Car, train, bus, ferry, flight: these are some of the ways one can get from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, the two major points of interest in Cambodia. With just 5 days to play around with it made perfect sense to just fly up to Siem Reap. Flying domestic in Cambodia almost always leads to one airline: Cambodia Angkor Air, the national airline, subsidiary of Vietnam Airlines. Being the most reputable, people book on this airline pretty quickly so tickets are more often than not every expensive.
WHAT AIRLINE WOULD IT BE?
Pricing is always a huge factor for me: if I get some fun & unique planes & airlines out of it, well & good, it not, well, that’s alright. With Angkor Air out of the way, I looked at my other options: Sky Angkor have the bigger A321 planes in their fleet (a type I have been on just the one time), but do not operate PNH-REP, JC International did not have favorable timings, while Small Planet (Cambodia) only had charter bookings. Lanmei Airlines & Bassaka Air were just a touch too expensive for me on PNH-REP
TURBOPROP TURBORPOP, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?
With the urge of logging a turbo-prop aircraft & Angkor Air still out the question, in came Cambodia Bayon Airlines to the rescue! Now, they are the only airline in Cambodia without a single Airbus plane in their fleet - 2 Chinese built Xian MA-60 airplanes operate plane for them. XU-001 & XU-002. These came in brand new around fall 2014 - meaning these planes were about 4.5 years old.
CASE FOR THE XIAN MA60
Xian MA60 - the ATR72 & Q400 type airplane with quite the unfortunate record. I went ahead and warned my brother that I was going to book on a fun one. Be my brother, who isn’t quite the adventurous types when it comes to planes, said absolute nothing, so I took this as a cue to book the tickets with Cambodia Bayon Airlines. The MA60 isn’t a new plane for me: I have flown on this type with Helitours - the tourism arm of the Sri Lankan Air Force, but the planes wasn’t as scary as the internet portrayed it to be. How would it be this time?
Throwback to August 2013: my first time on the Xian MA60: Ratmalana - China Bay (Trincomalee) - Palaly (Jaffna) and back, both on 4R-HTO
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Reading online suggested that PayPal would be on OK way to book with them, but I was fearing the worst: account charged, but no ticket. Hoping for the best, I went ahead and saw my options on Bayon Airlines’ website early in May: with fares being $1, some other fees being $9.10, and taxes at $20 - a one way ticket was $30.10, with the total coming up to be $60.20. Looked reasonable for a 50min flight over. In fact, I got a ticket just fine in my mailbox pretty quickly as well. Of course, the barebones website didn’t show a whole lot about seat selection, online check in, etc etc. I was just looking forward to (hopefully) getting a window seat on the Xian.
Being the angsty nervous one that I am, I kept a keen eye on the operations of Cambodia Bayon Airlines: not a whole can be deciphered because the Xian’s never showed up on FlightRadar 24: my only source(s) of information were off of Facebook which is a decent indication of pissed off passengers, as was TripAdvisor, and the Cambodia Airports website - all of which showed Cambodia Bayon Airlines had two flights a day out of Phnom Penh, one to Siem Reap, and the other to Sihanoukville - everything showed that these were normal operations.
CANCELLED & REBOOKED!
An easy straightforward flight turned out to get just that little bit tricky, a heart in mouth moment for me: BD111 had been cancelled, and we were rebooked on to BD115, a flight leaving about an hour and a half earlier, and through Sihanoukville: great, the quick flight north turned into a diversion to the South, in addition to an even longer leg up north. Besides, the new departure time meant that we’d be in amongst the rush at the airport and the morning commute for several folk to offices. New flight details were as follows.
Awesome, looks like I was in for my first ever ‘direct’ flight, but not quite non-stop, same flight number, same plane with a stopover, for the first time since 2013: incidentally, even that was on the Xian MA60 of Helitours, as I mentioned above.
Having made it to Phnom Penh just fine on Thai, the first day was spent doing a little bit of sightseeing, beer and lovely Cambodian dinner.
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View from the apartment
Single Beer at BKK was quickly followed by Angkor Beer at PNH. I certainly liked this one better!
Traditional dance show was put up during dinner
The next morning it was on to the S-21 Prison: it was astonishing to see what humans can do other humans, and the extent they’d go with the power they’d misuse. The whole experience left me speechless, and just so sad.
That evening we went to the King’s Palace - a beautiful piece of architecture!
Angkor Wat - we'd be seeing this in 2 days
A museum @ the palace
Would this be a bus? Or a tuktuk?
AUGUST 7TH 2018: CAMBODIA BAYON AIRLINES FLIGHT BD115 PNH-KOS-REP XIAN MA60
The next morning of the busy trip, the first half of the day would be spent heading to Siem Reap on the Xian MA60, checking in to the hotel and then heading out for The Smile Of Angkor, a show put on by some locals dressed up as Apsaras. Prior to that however, the Xian MA60.
We planned on reaching the airport 2 hours before departure time, and we nearly made it - being dropped off curbside at 0820 hours, 1hr50min to departure. It was a busy time as some entered the terminal, some hung around, while staff did everything to keep the place clean & organized: they did really well.
We had to kill about 15/20 minutes - the counters were assigned, but no one to be seen. I kept an eye on the departure boards to see any movement at all - I was being quite the skeptic.
The penny dropped. I saw a ‘RESCHEDULE’ beside a flight to Siem Reap. A 1010 hours departure. Delayed by 5 hours. My heart dropped. My plans fell apart. That was until I realized it was the ATR 72 service operated by Cambodia Angkor Air. Phew! Everything around, I swear, was out to get me.
Common area for both intl & domestic flights
We took our spot in the check in line - was a Swedish family ahead of us, who presumably got 5A, 5B and 5D, the emergency exit row. Check in was done by a largely attentive staff, except that they were more attentive in what their coworkers had to say than to serve us, thankfully the request for a window seat granted, and the inquiry about checking in bags shot down with a ‘you need to pay (the) money’ - something not mentioned on their website of course, but not a surprise given the $2 base fare. Hmm, so is Bayon a no-frills carrier then? Definitely.
Boarding pass in our hands, the generic airport’s own brand, it was off to security. Domestic & international departures are separated, with us heading towards the left from check in.
(NERVOUS) COUNTDOWN TO DEPARTURE…
It is a bit of a walk with not a whole lot of life around, but once at security it was quick & professional. We were in line for check in at 0843, and done with security at 0849, most of it being spent walking from check in to security, but no biggie. Not a whole lot in the domestic departures - a RELAY store, a cafe, a book shop and seating area(s). There’s 3 gates in the domestic part, gates 1 & 2 further divided in to a & b for remote bay boarding through a bus, while 3 is a jet bridge.
With most of the morning departures gone and the Angkor Air flight significantly delayed it wasn’t overly busy. Plenty of seating room, nice & clean, pretty open spaces meaning nothing was overly crowded - I liked what I saw of Phnom Penh International Airport. Well, it was on to planespotting then!
A Cambodia Airways A319 registered XU-787 was about to head out: this being a new airline that started operations barely a month prior to this trip being taken, a 2 over-wing exit door plane. Nice!
In the mean time, one of two Bassaka Air’s A320s taxied to the runway as a Thai Smile A320 & Bangkok Airways A319 landed from Bangkok.
Some other internationals included a China Eastern 737-700 from Kunming, while the Thai Smile A320 was HS-TXM, the same that got us from Bangkok barely 2 days ago. This was however, 30 minutes late, breaking the airplane’s record of being on time for the past several days during it's rotation.
BOARDING, I THINK?
Saw time count down, but no one at the gate. Once again, the nerves kicked in…
Eventually however someone showed up to be present at the gate 40 minutes before departure, and 30 minutes before departure boarding was called. Gate 1b was being used for the delayed Angkor Air flight to Siem Reap, those passengers patiently waiting around and not throwing a fit about it. We headed down to a well air conditioned bus.
Being an LCC (I presume?) they waited for everyone to board at once. A Silk Air 737 MAX 8 headed back to Singapore - who even knew what a reputation this plane would build for itself.
More Boeings on the ramp
We waited in the bus for about 10 odd minutes, a total of 35 passengers including the two of us. 35 out of 50, a 70% load factor. With most domestic planes being parked at the South-West corner of the field, Cambodia Bayon’s two Xian MA60s were parked in the northwest part. Just a couple of choppers around.
Staring down at the 2 Xian MA60s in Bayon's fleet - my brother presumably unimpressed with the realization that these aren't an ATR or a Q-series..
With seats pre-determined, it wasn’t a bad idea to let everyone board and then make our way, for who doesn’t love remote bay boarding! Turns out, I wasn’t the only one enjoying the sights of the Xian, but the same couldn’t be said about my brother as his face grew small just by looking at the turboprop.
XU-002 would be our bird, presumably a 4.5 year old plane, there is no official information I can find about this. With XU-002 doing what is perhaps Bayon’s only flight(s) of the day, APU running, several crew around etc, XU-001 was shut off and parked for the day. Propellers feather on both airplanes, but of course XU-002 had the tug ready to push back.
I was onboard at 1000 hours, 10 minutes before departure time, to a pretty anonymous crew, if anything. This Xian MA60 was equipped with 48 seats in Economy, and 2 awkwardly placed business class seats on each side with a curtain at the very back of the fuselage. The first for me: a 2 class turboprop!
Took our seats 6A & 6B, although I was assigned 6B the aisle seat, my brother gave up the window seat without even trying.
As I killed the apps on my phone the crew sternly asked me to put my phone away - well, things were too a shaky start to say the least. Two crew members on this flight - the one doing the safety checks before departure, and the other doing the announcements.
DEPARTURE - PUSHBACK…
Now before we knew it, XU-002 was being pushed back for departure, 5 minutes before time. Always fun aboard a turboprop seeing the engines whirr in to life - more so with the MA60 & the Q400, seeing as the ATR72 has a hotel mode where the propellors move a while after.
….THE RUN UP & THE CUT OUT……?!
But anyway, this where things got fun. The pilots did a run up on the taxiway, I could clearly hear the feathering of propellors, but after a few seconds of it being in high power, the number 2 engine just quit. Like, dead. That’s when I thought to myself that we were in for a big long delay, but not until the engines fired back up just fine and we started taxiing.
And it was at this point that even my face grew small, absolutely terrified of what seemed like a high possibility of an engine failure in flight. ‘Hey so planes CAN fly on just the one engine right?’ asked my brother, arguably with an even smaller face, as BD115 was cleared for an intersection take off from Runway 23. It was a short taxi, but with the start up and…whatever that run up was, it took nearly 10 minutes.
…..AND THE TAKE OFF!
Props set, throttle slowly advance forward, brakes released, we were rolling down the runway and off the ground at 1014 hours, with both of us being absolutely terrified, almost like first time flyers or something. Climbed up to what looked like about 18000 feet or so.
Most passengers kept to themselves, while my brother and I broke in to a sweat as there was some turbulence to complicate things, perhaps even being religious for once. Have something psychologically messed up, and here you are on what possibly is the worst flight of your life. Crew pulled up a tiny cart. There was only water on offer, we took that! It was 14 minutes in flight. I enjoyed the scenery below - there were some hills underneath as we flew southwest. The seat itself while comfortable had very little legroom - given that they squeezed in more seats due to business class taking up tons of space.
Just the water, but that's perfectly fine
I had a window mate…unfortunately it was dead…
DESCENT & ARRIVAL
16 minutes in to the flight the crew had to rush service - we had commenced descent in to Sihanoukville. Over the terrain it was quite the bumpy approach - I couldn’t gauge how high above we were but thanks to the flaps I could tell we were getting close. Gear down, in full landing configuration the approach got very bumpy very quickly - to the extent that my brother got a little sick. I reassured him that we weren’t more than a few hundred feet off the ground as we touched down a few seconds later, a 3 point landing, at 1045 hours after 31 minutes in flight on Runway 21. We floated for quite some time past the 1000 foot markers, but leg 1 was complete, and we were there pretty shattered.
Announcements were made indicating that all passengers had to disembark, including us to Siem Reap. Parked beside us was a JC Airlines A320 heading to Siem Reap, a flurry of activity going on beside it. There are 5 bays over at Sihanoukville, with about 20 international or domestic scheduled flights in to the small airport.
The fuselage shook violently, almost being pulled to the right as the engines were turned off. It was 1050 hours, with 50 minutes to departure.
Everyone disembarked quick as some ground staff created somewhat of a shield around the plane to make sure no one walked up to the propellor or engine. Walked across the tarmac to the very small terminal - 30 people walked straight to arrivals, with just one or two bags needed to be delivered on the conveyor (made me wonder how expensive the baggage fees were) - but just 5 of us who had to re-clear security even though we just got off the plane. And yes - this was a dedicated security for transit only, while departure passengers came in from elsewhere.
Business class on the Xian MA60
That was….quite the flight
Cambodia Bayon Airlines
Phnom Penh - PNH
Sihanukville - KOS
A bit of a scary flight to be honest... but all in all it went fine looking back at it. Whew!
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