A RRIVING early to beat the Bangkok traffic, Phnom Penh-based Reuters photographer DarrenWhiteside waited patiently for Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Ranariddh to arrive at Government House for the fifth ASEAN summit.
"I noticed a bright red flag hanging at the podium where the dignitaries were to stand," Whiteside said.
"I asked some of the Thai correspondents and government officials if Cambodia was arriving first. They said yes.
"Then I said 'Well whose flag is that'," pointing to the flag lying limply down the pole. Whiteside was told: "That's Cambodia's".
"I walked up to the flag and pulled it out. But these guys were adamant it was the right flag."
Whiteside then walked up to the front door of Government House and met the protocol officer, and told her that the Khmer Rouge flag was hanging outside, and that Hun Sen and Ranariddh would be very very angry.
"The next thing I knew there were people running all over the grounds of Government House, talking on walkie-talkies and mobile phones and changing three flags," he said.
"I phoned up our Reuters office to check the recent copy of the Nation which had profiles of all ten ASEAN countries, and I was told that the Nation used a red and blue flag."
That flag too was the wrong one, representing the former State of Cambodia regime.
"It took them a while to find the right flag... I was still on the phone and told Reuters that they were now hanging up the blue, red, blue flag. Then I was really confused.
"I tried to take some pictures of them changing the flag, only to be yelled at. These guys were battling to get it together... Hun Sen and Ranariddh were just about there."
It wasn't until moments later when Ranariddh and Hun Sen arrived in their motorcade, the lead car sporting the right flags, that Whiteside said he was convinced the Thais had managed this time to get it right.
Shortly after the two Cambodian PMs departed Government House, a member of the protocol office came over to thank Whiteside.
"A freelance photographer standing there said to the protocol officer 'What are you going to give him? He avoided an international incident.' The protocol officer agreed and asked what I'd like. I mentioned a trip to Phuket would be nice and she said she would forward my request to the Thai PM. She then politely asked that I not tell anyone about the incident and not use the photo. I said nothing. Anyway, by then everyone knew what had happened. There were about 30 journalists covering the arrivals at the Government House.
"Later that day I saw Roland Eng [the Cambodian ambassador to Thailand] and told him what had happened earlier.
"He just shook his head and thanked me. It didn't seem to surprise him."
The next day the story about the flag was splashed over every paper in Asia. "I have a big mouth, but not that big" Whiteside said.
The Nation ran the story about the protocol botch too - yet still ran the wrong SoC flag on the back sports page.
"That afternoon I heard from a number of journalists that the PM's office was really pissed at me and I was no longer on any list... or at least any 'good guy list'," Whiteside said.
"Some of the other journalists were a bit sore too, they said it would've been a better photo if I hadn't said anything. But I honestly felt a bit sorry and embarrased for them.
"This was Cambodia's first time back in the big league."