education: If you know more, teach those who know less. If you know a little, teach those that know nothing.

They struggle to get education. In the West, it is easy and expected.

Killing Fields

This place is very sad as there are 15 acres of mass graves. Wooden walkways have been built in order to respect the dead.

There was a tall memorial building made of glass which has the skulls of victims on display.

Pol Pot was not held responsible for his crimes against humanity and was in fact head of the government until 1989.

Here there were 129 mass graves with 7,000 people killed. (There were 398 sites just like this.)

There were 475 foreigners among them. They can tell by their skulls as they come from calcium rich countries.

In 1975 they were demanded to return to embassies to be evacuated. Journalists did not leave because they wanted to tell the story of what was happening. Soon the borders were closed.

When a truck would arrive at 1am from the detention centers, they would be killed with farming implements one by one. Six people killed per hour. It took ten minutes per person.

Ten people were assigned to dig and dispose of bodies in mass graves by spreading DDT powder to prevent odors and to kill any people that were still alive. They would slit open the belly and cover with DDT powder.

Killing was done secretly so that others can’t hear and cause a panic. They would play loud music when it was time to kill. In the end, Pol Pot became paranoid even killing low ranking soldiers.

The people sewed jewelry in the hems of their clothing. This evaded the killers. When the fields were discovered and bodies were floating up, gold started to appear.

If food was taken for private eating, this was seen as the enemy. Another strange belief was that money caused corruption, so money was eliminated. The thinking was if one stopped money, one could stop corruption. If someone tried to escape the killing fields, they would be shot.

They would kill by decapitation with a sugar palm and then watch them walk around without heads for about 25 feet.

Pol Pot even cut the heads off of soldiers because he believed that they would not reach Nirvana without heads.

S21 sent many people to this killing field.

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