The Rice Paddy

Written by Harold McNeill on November 24th, 2016. Posted in Travelogue

Boy in School3

Student at a Cambodian Country School (photo by Esther Dunn)

We had the good fortune to visit an elementary school in a remote area along one of the tributaries of the Mekong River, a place where welcoming and exuberant children could barely wait to demonstrate their English language skills. “What’s your name.” and “How old are you?” were the favourites, but that was just the opening of two hours of interaction with the students.

NOTE:  Three Videos of our time in Viet Nam and Cambodia are linked at the end of the story.   For those seeking more background of our travels with Uniworld, link here.  Regards  Harold and Lynn

Lynn and I spent part of our time with a ten-year-old boy (photo above) who appeared to be the oldest in the class. Although a bit shy, he focused intensely on getting the wording of his questions correct, then intently listened as we answered. Had he been born forty years earlier, he could well have been the boy featured in part of the story below.

Part I: Introduction to SE Asia and a Short Story from Cambodia

To gain an understanding of the progress the people of Indochina have made over the past 25 years, take a few minutes first to watch the three slideshows linked in the footer. While incredible natural and manmade beauty greet you at every turn; the happy, healthy and carefree people you see at school, work and play today, contrasts sharply with immense challenges the people faced from 1940 – 1990. Perhaps you are aware of these challenges and the progress made, but we weren’t and the more we learned, the more amazing it all became.

This series begins with a short, personal story which took place in Cambodia in the late 1980’s, a story of one boy’s quest to survive. His story was similar to that experienced by thousands of men, women and children whose lives were taken or shattered by war, genocide, starvation and disease. This story was related to us over several parts by our Cambodian guide and takes place during the height of Pol Pot’s campaign of genocide.

The Rice Paddy

Standing motionless by a small tree in the middle of a rice patty, the setting sun silhouetted the young man’s emaciated body and ragged clothes. He wondered if darkness might bring relief from the pain of making a decision that, if wrong, might well result in the deaths of he and his family. Throughout the day he had collected his mandatory quota of rat tails, and it was those rat tails which lead directly to the crisis he faced.

A kilometer away, his father, mother and young sister patiently awaited his arrival as they prepared another starvation sized portion of rice and weak tea. To the family, that meal, the ragged clothes and the makeshift shelter in which they lived, was a daily reminder of much they had lost in the Phnom Penn.  Another daily companion – the fear of being put to death for breaking some arbitrary farm rule.

Just beyond the rice paddy, the Mekong River flowed peacefully to the South China Sea as it had for hundreds of thousands of years, yet not one thing in the lives of the boy or his family was peaceful. At one point the boy considered running away as had others, but he could not abandon his family. As he struggled with a decision that he alone must make, and with rat tails in hand, he began the trek home.

His story will be continued momentarily, but first more background.

First-time travelers to Cambodia, Viet Nam or Laos today may not realize these countries only recently emerged from fifty years of war that killed an estimated three million men, women, and children. I know we didn’t. We knew a bit about the Viet Nam War and the Cambodian genocide, but that was the limit of our knowledge.  Beyond those killed, horrific injuries caused by the wars when combined with starvation and disease claimed millions more.

While what happened from 1940 – 1990, remains close to the surface for those who lived through part or all of those desperate years, the young of today, who now represent a majority in all three countries (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) have chosen to focus on the present and future as their way of healing the deep wounds of the past.

In gathering notes and photos in preparation for writing this travelogue, the intention was to focus on the natural wonders of Indochina, particularly the areas in which we traveled. But, after meeting so many people and hearing their stories, the realization that as westerners from first world countries, many of our preconceived notions were wrong. The following five parts describe our experience:

Part I:   Introduction and a short story
Part II:  Indochina Wars: 1940 – 1990
Part III: Resilience of the Human Spirit
Part IV  The Future Belongs to the Young
Part V:   River Cruising with Uniworld  (currently being written)

(Note: Within the above linked posts, several photo albums are linked in McNeill Life Stories FB Page.

Also, three slideshows and several linked photo albums, provide a pictorial record of the people we met and the places we visited.

There is no question we became enamoured of the people, and while only so much could be learned in a short, first-time visit, the fact we quickly became immersed in the culture made it impossible to miss the resilience of these spirited people. Many lived through the worst the world has to offer, yet bounced back without missing a beat. Do you think we could be that strong in the Western World? In the past perhaps, but now?

The short history in Part II, provides the backdrop, while general descriptions of life today is provided in Part III, along with suggestions of why so much was accomplished in such a short time (1990 – 2016). While I have strived for accuracy, errors will no doubt have crept in. If you think a correction is needed, please drop me a line, and I will make the necessary change.

Our traveling group owes a great deal to our tour guides as well as the Uniworld team leaders and staff who spent hours and days shepherding us around and explaining the nuances of cultures that, in many ways, remain a mystery to Westerners. In the West we take much for granted and, as well, we have a tendency to make invidious comparisons between people, cultures and religions. We learned a lot from the people of Viet Nam and Cambodia as they most certainly view the world in a more positive and peaceful manner than ourselves.

Perhaps one way to begin improving our society would be arranging to have as many of our citizens as possible spend a few months immersed in another culture that exhibits characteristics we admire yet seem unable to achieve.

Now, back to the Rice Paddy:

It was dark as he made his way home, but the boy was not afraid as he knew every inch of the rice paddies he worked, and, as well, he was comforted by the animals and birds that were his constant companions. All that is, except for the rats and even for them he held no animosity. The boy was just doing what he had to in order to survive.

As our tour guide told the story, tears welled in his eyes. While other events, including the Viet Nam War, were hard for Cambodia and surrounding countries, Pol Pot’s rise to power in 1975, was the most brutal. After forming thousands of collective farms, his army, the Khmer Rouge, began to empty cities and towns as he forced people to move to the farms. Anyone who dared resist, including their families, was immediately executed.

Shortly after being escorted to their farm plot, rats that had overrun the rice paddies during the Viet Nam war, were declared a public enemy because they consumed so much rice. Every boy approaching or in his early teens was ordered to kill thirty rats a day and deliver the tails to the man in charge of the collective. Failure to reach the quota was not an option. Failure meant a severe, one-time warning.

No further failures were allowed, and the consequences were brutal – an escorted trip to a ‘re-education camp”. These camps, as everyone came to realize, were nothing less than killing fields that, from 1975 t0 1979, numbered in the hundreds across Cambodia. Over a four-year period, between 1975 and 1979, an estimated one million people were exterminated, or roughly 20% of the population of 1975.

One day as the boy struggled to meet his quota, good fortune fell upon him when he discovered a place where birds of prey regularly fed upon rats. It was easy for the birds to find rats as they could not only cover a wide area, they were able to silently swoop down, scoop up a rat, then settle in for lunch. For some reason, the birds flocked to specific trees, and while there they ate most of each carcass, but not the tail.

It was near the tree where the boy was standing that he discovered dozens of partially buried rat tails. From this one location he was easily able to meet his daily quota, but, the discovery brought a terrible dilemma. Should he tell anyone? If he didn’t, the outcome for some was evident, but if he did, the supply would soon be gone, then he and his family might well pay the price.

Late that night as he walked home he resolved to keep the location secret and would use it only when needed to help others. Each day he always took extra tails to share with those who fell short and while he couldn’t save everyone, he could save a few. Such was the brutal way of life that developed under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. The man telling the story, our tour guide, was that boy of some forty-five years earlier.

Our guides childhood was shattered by a dictator who placed personal interest above all else, but it was not only dictators and their supporters who killed and maimed. While many may remember or be aware of the Viet Nam War, that war was only one small part of 100 consecutive years during which some combination of colonialism, war, genocide, occupation and civil strife, devastated the people of Indochina.

As the writing of the five posts coincided with Remembrance Day, November 11, 2016, it is fitting to again remember those who died in the Forgotten Wars of Indochina – in particular, the people of Viet Nam, Laos and in the Killing Fields of Cambodia.

Next, Part II provides a partial summary. (Link Here: Indochina Wars: 1940 – 1990.)


Photo Albums     (Slideshows Below)

The mighty Mekong: Lifeblood of Indcochina: Life Along the Mekong
Our travel companions and those we met along the way: Friends
Hanoi and Saigon – 12 million friendly, busy people:  Cities and People
The glue that binds the past, present and future: Spiritualism in Indochina
The arts have never died in Indochina: Music, Dance and Art
Get Fresh, is a way of life in Viet Nam and Cambodia: From Farm to Market
Two developing nations: a place where everyone wants to learn and work: Schools and Factories
Pedestrians and people have learned how to share the road: In one word – Respect
Two nations of small farms provides food for 105,000,000, with plenty left over for the rest of the world: Farms and Villages


(Cambodian Flute Music and Robain Neary Chea Chuor)

Hello Viet Nam
(Music: Hello Viet Nam: Quynh Anh)

The Mighty Mekong
(Music: North Star: The Mighty Mekong)



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  • Harold McNeill

    February 28, 2022 |

    Hi Robert, I do remember some of those folks from my early years in Cold Lake (Hazel was my aunt and our family spent many fond times with Uncle Melvin, Aunt Hazel and Family. I knew Lawrence and Adrian. Having read a half dozen accounts it is clear their were many false narratives and, perhaps, a few truths along the way. I tried my best to provide an even account from what I read. Cheers, Harold. (email:

  • Robert Martineau

    February 25, 2022 |

    Its been a long time since any post here, but its worth a shot. My Grandfather was Hazel Wheelers brother Lawrence, and son to Maggie and Adrien. Maggie Martineau (nee Delaney) is my great grandmother. The books and articles to date are based on the white mans viewpoint and the real story as passed down by the Elders in my family is much more nefarious. Some of the white men were providing food for the Indians in exchange for sexual favors performed by the Squaws. Maggie was the product of one of those encounters. Although I am extremely proud of my family and family name, I am ashamed about this part of it.

  • Julue

    January 28, 2022 |

    Good morning Harold!
    Gosh darn it, you are such a good writer. I hope you have been writing a book about your life. It could be turned into a movie.
    Thanks for this edition to your blog.
    I pray that Canadians will keep their cool this weekend and next week in Ottawa. How do you see our PM handling it? He has to do something and quick!
    Xo Julie

  • Herb Craig

    December 14, 2021 |

    As always awesome job Harold. It seems whatever you do in life the end result is always the same professional, accurate, inclusive and entertaining. You have always been a class act and a great fellow policeman to work with. We had some awesome times together my friend. I will always hold you close as a true friend. Keep up the good work. Hope to see you this summer.
    Warm regards
    Herb Craig

  • Harold McNeill

    November 26, 2021 |

    Hi Dorthy, So glad you found those stories and, yes, they hold many fond memories. Thanks to social media and the blog, I’ve been able to get in touch with many friends from back in the day. Cheers, Harold

  • Harold McNeill

    November 26, 2021 |

    Well, well. Pleased to see your name pop up. I’m in regular contact via FB with many ‘kids’ from back in our HS days (Guy, Dawna, Shirley and others). Also, a lot of Cold Lake friends through FB. Cheers, Harold

  • Harold McNeill

    November 26, 2021 |

    Oh, that is many years back and glad you found the story. I don’t have any recall of others in my class other than the Murphy sisters on whose farm my Dad and Mom worked.

  • Harold McNeill

    November 26, 2021 |

    Pleased to hear from you Howie and trust all is going well. As with you, I have a couple of sad stories of times in my police career when I crossed paths with Ross Barrington Elworthy. Just haven’t had the time to write those stories.

  • Howie Siegel

    November 25, 2021 |

    My only fight at Pagliacci’s was a late Sunday night in 1980 (?) He ripped the towel machine off the bathroom wall which brought me running. He came after me, I grabbed a chair and cracked him on the head which split his skull and dropped him. I worried about the police finding him on the floor. I had just arrived from Lasqueti Island and wasn’t convinced the police were my friends. I dragged him out to Broad and Fort and left him on the sidewalk, called the cops. They picked him up and he never saw freedom again (as far as I know). I found out it was Ross Elworthy.

  • Herbert Plain

    November 24, 2021 |

    Just read you article on Pibroch excellent. My Dad was Searle Grain company agent we move there in 1942/3 live in town by the hall for 5 years than moved one mile east to the farm on the corner where the Pibroch road meets Hwy 44. Brother Don still lives there. I went to school with you and Louise.