Part One: The Quarter-Ton World Tour
It is August, and I'm in a second-story office in Chicago's New Chinatown. Take away the pictures of Angkor Wat, take away the travel brochures on the table in front of me, and the room would work well as a set for a 1940s detective film.
On the wall, there are a few framed, yellowed documents. I lean closer to read one. The letterhead is from the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The letter is dated April 18, 1975: one day after the fall of Phnom Penh to the communist Khmer Rouge.
"Dear Mr. Sunnary:
With the closure of the U.S. mission in Phnom Penh making it impossible to continue your employment, I wish to express to you my appreciation for your loyal and capable service... I am particularly proud of the loyalty you displayed during those last trying weeks in Phnom Penh when, despite great personal risk, you continued to serve with complete dedication..."
I look at the man seated behind the desk, and I try to imagine him twenty-five years ago, halfway around the world, going to work each day in a doomed city, besieged by rockets.
Loyalty. Capable service. Dedication. If I had any doubts about the travel agent my wife has chosen, they are gone now.
This will be my second trip to Cambodia. My first trip, in 1991, was shortly before the United Nations began a massive peacekeeping effort designed to resolve the country's seemingly endless civil war. For my wife, it will be her first trip back to the homeland she left in 1992.
Our trip is still many weeks away. Each day, as I sit in my office, I can see jets beginning the descent to O'hare International Airport. From time to time I can make out the distinctive profile of a 747. I watch the jets, and I begin to get goosebumps.
We left Chicago at 11AM on Sunday, November 5, flying on ANA (All Nippon Airways). This trip is very, very different from any I've taken before. I'm accustomed to travelling alone, and travelling light. Now, my wife Srey and I are accompanied by our daughter Anna, who is almost 5, and our son Sean, who just turned 2.
The dominant theme so far has been "Luggage." We have tons of it. Well, not literally tons, but, by my estimate, something in excess of 500 pounds. Five Hundred Pounds of Luggage: The Quarter Ton World Tour.
Most of it won't be coming back with us. We're carrying a cargo of secondhand clothing, videotapes, electronics, and miscellaneous other perfectly good castoffs of modern American life. We're also carrying a formidable collection of deodorants, soaps, perfumes, and sundry other cosmetics. All of these things will be given away to friends and family in Cambodia. I don't mind carrying it, except for the shampoo. Srey insists that people in Cambodia love American shampoo. Before we left, she went on a frenzied shopping spree, buying enormous quantities of shampoo. We're carrying bottles and bottles and bottles of it. Dandruff shampoo, baby shampoo, shampoo with conditioner.
Our friends Narath Tan and Dara Long drove us to the airport. We needed two vans, of course, since all that shampoo wouldn't fit in only one. Both Narath and Dara were nearly towed when they walked into the terminal with us after we had unloaded the luggage. The police had actually hooked Narath's car and were beginning to raise it when he ran outside. Incredibly, they unhooked it and let him drive away, thus demonstrating a clear difference between police tow truck drivers and the legendary "Lincoln Park Pirates" of Chicago yore.
Despite my sheer terror at the thought of taking two small children on a flight halfway around the world, the journey was fairly smooth. Anna is a good traveller, and she is old enough to understand that sometimes boredom is unavoidable. Sean, mercifully, slept for much of the trip, and never cried for more than thirty seconds. He also accomplished something many adults would envy: he slept through all three takeoffs, and all three landings.
We flew from Chicago directly to Tokyo, arriving after about 12 hours. The flight, aboard a new 777, is smooth. The only misadventure occurs when a gold chain from my wife's bracelet becomes stuck in the tray table hinge. It takes three flight attendents and I about ten minutes to extract what is left of it. At the airport at Narita, however, my daughter gets a bad scare. My wife is in front of us, heading up an escalator, holding our son. Anna is next to me, pulling her beloved Tweety Bird suitcase. At the top of the escalator, her shoelace is pulled into the escalator, sending her sprawling. She screams, terrified, unable to pull her foot free. A planeload of passengers is spilling up behind her. I grab her and yank her foot out of the shoe, pulling her away from the crowd. She's crying and shaking, but is otherwise unhurt. An older American man pulls her shoe out and brings it over to her. Once she knows that her PowerPuff shoe is undamaged, she's fine. Welcome to the Mysterious East, where escalators come alive and try to devour your shoes.
We're housed for the night at the airline's expense in the ANA Narita Hotel; it's nicer than the accomodations to which I'm accustomed. I turn on the TV and channel flip until I find something worth watching: sumo wrestling. It turns out to be not all that interesting; in every match we watch, the bigger wrestler wins.
In the morning, it's raining lightly. We take the bus back to Narita and await the flight to Bangkok. The aircraft for the next segment of the trip is an older 747. Like the previous 777, this plane has a video camera that gives passengers a pilot's-eye-view of the takeoff. Neat.
We arrive on time in Bangkok, and make our way to the departure gate, which seems to be miles away. The lounge for the Bangkok Air flights is deserted. I go back to make sure we're at the right gate. It turns out that we are at the right gate, but we were supposed to go the the transfer desk first to check in for the flight. However, the staff at the departure gate checks us in without forcing us to return to the transfer desk.
About a half-hour before the flight is supposed to take off, a bus arrives to take us to the jet. It's a fairly small turboprop, and it's about three-fourths full. Soon we're in the air, and in less than an hour we're descending into Phnom Penh's Pochentong Airport.
This article contains nine parts:
· Part 1: The Quarter-Ton World Tour ·
Part 2: "I See Cambodia!"
Part 3: To Kompong Som and Back
Part 4: Angkor, Snakes, and Khmer Krahom
Part 5: Artists, Pringles, and Fish in the Streets
Part 6: Two Parties
Part 7: "There has been sporadic shooting throughout the night..."
Part 8: Goodbyes
Part 9: Travelers and Conquerors
Beauty and Darkness: Travel Section
Between Barbie and Murder: Cambodia, 2005
Cambodia, April - May 2000
Holiday in Cambodia
Phnom Penh, June 1996
Farther than Wisconsin: Cambodia, 1991