We went to bed the evening of Feb 13th wondering how soon we would get our travel details to go home. We knew we had long flights ahead of us.
At 5:45 AM on the morning of Feb 14th, we heard the dreaded DING DONG chimes. An announcement from the captain this early can’t be good news. But it was!!
The captain apologized for the early morning announcement and said the Prime Minister of Cambodia was coming from Phnom Penh to welcome the first passengers disembarking and going home. The captain had a special request of us. He asked for all of us to go out on their balconies and ship decks to greet the Prime Minister. And of course it would be a nice touch for us to wear our Cambodian scarves they had given us. After what this man had been through, no one was going to deny his special request.
A couple evenings earlier we had run into Captain Smit in the hallway and had a chance to personally thank him. Bill said he was our Captain Sully, a reference to the pilot who landed a plane in the Potomac River years ago. Captain Smit had spent so much time behind closed doors trying to find us a port, this was a rare sighting of him. We were so glad we had a chance to personally thank him.
We quickly dressed and fortunately all we had to do was step out on our balcony. Already the Cambodian press was setting up cameras and microphones. Cambodian officials were setting up a red carpet and tables of flowers.
We saw the helicopter flying in and it landed right on the pier. The Prime Minister presented flowers to Captain Smit as well as other ship officers. You can see Captain Smit in this picture with his Cambodian scarf. (man with balding head and glasses)
Then the first passengers began to disembark and the Prime Minister presented each one with a flower and shook each hand. Some American press later reported this was all a photo opportunity for the Prime Minister and that he had given permission as a favor to China, a close political ally. We didn’t care! We were just thankful to be going home soon.
We watched enviously as the first passengers loaded the buses to the airport. Our neighbors in the cabin next door told us they had been awakened at 4:00 A.M. with their travel arrangements. They would be leaving at 9:00 A.M.
Since we hadn’t received any travel arrangements we resolved ourselves to the idea we wouldn’t be going home that day and headed to breakfast. After breakfast we decided to walk around the deck for some exercise. At the last minute we decided to go back to our cabin. Five minutes later there was a knock at our door and it was our cabin steward hand delivering our travel arrangements. I could have kissed him! What a wonderful Valentine’s Day surprise!
We had thirty minutes to get our luggage out in the hallway to be collected. Fortunately we were already pretty well packed. First we were told we would be on the 2:45 P.M. bus to the airport. Thirty minutes later we were told over the loud speakers our group disembarkation time had been changed to noon. We were going home!
First we had to fill out a health questionnaire and get our temperature taken. Our group was then taken off the ship and put on buses. We sat on the bus for over an hour before we pulled away from the dock with a police escort. Here is a very helpful young lady who was with the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia checking on us as we sat on the bus. They were easily identified by their bright yellow hats.
It was about a 45 minute ride to the airport and on the way we got our first look at Sihanoukville. People waved at us as we passed by. We were so grateful to the Cambodian people, regardless of the motivation.
From the ship, in the distance Sihanoukville looked like a city with tall buildings and developments. We have since learned that over the past few years Chinese nationals flooded the tiny town building casinos and hotels. On August 18th the Cambodian Prime Minister issued a directive banning all online and arcade gambling to keep public order and maintain security. Since then 200,000 Chinese have left Cambodia with the vast majority leaving Sihanoukville. This has left the city with incomplete construction projects and abandoned buildings. Landlords have gone bankrupt and unemployment is rampant. As our bus drove through the center of town along unpaved, dirt streets, we got an up close view of the real Sihanoukville. How sad for these people. I thought about the 400 cases of beer and scarves gifted to us. I looked at the smiling faces of the people waving to us as we passed. I felt sad for them, and so very very grateful.
A hush fell over the bus as we pulled up to this small, third world airport. Our five buses of passengers crowded into the tiny terminal where we eventually managed to get checked in for our flight. After a wait of over an hour we boarded our flight on Malaysian Airways.
Now this is where it gets strange. We had been told everyone was flying by charter from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh. From there we would all board traditional commercial flights home. After a two hour flight we landed, a very rough skidding landing I might add. Bill turned on his phone GPS and said, “We are not in Phnom Penh, we are in Malaysia”. I proceeded to tell him his phone was wrong. Umm, no it wasn’t. We were in Kuala Lumpur International Airport Malaysia and not Cambodia.
After departing the plane our temperatures were scanned by the local medical staff and we were escorted into a waiting area and left there. The first sign of trouble was when I heard someone say, “I don’t know why we are in this room but there is no way out”. The only way out was the door we had entered from, and that was closed and guarded.
After a while some airport officials came and said we hadn’t been cleared to enter the country and couldn’t leave the room. People started getting agitated because they were going to miss their connecting flights. At this point Bill and I weren’t too upset because we knew we had a thirteen hour layover and were supposed to be taken to a hotel for the night. We were in no danger of missing our connecting flight. Because we had come in on a chartered flight we were all supposed to go to the baggage area and get our luggage to check in for our next commercial flight. The airport officials told us we couldn’t leave and couldn’t go collect our baggage.
Remember Susan, the nurse who helped the ill lady on the bus and stayed with her in the emergency room? Susan was in our group and stepped up again and took over. She called the ship and a number on a letter that had been given to us when we left the ship, just in case we had a problem. Now we had to wait to hear back to see what help was being sent.
Bill and I started to worry when the airport officials started handing out blankets followed an hour later with a boxed meal. Inside was a small cup of apple juice and a small cup of water. Bill and I immediately decided to ration the water to be sure we had water to take our medication later.
The room was cold. We were tired. We were getting more and more apprehensive. The airport officials wanted us to turn over our passports. We all refused.
We were in the room for four hours before Susan received word that the U.S. Consulate General to Malaysia would be there within an hour. At this point we were told we were being escorted to a better room or lounge. We trudged through the airport following the escort with our carry on luggage, blanket and boxed meal. We were herded onto a tram that took us to another part of the airport. We had no idea where they were taking us or why.
We were taken to a much nicer airport lounge, similar to a Star Alliance Lounge, with hot food, cold drinks and nearby restrooms. But we still faced a long night sleeping in chairs. Not the hotel room we expected. We were not allowed to leave the lounge or collect our luggage. The airport officials told us they would “try” to get our luggage on our flights. Since we had a flight to Tokyo followed by a flight to Los Angeles, we didn’t have a lot of hope we would ever see our luggage again.
The Consulate General and an aid arrived within the hour and we spent the night watching her work the phones to resolve the situation. Around 3:00 A.M. we were told someone would be there to get us at 5:00 A.M. to escort us to the gate for our 8:00 A.M. flight. Those who had missed their flight were stranded, awaiting details of possible new flights.
At 5:00 A.M. we lined up but no one came to get us. Finally at 5:30 an airport official arrived and the Consulate General sent one of her assistant’s with us in case there were any problems. We told Susan goodbye. She was one of those who had missed her flight the previous night and was waiting for a new flight.
But finally we were on the plane to Tokyo. We breathed big sighs of relief.
Our flight to Tokyo left late which meant we almost had to run to make our connecting flight to Los Angeles. The airport was very busy and our large airplane was unloaded down stairs and then buses to take us to an internal airport entrance. Another big sigh of relief when we made that final flight to California.
In Los Angeles as we stepped off the plane we were met by an airport representative holding a sign with our name. What now!
He told us our luggage hadn’t made the connecting flight and would be sent on a flight the next day. We were thrilled they even knew where our luggage was! It was delivered to us three days later by Fed Ex to our campground in Yuma.
We picked up our rental car and drove five hours home to Yuma, AZ where we had left our RV. From the time we boarded the bus at the ship to our arrival time at home, 46 hours of travel had passed, most of it without sleep. We were exhausted but so very happy and grateful to be home.
Thank you for following along with us on this journey. I told Bill I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t lived it!
On March 15th we will be leaving Yuma and beginning our 2020 U.S. travels. Can’t wait to share that with you!