A Hackney couple stranded in Cambodia were celebrating after they flew back to the UK last week on a privately arranged charter flight after finding the embassy there had shut down and flights out of the country cancelled.
Finn Marmot, 18, and girlfriend, Alixandra Benson, 19, returned to their home in Hackney on Friday on the flight organised by Jerry Lewis, a teacher travelling with his own family after their gap year abroad was cut short by the sudden cancellation of airlines worldwide.
Marmot said of Lewis: “When we messaged Jerry Lewis about a space on the flight and he told us to come down to book the flights. It was pure relief.”
Lewis, a headteacher from East Sussex who had been travelling on a sabbatical in Cambodia with his wife and three children, said he, his partner and some other travellers had been forced to organise the flight themselves after failing to get any response from the embassy.
Lewis said: “When the Foreign Secretary had announced on the 17 March that UK nationals should return home we had immediately booked flights for the following week.
“Four days later, Emirates announced that they were suspending all flights with immediate effect. Realising that the opportunities to leave Cambodia were very limited and [that we] risked losing even more money, I contacted a friend at BA and asked for help.”
Lewis’s friend at BA helped them get in touch with Malaysian Airlines to facilitate their rescue flight.
In a post about organising flights, Lewis said: “Having to produce a list of names for this flight without everyone who wants to leave on it has been one of the hardest things I have ever had to do.
“After discussion with Ahmad Luqman Bin Mohd Azmi (Group Chief Operations Officer for Malaysian Airlines) we [reduced] ticket prices. To prioritise people over profit at this point is exceptional. He is the hero of this piece.”
Marmot said: “There were about four people including Jerry and his wife who had all been there for 12 hours on their laptops speaking to Malaysian Airlines and trying to make the payment website to work.”
Marmot and his girlfriend were meant to be travelling in Asia from February until June, however, after the rapid development of Covid-19, they found themselves stuck on a remote island in Cambodia, watching most commercial flights back home fall through.
Marmot said: “When we realised we couldn’t get home we headed to the embassy. We were met by guards. The embassy was closed. We were given letters with details of flights and turned away. Most of the listed flights had been cancelled.”
“We were initially told to stay [in Cambodia] and wait it out then, then, the UK realised it wasn’t going to calm down and the messages suddenly turned to: get home now.”
Marmot met Lewis through ‘Stranded in Cambodia’, a Facebook group organised by other tourists who were trying to get back to the UK.
Lewis managed to arrange the charter flight back home for 103 UK tourists stranded in Cambodia along with the Hackney couple. Their flight departed on 27 March from Phnom Penh, stopped over in Kuala Lumpur and arrived at Heathrow on Saturday.
In the post, Lewis said: “Tina Redshaw could not have done less to help us.”
Hilary Kinsler, Finn’s mother said: “There was no advice from the airline companies and the government was useless.”
On their way back to the mainland, the efforts to get in touch with the British embassy from Finn as well as his mother, Hilary, in the UK, were unsuccessful. They say they were left with no more than a beep of the automated replies asking them to return home.
“It’s exactly what we were trying to do,” said Hilary. “At that point, you can imagine I was getting worried. I just wanted my son home.”
The flight cost Hilary short of £1300.
The UK government has started organising private charter flight support to those still left stranded abroad in ‘priority countries’. Cambodia has not been listed as a ‘priority country’ leaving hundreds yet to return.
In an email sent out to those still stranded in Cambodia the embassy said that Cambodia is not their priority as there are still some commercial flights operating and there is a ‘low number of British nationals in Cambodia’.
Marmot and Benson arranged to self-isolate in a flat separate from his mother and both feel fine after their return.
The Facebook group is still actively acting to organise further charter flights from Cambodia.