08 August 2002

1. - 8 AUG: In the air over Asia, beginning of trip to Cambodia and laos, along the Mekong river

Bangkok is far and away the biggest hub for all South East Asia travel. I flew into the Thai capital on a Swiss Airlines plane from Zurich. I have flown with them many times, but never had they been so corteous as on this flight; it must be their fear that, after Swissair's bankruptcy, the face-lifted SWISS airline (same planes, same crews) is their last chance to survive. Yet, the plane was old and noisy and I was not sure about the future of this airline…

but I am flying in for free in business class on my long accumulated "Qualiflyer" (the Swissair/Sabena program of old) frequent flyer miles so I can not really complain, can I? The rest of the group was coming in on a Royal Jordanian flight from Rome via Amman, and we planned to meet at Bangkok airport and proceed together on Bangkok Air to Cambodia. We met at the Bangkok Air lounge, small but very bright and pretty, a counter with drinks and fresh fruits available as well as two fast connection internet stations at our disposal, pretty impressive by any standards. Bangkok Air is rightly famous for pampering passengers, this would a be First Class treat in Europe. Several of us are photographers and we got together in a corner and compared our arsenals of cameras and lenses, loaded film, checked batteries, and pass time making fun of each other's equipment (looked like clouds were gathering for a Nikon vs Canon challenge round over the next several weeks). After a couple of hours we were on our way.

Ravioli and ricotta, the mushy meal served on the sleek Bangkok Air turboprop that delivered us to the land of the Khmer would be the last fleeting flash of Europe for a long time and its deterrent taste was a potent reminder we were now in a truly foreign land. The sky darkens quickly in the late afternoon and by the time we entered Cambodian airspace it was pitch black; no luck with the first sunset over the jungle pictures I had planned to take. Filling out the colorful Cambodian customs forms which the stewardess handed out was easy: none of us had any of the items listed as “PROHIBITED GOODS” like arms, ammunition, drugs or …wireless transmitters and receivers! I guess this meant walkie-taklies, but since access to information is quite tightly controlled in Cambodia perhaps it referred to radio receivers. Phew was I lucky to have forgotten my loyal little short-wave radio which I always carry with me when I travel abroad to listen to the BBC World Service or Radio France International. After years of carrying it around in authoritarian countries in Eastern Europe and Africa I would have hated to see it confiscated by the Cambodian customs. Even better, none of us had walkie-talkies, I suppose it could have been a threat to Cambodian national security if we had started chatting over the air waves while on a jungle trek, or perhaps the authorities feared that these devious intruments of uncontrollable communication would end up in the hands of guerrillas who could threaten the established order.

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