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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Panicky expats flee in droves

Panicky expats flee in droves

AIR travel resumed as thousands of foreigners scrambled onto flights out of the country

at Pochentong airport. Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and The Philippines had deployed

more than a dozen C130 military-transport planes to extract their citizens by Thursday.

Hundreds of Taiwanese fled to Vietnam by air charter and road convoy.

Six flights evacuated citizens of Australia, New Zealand and Canada Friday. Japan,

Cam-bodia's largest foreign aid donor, readied three transport aircraft in Okinawa.

Royal Air Cambodge (RAC), Vietnam Airlines and charter flights were fully booked

to Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh city.

Adjacent to the plundered hulk of the newly remodeled terminal, hundreds of evacuees

huddled around their national flags under a concrete shelter, as policemen sat behind

wooden tables set up to collect the customary $15 international departure tax. Aside

from some tank-tread damage, the runway was still intact.

A sizable crowd gathered around the gates watching the spectacle. Departing Cambodians

needed letters from foreign embassies to enter the airport even if they had air tickets.

One who didn't have a letter was beaten, kicked and gun-butted by about ten policemen

late Wednesday afternoon when he protested. When onlookers tried to pull them off,

they dragged him into the gate and continued pummeling him until he stopped resisting.

An American man and his Cambodian wife were in a state of shock. "She has permanent

residency in the States, but we don't know if theThais will let her in since we can't

book an onward ticket. The American embassy is absolutely useless," he complained

as he looked across at the three C130s on the tarmac. "You look how good Asian

nations are to their people in distress and all they offered us was a ride to the

airport and an overpriced charter."

Despite the chilling atmosphere, the mood of some of the hundreds of waiting passengers

was remarkably upbeat. The people leaving were happy to do so. Many of the early

evacuees had come as tourists or on short-term projects.

"We were only here a week and all this happened," said the leader of a

30-member student-teacher delegation from Oklahoma. Most of the volunteers who came

to work with the University of Phnom Penh were in their late teens. "I'm sure

that the Cambodians are disappointed. We were looking forward to helping them."

Even hardened expatriates were rattled by the scene. "This is probably the worst

month in my life. I got cut short on a contract, got pounded by shelling and had

to eat instant noodles and canned food for three days," complained a World Bank

consultant. "Now I am on an evacuation flight out of Cambodia, have to transfer

through Nairobi - which is also totally screwed politically at the moment - to Uganda

for a week. Then I'm off to Serbia."

Perhaps one of the happiest people in the drama was Udom Tantiprasongchai, personally

checking people into his charter airline on Wednesday. He used to own Cambodia International

Airlines (CIA) which was forced to stop being the national carrier with the creation

of Royal Air Cambodge on Christmas Eve 1994.

His new airline, Orient Thai Airlines, bears the same red bird logo on the fuselage

as the old CIA planes. He has every reason to smile. Gross sales topped $500,000

in the first three days. One-way tickets sold for $280 and there were several fully

booked flights by Friday evening.

Asked why the price was double what Thai International regularly charges, he said:

"We consider it two-way, because coming is empty. I'm letting others handle

the ticketing. I just told them that the price must be a normal commercial fare."

Journalists trying to get the first non-military flight into the country paid dearly

for the trip. "We had to shell out $1,500 cash at the airport and there were

45-50 of us," shrugged a veteran magazine correspondent on a generous expense

account.

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