The man snorted with perverse pleasure as he awoke me one last time, babbling in a tongue unknown to me.
Air Asia strikes again. I thought surely Peter’s dad and the dinner debacle of 2011 was a fluke, but no. Flight AK 1407 with service from Kuala Lumpur to Siem Reap was its own fiasco.
I can imagine that hearing about someone’s less-than-pleasant flying experiences is akin to listening to someone recount their dreams from the night before: Just not that interesting. But I can’t resist.
I’d flown, mostly without incident, from Denpasar, Bali to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia late the previous evening. I was finally en route to Siem Reap, Cambodia, where I’d see my best buds Katie and Tim, who are in the Peace Corps there. Nothing could damper my excitement–or so I thought.
I landed in Malaysia, knowing this airport fairly well already, passed quickly through immigration, and attempted to scout out a place to catch a few hours’ sleep in the international terminal. Unfortunately, thanks to low-cost carriers like Air Asia, several hundred other people had similar itineraries and the same idea. The result was crowded floor space, chattering in a dozen languages, florescent lights gleaming, and backpackers trying to get Skype to work on the molasses-slow free airport wifi. I spent the night trying to find sleep, first on the floor of the terminal inside (too cold), then nestled up against the giant metallic Ronald McDonald on a bench (too… weird), and finally outside on the uneven pavement where the city shuttles pass by (too exposed).
I didn’t sleep. I checked in for my 6:50 a.m. flight to Siem Reap, realized I’d forgotten to pre-pay to check a bag and was forced to hand over $20 USD on the spot. I did it wordlessly. I groggily boarded the plane and immediately put my head down on the tray table, falling into deep unconciousness in my middle seat. It wasn’t to last. The Khmer man next to me had the window, but his girlfriend was in the middle seat in the row ahead, and his two friends were in window seats on the other side of the plane. I spent the two hours of the flight with him yelling to his girlfriend, and by association into my left ear, while leaning into me none too accidentally. He’d slap me on the back occasionally, ostensibly in clumsy attempts to pass magazines to his friends across the plane. He snorted in a guilty giggle every time I glowered at him.
I hated him. I hated him passionately. I tried to commiserate with the burly Brazilian in the aisle in our row, but I think he had something against Americans. Every time I was awakened, I’d put on my meanest look and say something like, “Bloody HELL, man, don’t you know how to use your indoor voice?”, to more snorts and giggles.
I was once awakened by the Brazilian, who asked a passing flight attendant for some water. “For what?” she asked, squinting her eyes suspiciously. “To… drink,” the man said. “I can only give you 250ml, warm, for a baby’s bottle,” she said brusquely and marched off as quickly as her saran-wrap-inspired skirt would allow.
After that, I’d managed to catch a solid 20 minutes uninterrupted when the final slap on the back came. The pilot had announced our descent and the Khmer man was prepping for the inevitable moment of truth when he’d have to unlatch his seatbelt. I shot up straight, glared at him, and said “WHAT?” He faux-plaintively indicated his confusion regarding the simple mechanism in his lap, and so I demonstrated the procedure. He accepted this and spent the descent latching and unlatching the belt. His girlfriend found this hysterical.
I was awake now and had to stow the tray table, so I decided to accept wakedness. What are other airlines like?, I wondered. I daydreamed of the mythical Thai Air, that luxury cruiseship of the sky, with its complimentary drinks and busy businessmen working on BlackBerrys rather than physically assaulting fellow passengers. I let my mind wander to the comparatively first-class service I’d received on bankrupt, state-owned Air India, with its attendants in elegant sarees serving vegetarian or non-vegetarian snacks and meals, complimentary drinks and to-order chai tea. And thoughts of my Transaero flight from JFK to Moscow, with its free mini-Haagen-Daaz containers and uberefficient Russian cabin crew seemed dreamlike and impossible.
The plane lurched in a jerky descent, finally touching down unsteadily. I was still mostly unslept, but now had the excitement of seeing Tim at the airport to look forward to. The visa process was a mild debacle, no doubt exacerbated by my impatience and exhaustion, but finally I emerged from the airport. And there was a Tim, waiting for me calmly, with a sign in hand (Anne Marie: Party of Awesome). I threw my arms around him in gratitude and genuine excitement to see him.
As we tossed my backpack into a tuk-tuk, I caught a glimpse of the Khmer man out of the corner of my eye. He and his girlfriend were walking hand-in-hand toward a family with arms outstretched and huge smiles on their faces. My heart softened. The tuk-tuk started towards the city, Tim and I began chatting excitedly, and the flight was behind me.