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Cambodia 1991:
Part 2: And Then, Things Stopped Going So Smoothly

Boarding pass from flight to Thailand We left Chicago about a half-hour late, but by the time we reach Los Angeles, favorable winds have put us back on schedule. Once we've landed, we're a bit lost, and it takes us a while to find the check-in for Singapore Airlines. Nevertheless, we reach the gate with what seems like perfect timing. The flight is just beginning to board. I'm close to the front of our nine-member group.

As I hand over my boarding pass and enter the corridor leading to the plane, I'm a little surprised to see roughly half a dozen police officers near the door. As I draw nearer, I see that they are not police at all. They're customs agents. I walk past them - or more accurately, through them - and they say nothing.

Inside the plane, I sit down, Kim sits down, then Channy, and Huot, and Keo, and Chanbo... we stow our bags away and prepare ourselves for the flight. At some point, I notice that Ban, Kong, and Yon are not sitting with us. A minute passes. Five minutes pass. The plane is nearly full, and there is still no sign of them. I walk back out, up the jetway. At the very end of the ramp, I see Yon and Kong, surrounded by customs agents and piles and piles of money. Oh, shit.

I approach one agent. "What's the problem?" I ask, as if I didn't already know.

"Are you together?" a female agent asks, gesturing toward Yon.

"Yes, we are."

"Well, we explained to him that he had to declare the full amount that he's taking out of the country, and he told us that he had $2700. He has more than $2700," she says, in a rather mild understatement. "He's not going to make the flight." Neither will Kong.

I return to the plane to tell the rest of the group what has happened. By this time, Ban has appeared on the plane as well, and I have no idea where she has been. I don't even ask. Quickly, we huddle together. Does everyone else want to continue? Kong and Yon have made all of the arrangments for our entry into Cambodia. No one else has been back, and we have no idea who to talk to once we get to Laos, or how to obtain the Cambodian visas. But everyone agrees: we will go on.

I go back out to speak to the customs agents again, hoping against hope that Yon and Kong will still make the flight. A second agent approaches me this time. His manner is more brusque than the first agent. "Who are you?" he asks.

"I'm a friend of his. We're travelling together."

"You're a friend. Fill me in. How do you know each other? You work together, what?"

No, I explain, I tutor refugees, and we met in Chicago.

"How much money are you taking with you?" he asks.

"About $2600," I reply. At this, he seems to lose interest. "Is there any chance that he'll be able to make the plane?" I ask.

"No."

And Mr. Kong?

"No."

I walk up to Yon, trying to think of something to say. He is sitting down, and his face is a study in sadness. He lifts his head slowly. We shake hands, and I walk back down the ramp to the plane. As I sit down, my stomach is churning. Without Yon and Kong, the responsibility for getting everyone to Cambodia has become mine, and I don't want it. I sit there, staring out the window, feeling sick for about five minutes.

Suddenly, Kong walks onto the plane.

At first, I'm waiting to see the customs agents walking on behind him, pulling our entire group off the plane. But instead, he sits down and buckles his seat belt amid a flurry of questions from the group.

Kong told the agents that his wife was still on the plane, and that much of the money he was carrying her belonged to her. Finally, they had relented. Yon, however, was less lucky. He did not make the flight.

Having Kong back was a tremendous relief. My fears of being stranded in Laos without visas to Cambodia vanished.

Once back in the air, the trip was uneventful. We had a brief stop in Tokyo while they cleaned and refueled the plane. Everyone seemed to be doing fine.

We reach Singapore at about 2AM on Monday, April 1. The airport there is as nice as any I've ever been in. We sleep in the transit lounge and eat breakfast at a cafeteria in the restaurant, and on Monday afternoon board our flight to Bangkok.

Naturally, upon arrival in Bangkok, we run into another problem. Although our reservations were confirmed, we're now told that there are only three seats available on the flight to Vientiane. After a few moments of discussion, it is decided that Kong, Ban, and Keo will travel on to Laos, and the rest of us will remain and take a flight departing at 11:30 the next morning. For the rest of the group, however, the problem is once again a matter of visa requirements. I'm the only one in our group who is legally permitted to stay in Thailand more than three hours. An official from Thai Airways takes us to his office, where I help Chanbo, Channy, Kim Eng, and Huot fill out immigration forms which in effect "deport" them by way of the next day's flight to Laos. He confiscates their tickets and their re-entry permits, and instructs them to remain in the transit lounge until 9:20 the next morning, when they are to come back to his office to have their papers returned.

On top of everything else, at this point we're also wondering what will become of our luggage. At O'Hare, we were told that they could not check our baggage through to Vientiane, only to Bangkok. At Bangkok, they agree to retag our bags to Vientiane. However, we're now uncertain whether our luggage will be on the next day's flight, or whether it has already gone to Vientiane without us. I'm also somewhat annoyed that one of Yon's bags has now become my own personal albatross. Although the rest of his luggage was removed in Los Angeles, the bag with my name on it will now be following me all the way to Cambodia. Assuming I make it that far.

The Cambodians stake out a corner of the transit lounge, quite literally "staying low" by sitting on the floor behind the row of chairs farthest from the door. I, however, am free to go. I tell the rest of the group that I'm going to go out to eat, and to try to say hello to an acquaintance, a taxi driver that I had befriended with on a previous trip to Thailand. I'll be back, I tell them, in two or three hours.

Business card from Tungmahamek Privacy Hotel, Bangkok, Thailand I take a taxi to from the airport to the Tungmahamek Hotel, where I had stayed for a couple weeks in 1989. In the hotel restaurant, I see a couple familiar faces: the waiter, with his motorcycle still parked outside the door, and a elderly woman who had worked in the kitchen. She smiled and nodded, and I think that she remembered me. Their dog, Tuki, was still there, too. Tuki had been a puppy when I had stayed there; he would bite my shoelaces constantly, and pee on the floor occasionally. Now he was full-grown.

I asked about the taxi driver; yes, the waiter said, he still came there often, but was not there tonight. I gave the waiter a picture of the driver and his family that I had taken in Ayutthaya, and asked him to give it to the driver. I sat down and ate (chicken fried rice), and then decided it was time to return to the airport. Before going, I walked out to the office. In 1989, the morning that I was leaving, I had given the desk clerk a bottle of unopened stomach medicine. Some poor soul, I thought, will probably need it as badly as I had. I remember that he had put it on a shelf near the desk, and I wanted to see if it would still be there. I have no idea why I thought it would be, and yet I felt strangely disappointed when it wasn't. As I left I walked up the street a little to the restaurant next door - the Blue Fox - and gave them a Guatemalan Quetzal to add to the collection of currency on the wall behind the bar.

Outside, I began walking, looking for a taxi. Almost immediately, a young man walked up to me and asked, "Taxi?" "How much to go to the airport?" I asked. "Airport? One hundred baht." "OK," I said.

This was very, very stupid. And I have no idea why I said yes... I knew that 100 baht was too cheap for a proper taxi ride to the airport. I soon learned the catch: he did not have a taxi. He had a motorcycle. Had I known how he was going to drive, I would never, never have climbed on.

Let me stress that I'm not afraid of motorcycles. I love them. I bought my first one in 1977. (On the day Elvis died, in fact.) When I was 18 I rode my Suzuki from Indiana to California and back. I've ridden alot, and crashed occasionally.

But I never, NEVER rode like this. The phrase "bat out of hell" comes to mind. The driver was a lunatic.

The motorcycle was small, surely no bigger than 100 or 125cc, and driver did not seem to understand that engines will operate at less than full throttle. He outraced everyone away from every single stop light. He split lanes. He wove back and forth across traffic. On the rare occasions when he did apply the brakes, he squealed the tires. And of course, neither of us wore a helmet. I remember vividly that I had my sleeves pulled up, and I wanted desperately to pull them down for that tiny bit of extra protection when we crashed. But I didn't dare let go of the seat long enough to do it. Thai traffic, for the uninitiated, is truly a thing of horror. It's dense, chaotic, and fast-moving. At stoplights, there is always an acrid cloud of bluish two-stroke exhaust smoke; it's there because at every red light, all the motorcycles dice between the cars and make their way to the front of the pack. They scream away with a high-pitched wail as the light changes, leaving in their wake a cloud of stinging exhaust, dense enough to make the eyes water. But in the end, I made it back to the airport intact, and the trip took less than half as long as the trip to the hotel. One hundred baht, well spent.

Sure, he was pissed off. Well, so was I. I had intended to return to the transit lounge. The immigration officers, however, refused to allow me to go to the transit lounge without a boarding pass. I explained that the rest of my party was already there. "No!" the official snapped. Could a guard perhaps escort me back to the lounge so that I can relay the message to the rest of the group? "No!" he replies. He quickly loses his temper, and my attempts to reason with him just make him angrier. "No! No! No! You go out now!" I'm exasperated. It seems so petty and pointless; I'm exhausted and frustrated and torn between wanting to cry, and wanting to strangle this petty little bastard. I find a Thai Airways official; she suggests that I try to go back to immigration, but at the arrival hall instead of the departure lounge. Despite signs clearly prohibiting me from walking into the arrival hall through the exits, I do just that in front of several customs officials. They pay no attention.

When I reach the security gate, one of the men from the Thai Airways office is, by pure chance, standing at the gate. He recognizes me immediately, and exclaims, "Why are you still here??" I explain and ask if he would walk back to the tranist lounge and relay the message to the rest of the group. He cheerfully agrees, but as I'm walking away I have the feeling that he won't do it. Later, in fact, I learned that he hadn't.

With nothing else to do, I went back outside and then returned to the main lobby. I was exhausted; I laid down on the floor and struggled to sleep. I had just drifted off when I was awakened by a puppy licking my face. I sat up and soon struck up a conversation with the puppy's owner, a Canadian woman returning from six months in Nepal. She was a student. Her short hair and nose ring were not really quite my style, but she was still very pretty. She showed me her pictures from Nepal and offered a few stories and observations, including the vow that she would never again use toilet paper, because it was very wasteful and unnecessary. I chose not to pursue that topic further. I also talked for a while with a Sri Lankan man who said that his passport and money had been stolen, and he wouldn't be able to replace them for another day because it was some sort of holiday. He was travelling with his girlfriend, and asked me if I could help them out with twenty dollars. I wound up giving him $5, in spite of being a bit skeptical of his story.

When morning finally arrived, the Canadian woman agreed to try to find the Cambodians in the transit lounge. I gave her a note and described, as best I could, where to locate them. Later I would learn that she, too, was unable to deliver the message.

When I was finally able to check in for my flight, at around 9:30, there was some confusion over the fate of my (Yon's) suitcase. Thai Airways had no record of the bag being tagged for Vientiane, and they also told me that if it had been sent to Vientiane, but that I had disembarked in Bangkok, that was a customs violation. To be honest, I didn't give a damn whether or not I ever saw the suitcase again; I just wanted to find the rest of the group. Still, I did check with the lost and found before passing through immigration. They determined that the bag had in fact been sent through to Vientiane on the previous day's flight, and that I should check with the lost and found there.

I ran back upstairs and passed through immigration and customs; by now it was nearly 10, and the Cambodians had been told to take their "deportation notice" back to the Thai Airways office by 9:20. I ran to the transit lounge and was horrified to find that the Cambodians were not there. Was I even in the right lounge? I went down a stairway to the transit check-in counter to try to get my bearings. Lo and behold, there they were. Chanbo jumped up and ran over hug me. Huot told me that she was afraid that I had been robbed and killed. Several of the Cambodians had been robbed by Thais in the refugee camps at some point or another, and none of them had a very high opinion of the Thais. In any case, Chany, arguably the best English speaker, had already taken the deportation notice back to the office, and within minutes a Thai Airways official arrived to escort them out and retrieve their passports and tickets.

Next: To Laos and Beyond

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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