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Cambodia 1991:
Part 1: Half the Fun, My Ass

My feet, while awaiting departure from Chicago O'Hare In 1991, getting to Cambodia was not an easy task. The country was mired in a seemingly endless civil war. Few foreign governments recognized the government in Phnom Penh, which had been installed by a Vietnamese invasion twelve years earlier. The framework of a tentative peace agreement had taken shape, but the massive United Nations "peacekeeping" force that would soon expand throughout the country was not yet in place. The US was among those nations which did not recognize the Phnom Penh government, and Cambodia was still one of only a handful of nations subject to the restrictions of the Trading With The Enemy Act.

Nine of us would spend weeks planning, scheming, bargaining, arguing, persuading, and hoping, doing whatever was necessary to reach our destination. Nine of us would ultimately fly out of Chicago together.

Eight of us would make it to Cambodia.

I would like to be able to pinpoint exactly where we went wrong. I would like to be able to isolate a single mistake, and to say, "If we hadn't done THAT, the whole thing would have gone smoothly." But in truth, nothing went right from the very start.

I'm the sole American in our group. The others are all Cambodian refugees: Yon, Kong, Keo, Chanbo, Chany, Kim Eng, Ban, and Huot. Most of them have not been to Cambodia since they fled the Khmer Rouge many years ago. The two who have been back, Yon and Kong, have done most of the planning. Kim Eng, Yon, and I are all in our late twenties or so; Chany is, I think, in her late forties, and the others are all old enough to be retired. Among them, I'm closest to Huot. For years, I taught English as a volunteer, and Huot was one of my students. It was Huot who, in November of 1990, first suggested that I talk to Yon about traveling to Cambodia. November didn't work out, but Yon and I stayed in touch. Soon he decided that he'd go in March. Did I still want to go? Of course.

Our travel agent is a beautiful Thai woman named Nancy Breen. Nancy had been my travel agent when I'd gone to Thailand a couple years earlier. Our group tentatively planned to fly to Bangkok, then travel directly to Phonm Penh. But in Thailand, although it wasn't impossible to obtain visas for Cambodia, it was extremely time-consuming. After lengthy debate, we ultimately decided to go via Laos, where anyone without a visa would be able to apply to the Cambodian embassy. We would leave on Friday, March 22, flying from Chicago directly to Tokyo, where we would have a layover of about four hours before flying to Bangkok. There would then be a layover of just under eleven hours; then we would fly to Laos, and then arrange for a flight to Phnom Penh. But problems began almost immediately. Nancy told Yon that she thought the Cambodians in the group would need to obtain visas for Thailand. No, Yon replied confidently, they had gone before without Thai visas.

The Cambodians are not US citizens: they are resident alients. As a result, they do not hold US passports. Instead, they have a "Permit to Re-Enter the United States." Later, that distinction would become critical.

Part of Lao visa form Regardless of whether or not they needed Thai visas, everyone did need Lao visas. Visas for Laos had to be obtained from the Laotian embassy in Washington, D.C. Yon took everyone's Re-Entry permit, and my passport, along with passport photos, and $100 from each traveler; he then sent them to a friend who lived about three hours away from Washington, D.C., and his friend took them to the Lao embassy.

On March 12, we received a message from the embassy: Everyone also needs to complete three copies of the visa application form. I go to Yon's apartment in Uptown to help him fill out forms; when we are done, we send them back to Yon's friend by express mail. But his friend doesn't get them to the embassy until Friday. I call the embassy to find out if they will be able to complete our visa's in time for us to recieve them by Thursday, March 21; grudgingly, they say yes. By now I have learned that we cannot take anything for granted, so on Monday afternoon, March 18, I call to ask about the status of the applications. Yes, I am told, they will have the visas done in time -- all but one. "Mr. Bruce Sharp," they say, "we cannot do."

Laotian authorities will not issue a visa until they have received a telegram from the Cambodian government stating that the applicant will definitely receive a Cambodian visa. In my case, they have received no such assurance. I immediately send a telegram to Phnom Penh -- at a cost of about $75 -- requesting confirmation. No reply ever comes. My plan changes: I'll go to Bangkok and wait there for the visas to Laos and Cambodia.

Two days later, we learn that I'm not the only one with a problem: The visas for the rest of the group have been completed, but Yon's friend has not gone to the embassy to pick them up. If he doesn't get the visas, no one is going to go anywhere.

Thursday morning, Yon calls the Laotian embassy yet again. He finally persuades them to contact the Cambodian authorities regarding my visa, and they reverse their earlier decision: they will grant me a visa. But it may be for nothing: although Yon's friend picks up the visas that morning, we won't be able to get them in time for Friday's flight.

Nancy first tries to reschedule the trip for Sunday, March 24, but the flight from Bangkok to Vientiane is already full. She puts us on standby for flights on Tuesday and Wednesday. However, it seems unlikely that either of these days will work out; more likely we'll be leaving on Friday the 29th. The trip that we've been planning for so long will be delayed yet again. But, suddenly, surprise: On Monday, Nancy calls me at work to say that space is now available on the next day's flight. I'm in shock. I can't believe it. I'm going.

I run to the bank, withdrawing basically all the cash I have. I head back to work, trying to get used to the idea that in less than 24 hours I'm going to be on a plane.

Still, I have one nagging concern: Nancy is worried that the other members of our group do not have visas for Thailand. This very subject had been a point of disagreement between Yon and Nancy early on, with Nancy explaining that visas were required for stays longer than a few hours, and Yon explaining that he himself had previously made the same trip without a Thai visa. She tells me to call her from the airport if there is problem.

On Tuesday morning, the moment I arrive at the airport, I become convinced that we will not be going anywhere.

Our first, failed attempt to leave The rest of the group is already there, but Kong has forgotten his re-entry permit. It is nearly nine o'clock. It is rush hour. Our flight is leaving at 10:30, and he does not have his permit.

He heads home to get the permit; meanwhile, Yon and I begin tagging everyone's baggage. When that is done, I check in and get my boarding pass. Yon is next, but the moment the woman at the counter opens his re-entry permit, she frowns. "Where is your Thai visa?" she asks.

My stomach sinks.

After a lengthy discussion with various Northwest Airlines staff, after a hopeful call to Nancy, the bottom line was still the same: No. It did not matter that the layover in Thailand was only 10 1/2 hours, and that no one intended to leave the airport: stays longer than three hours required a visa. One week earlier, in fact, Northwest had received a telegram from Thai immigration authorities, complaining that the airline had let a Cambodian from the US to transit through Thailand without the visa.

Sadly, I return my boarding pass.

We return to Yon's apartment and call the Thai consulate, hoping to obtain Thai visas and make the flight on Friday. It doesn't take long to realize that that isn't going to happen. For resident aliens, a Thai visa requires nine items: a completed application form, presented in person; 3 passport photos; a $10 transit visa fee; 3 copies of the alien registration card; 3 copies of a confirmed roundtrip ticket, and the original ticket; 2 copies of a police clearance certificate; 2 copies of a recommendation letter from the alien's employer; 2 copies of a current bank statment; and 2 copies of a typed and signed personal resume providing a biographical sketch. This presents a serious problem: Most of the group is composed of elderly retired persons who do not work; their children and relatives are paying their way. And only one of the Cambodians has a bank account. Two calls to the Thai consulate yield two different responses: The first says that there is no way visas will be issued without the employer's reference letters and bank statements. The second says that bank statements and employer references from whoever is paying the cost of the trip will be accepted. The police clearance certificate presents problems, too. It takes almost ten minutes before we find someone at the police department who even has any idea what a "police clearance certificate" is. And although the police are polite and helpful, the requirements for obtaining the certificate are far from simple. We are told that we will need to go to the Record Processing Office on the south side of the city, and each applicant must give their date of birth, the date of their arrival in Chicago, and their mother's maiden name. Several of the refugees don't know all of these things.

By 7 o'clock that night, Yon says that the rest of the group wants to call the trip off. A few of them may try to travel with a different group that is going to Cambodia via the Philippines, without passing through Thailand.

Having subjected Nancy to weeks of agony, I'm not willing to abandon her now. Yon and I talk at length, and finally he agrees to work with her to arrange a new itinerary that won't require Thai visas. By the next morning, it's settled. We will leave on Saturday, March 30, at 9:10 AM. We'll fly to Los Angeles, where we'll board a Singapore Airlines flight to Singapore, via Tokyo. Unlike Thailand, Singapore treats U.S. resident aliens the same as U.S. citizens. As long as they have a confirmed ticket out of Singapore, visas are not required for stays of less than two weeks. We'll have a twelve-hour layover in Singapore, and after that we'll fly to Bangkok, where we'll have a two-and-a-half hour wait (just under the three-hour limit) before we fly to Laos. It will be more expensive, but hopefully it will mean fewer headaches.

For a brief moment, it seems as if things are coming together. But later that day we discover still another problem. We had been told by the Lao embassy that our visas would be good for a thirty-day period, but that's not the case: they are clearly stamped, "A utilisier avant 3/27/91." "Use before March 27, 1991." We call the Laotian embassy again, and we're told to send them all back. We gather up all of the passports yet again and FedEx them to Washington. The embassy assures us that they will be processed immediately and returned by Friday. On Thursday morning, we call the embassy again. Yes, they say, they received our passports, but they are too busy to process them today.

I can practically feel my hair turning gray.

Nancy calls the embassy and speaks to the charge d'affairs. I have no idea what she says, but by the end of the conversation he tells her that he has personally processed the visas, and yes, he is sending them back immediately.

Miraculously, on Friday morning, we receive the visas, and Friday evening, after paying the additional $170 for the new tickets, we are ready to go.

On Saturday morning, March 30, we arrive at O'Hare airport. Suddenly things are working. Suddenly things are going right. Everyone is on time. Everyone has the tickets; everyone has their passport. Huot, who had been wearing new shoes the previous Tuesday, is wearing her old shoes again. The new ones, she explains, had brought our group bad luck.

I feel ready. I feel mobile. I believe in traveling light: My luggage for the next five weeks is two small shoulder bags, and nearly half of that is photo gear. But for the Cambodians, traveling light is not an option. Most of them have clothes and gifts that they will deliver to relatives. There is something of a cottage industry among some of the American Khmer: they deliver money and packages from Cambodians in Chicago to their relatives in Cambodia, typically charging ten to fifteen percent as a delivery fee. All of the Cambodians in our group are pulling along at least two huge suitcases. Yon has three. Since the airline allows only two suitcases and charges for excess, I check one of his bags in my name so that he won't have to pay the penalty.

Check-in proceeds smoothly. We get our boarding passes and begin the long walk to the gate. Maybe, just maybe, we will actually get on the plane this time.

And in fact, we all make it onboard in Chicago. But we will not have the same success in Los Angeles.

Next: And Then, Things Stopped Going So Smoothly

This article contains nine parts:
·  Part One: Half the Fun, My Ass ·
Part Two: And Then, Things Stopped Going So Smoothly
Part Three: To Laos and Beyond
Part Four: In An Unhealed Land
Part Five: Into the Countryside
Part Six: Around Phnom Penh
Part Seven: To Svay Rieng
Part Eight: Relaxing Days, Very Quiet Nights
Part Nine: A Tale Ten Years in the Telling

Related Articles:
Beauty and Darkness: Travel Section
The More That Things Change: Cambodia 2000
Cambodia, April - May 2000
Holiday in Cambodia
Phnom Penh, June 1996


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