Saturday, October 16, 2004

The Great Mother Goddess Kangaroo!

A cautionary note!

Dear fellow cyclists,
We live in a beige world, and if you're gonna show your colours, you need to be very bloody careful which flag pole you run 'em up. So pl-e-e-a-a-se, don't all go rushing off to Tasmania at once like a pack of school kids on parade sans knickers. I don't wanna pick up the Bangkok Post one day next month and read:

Australia, Monday: Cradle Mountain officials bewildered at sudden surge in international cyclists to Park!

Why? Because it's only a short step away from:
Marsupial Monster Nabbed at Airport!

Melbourne, Frid: Kangaroo molesting cyclist Mr Felix was detained today as he attempted to slip through immigration at Melbourne International Airport.

A defiant Mr Felix was led away by Federal Police, shouting: Infidels! Infidels!

He faces a maximum life sentence if convicted, and a 3 million dollar fine.

And I can hear them baying in the back streets of Melbourne.
Person 1: I always knew he was no-good! When we went to the Melbourne Zoo he took an unnatural interest in the monkey cage!
Person 2: Yes, dogs! Dogs! He always made a point of patting my dog whenever he came to visit. Egad! It makes me sick to think about it!

OK, folks, keep the rubber side down and may the wind be at your back,
your cycling pal,
Mr Felix - Phuket, Thailand

Thursday, October 14, 2004

The Butcher of Sisophon and the Great Mother Goddess Kangaroo!

My Bung Arm - Part 1

Sisophon – West Cambodia

Klaus comes by and picks me up at 1 PM. I just love German punctuality. We take off in his 4 Wheel Drive, headed for the surgery.

I make some light conversation, just to relax us all a bit.

Klaus, that's a pretty common name in Germany, isn't it?' I ask.

'Yeah, there are a few of us,' he says.

'Yeah,' I rattle on, 'it's kind of your generic German name, isn't it, like Fritz or if you were English you'd be called Tommy, like in the war, you called English guys Tommy, and we called you guys Klaus or Fritz, and maybe Americans are called Randy or Bob.'

Klaus keeps driving, looking steadily ahead and doesn't say anything, and I realise out of nervousness I've ventured in to dangerous territory. I try a back-peddle.

'Hey! Hey!' I laugh (forced), 'At least we're not (note the first person plural) called Bob, eh? I hate to be called Bob! What a stupid name. Imagine being called Bob Down, or maybe Bob Up! Hey! Hey...'

'Yeah, right...' says Klaus.

We arrive at the surgery and bundle out of the truck. The surgery is clean enough, but incredibly empty and sparse. No pot plants, no fish tank to soothe the fretting mind, no smiling receptionist to take your details and enter them on the computer for posterity (in case something goes seriously wrong).

Just the doctor and what looks like his younger brother. And they both look startled. And I’m so nervous all I can do is nod, smile and point to my right arm.

Klaus rattles off my something about my problem in pigeon Khmer and the doctor motions me in to the examination room in pigeon English. I don’t get his name, and he doesn’t ask me mine.

‘Show me arm,’ he says. I boldly thrust it forward.

‘Swollen!’ he says. OK, yep. ‘Mosquito!’ he continues.

OK, whatever, but what can we do and am I going to die?

‘I clean!’ he says.

He’s incredibly brusque, and I must say I respond to the gentle approach a little more, but maybe he’s just nervous. It’s not everyday you get a farang in the surgery.

I’ll make some small talk, that’ll lighten things up a bit.

‘I guess you don’t get many Westerner’s in here much, eh, doctor? Heh! Heh!’ I say.

‘I clean!’ he repeats.

OK, cut the small talk, let’s just clean the arm. There’s puss around the elbow and the arm is 50% bigger than it should be. It’s a mess. Let’s get to work. Good idea.

He leads me down a corridor with his brother trotting behind, and I leave Hardy sitting in the reception room.

‘See you soon, Klaus!’ I call out. He waves back encouragingly.

We enter what must be the surgery, and I’m told to lie down on the table. It’s a proper padded adustable number, which is encouraging, but the white covering sheet hasn’t been cleaned in a while and there’s blood dotted around the head-rest.

Brain surgery?

The doctor takes my arm and swabs it with some alcohol, and says, ‘I clean! No move!’

OK, cool, no move.

He then takes out a new razor blade and repeats, ‘No move!’

OK, we’re gonna open the white pussey bits on the elbow, might sting a bit, but I can handle it. If you’re gonna make an omelet, you gotta break some eggs.

I relax a bit, and look around the room. Over on the opposite wall there’s a calendar with a Swiss mountain scene hanging askew, and further along the ubiquitous oil painting of Angkor Wat. You see these paintings all over Cambodia. In people’s houses, in cafes, Guest Houses and doctor’s surgeries, it seems.

I catch a vigorous sweeping motion out of the corner of my eye, and suddenly there is such a jolt of sharp, stinging pain in my elbow, rifling down my arm that I momentarily dry retch. It’s so intense that I draw inwards and go black for an instant and then involuntarily lurch forward with neck muscles tensed and jaws clenched.

Oh, Christ in heaven! Oh, Jesus! I gasp for breath, and there’s tears flooding in to my eyes and spit coming out through my teeth in bubbles.

The doc has cut a two inch slice right on the end of the elbow, straight through the pussey bits and in to the flesh. Oh, shit. Oh, scheiße!

I look up and see the doctor’s brother peering over my arm, eye’s wide, grinning.

‘What the fuck!’ is all I can manage.

The doctor says something in Khmer and grabs my arm in a vice grip, and begins squeezing. Oh, holy shit-bags in heaven. There’s blood and puss oozing out of the wound and running down my arm, and the pain is turning in to a deep throb, all the way along the bones and in to my fingers which are splayed outward and rigid.

I swear, I curse. The doctor squeezes some more and his brother continues to grin. I’m breaking out in a sweat. My whole body is wet, and I’m suppressing the urge to vomit.

This is hell. Keep it together, Feely. I’m talking myself through, holding touch, walking the wire.

I focus. I close my eyes and pull inside. The doctor keeps squeezing. I breath, forcing the air in and out, slow and deliberate. I feel myself sink an inch or two inside my body. I’m falling, separating.

And then a picture pops up in to my mind: my right hand is inside the pouch of a kangaroo.

All the way in, deep, and it’s the most pleasureable feeling imaginable.

Utter marsupial bliss, something from home, something from deep within the Australian heartland, from a time before even the aboriginals first got out of their canoes, some 50 odd thousand years ago, looked around and said, ‘Hey, nice place! Let’s move in!’

Fancy that memory coming up now! The mind is a beautiful thing.

I was down in Tasmania some years back with a mate, doing the Cradle Mountain–Lake St. Claire walk. Tasmania is an island off the south east coast of mainland Australia, about the size of Rumania (!), and our smallest state.

It’s also pretty much the land time forgot. They’ve got crazy mixed up animals down there that appear nowhere else on the globe. The echidna, for example, is a small, marsupial spiny ant-eater that lays eggs, and suckles it’s young in a pouch. A strange combination of survival skills, but it works.

In fact, most things down there are marsupial, except of course the Tiger snakes, which are aggressive, large and deadly.

And the scenery is wild and beautiful, and in many places, pristine. Rugged mountains, deep rain-forested valleys and spectacular rivers that cut through the rock and spill out in shooting waterfalls on to the plains.

And of course, kangaroos.

Cradle Mountain is a large, 'cradle' shaped rise in the north west of the state, and the walk to Lake St. Claire takes about a week. At the entrance to the walk is a small Bavarian style chalet, surrounded by well watered, green fields.

And oh! how kangaroos love open, green fields, gentle herbivores that they are.

My mate and I set out on the walk, working our way past the chalet and up around the open fields. Right beside us, lounging on the grass was a large mob of maybe thirty kangaroos, taking no notice of our approach. They see a lot of humans around the chalet, so no big deal.

It was a bright sunny day, and ‘roos were half asleep, chewing on some grass, lying on their sides and looking well fed and bored.

So what the hey! Maybe I’ll go over and pat one. Why not? And so I do, and she seems to like it as I tickle her behind the ears. Nice kangaroo!

Hey, maybe I’ll rub her tummy! I call out to my mate, ‘Hey! Look at this! I’m rubbing a kangaroo’s belly!’

He takes a picture, but keeps a safe distance.

I mean, you never know with kangaroos. If they get upset they can split you in two with one swift kick of their hind legs, so you gotta take it slow and easy if you’re gonna get intimate. It requires a sensitive hand.

So then I start thinking, ‘What’s it like in the pouch?’ It’s something you never read about, and doesn’t come up in conversation much.

Nice kangaroo, there’s a good girl! Uncle Feely is your friend!

I slip my hand lower and lower down her belly, giving her a quiet rub, back and forth as I go down, down towards the Inner Sanctum.

The fur is getting softer and softer, and then I get to the pouch, and slowly, slowly I slip my fingers in. No movement from the kangaroo, no body language to say That's as far as you go on the first date, buster!, so I push down further, until my whole hand is sliding in to the pouch.

And then it happens, and it’s hard to describe.

Imagine the softest, most angelic kid-leather mitten, warm and ever so slightly moist. Imagine it enclosing your hand, welcoming, protecting, accepting, holding. Imagine that, and maybe smoke a big joint as well, and multiply by a hundred, and you wouldn’t even be close.

My whole body goes immediately limp, and I sink to the ground beside the kangaroo and lie down in the grass, and I never want to move. I am home.

My mate calls out, a little concerned, ‘Are you OK?’, and all I can do is nod my head.

When I die, folks, I wanna go to kangaroo heaven.

I keep it there, not moving, not doing anything until after about 10 minutes my mate finally calls out that we need to push on if we’re gonna make the first hut by night-fall.

OK, time to pull out, but gee, what an effort of will.

We trudge off down the track, and I’m babbling on and on about the experience, and my mate tells me later that he was seriously concerned about my mental well-being.

Yes, well, they thought Rama Krishna was mad when he returned, stricken, from the all embracing arms of Mother Kali at Kali Ghat. And ditto for pretty little Bernadette when she returned, full of grace, from a meeting with the Virgin at the grotto in Lourdes.

Let them scoff, infidels that are!

When you have lay down with the Great Mother Goddess Kangaroo, who cares?

For the next 24 hours my right hand feels touched by the infinite. It’s light and airy, but also soft, contained and dense. It floats, but it’s also grounded.

Oh, yes, we can but talk in riddles of things mystical. So be it.

Back in the doctor’s surgery I’m getting my arm bound, and there’s blood seeping through the bandages. No stitches, no pain killers, no ‘There’s a brave boy!’, but most of the puss seems to be out, and I’m on my feet and following the doctor and his brother back out along the corridor.

I’m absolutely drenched in sweat and my clothes are hanging off me like I’ve been out in the rain.

Klaus takes one look at me, and I note the look of horror on his face. He'd heard me screaming from the back room.

We pay up, ten bucks in all, and take away some anti-inflammatory pills. Take 3 a day for 10 days.

OK, ‘Thanks, doc!’, now let’s get out of here.

‘When he said he was going to be clean the wound, I thought he was just meaning to give it a little bit of cleaning!’ says Klaus.

‘Yeah, welcome to Cambodia…’, I say, and we pull out from the curb and head back through town.

My arm is still throbbing, and stings every time I move it. Christ, what a day.

Klaus drops me off at my Guest House and invites me up to his house for dinner later on in the evening. He promises some Western food, and maybe we have a little bit of cheese, Felix!, which sounds pretty good.

I’ll be there.

We drive through the Guest House gates, I get out of the truck, I walk to my room, climb on the bed and cash in my chips.

Cycle Day 10: North West Cambodia

Banteay Chhmar to Sisophon – 64 km

The Ride/the Route:

Another flat, dirt road. No hills and very light traffic. The scenery is mainly paddies and some forested sections, with blue mountains out towards Thailand.

My Cambodian Road Atlas tells me this section of road is in better condition than the road north of Banteay Chhmar, but I couldn’t see much difference. Good and firm in sections, and cut up in others. Easy in the dry, difficult in the wet.

There’s a few broken bridges where you must walk the bike across, but it’s no hassle. Also a few mine-fields, but they’re clearly marked. You’d need to work hard at getting blown up.

There’s no Guest House in B Chhmar, but a market and good cafes by the lake. A pleasant spot to eat and drink. There’s also a basic bike shop.

There’s drinks all along the route, and food, shops and a market at Thma Puok (16 km from B Chhmar), and also at Svay Chak/Chet (36 km from B Chhmar).

You will come in to Sisophon from the north. When you hit the main roundabout by the big park, turn east towards Siem Reap down highway 6, and there’s 4 Guest Houses (3 on the south side, and 1 on the north) about 1 km down the road, just past the Sokamex petrol station. They’re cheap and basic at 10,000 Riel ($2:50), and I recommend the one on the north side, but take your pick.

The Day’s Ride:

Orn’s family wake up early and head off for the paddies, and I get packed and survey the damage on the back wheel. The tube has blown the side out of my tyre, so it’s either change the lot here in Banteay Chhmar, or catch a pick-up all the way to Sisophon.

I’m not hopeful.

Orn’s on holiday from the university and is off to a party with his mates in town. I slip him five bucks with strict instructions to buy lots of beer.

Good for the over-taxed mind, Orn! I say.

Now, I admit I might be suffering from Advice Transference Syndrome (ATS), perhaps needing a beer myself, but I turn down his invite to tag along. My right arm is swollen and paining and I need a doctor, so I need to get to Sisophon without too much mucking about.

The word amputation has surfaced in my mind this morning, and it’s not a word I normally associate with myself.

What do you think the problem is, Orn? I ask, waving the arm around in front of his face for maximum emotional effect.

Mosquitoes! he says. Yeah, right, just what I thought. I may be becoming clairaudient.

We exchange email addresses, and I trudge off wheeling my bike, and turn on to the main road towards town.

There was a hell of a storm last night, and the thunder claps woke me a couple of times, but I’m refreshed, and am busily telling myself to relax and accept whatever the day brings. The last couple of days have been arduous, wet and mud-filled, and I’ve been seriously wondering about the meaning of it all.

Remember to be Buddhist, Feely! I tell myself. You could be at home, waking up to a beautiful Melbourne spring morning, sipping a latte and reading about the latest episode in fundamental lunacy, and who needs all that?

Out here in Camboland it’s also a beautiful morning, the clouds are puffy and white and there’s some blue sky peeking through, but the road through town is a complete pig’s trough. It’s gushing mud and brown water, and I’m dodging and sliding around just walking the bike.

I come up past the temple ruins and stop to take a quick look. They’re right beside the road and are the usual exotic Khmer thing; big Buddha faces, semi-reliefs and inscriptions, and of course, the whole complex is falling down. So works the ravages of time, war and Thai antique dealers.

I’d like to spend longer, but with a question mark hanging over the day, I push on after 20 minutes. I’m told there’s a bigger complex somewhere up the road, but again, I’ll pass. As I’ve said before, ruins don’t spin my wheels all that much. I prefer a good road.

Three hundred metres through town and around the bend I come to the market and a few shops and cafes across from the lake. It’s brown and ramshackle, but picturesque all-the-same. There’s a couple of large Bodhi trees arching across the road giving plenty of shade, and on the other side of the lake sit the temple ruins. The ancient Khmers certainly knew how to pick a nice spot.

I choose the cleanest café, and wander in. The waitress looks appropriately startled and runs off before I get a chance to order, but she’s back in a flash with the manager, Mr Beng (or something), who speaks pretty good English and is over-joyed to see me.

Welcome, welcome! he says, flapping his arms around and grinning broadly. He motions me to a seat, and then sits down right beside me, and sends the waitress off for two iced coffees on the house. Excellent.

Mr Beng was at university studying English and French up until 1975 when the Khmer Rouge took over. End of studies, act stupid, and keep your head down for the next four years.

But there was a lot Khmer Rouge activity up here in Banteay Meanchay Province right through until the mid-to-late-nineties, and for the local population the nightmare continued like a long drawn out Indian Summer, minus the chappatis.

The Khmer Rouge used to abduct people from around here, take them off in to the forest, and demand a ransom from the family, says Mr Beng, sadly.

I nod. The common people get shafted again here in South East Asia. I sip my coffee.

So what are you doing here, Mr Feelis? he asks.

Well, I’m cycling through to Sisophon, I say, but I’ve got this bung arm. What do you think is wrong it? I wave it around in front of his face etc. Mosquitoes?

He nods. Yep, mozzies. Damndest thing.

The swelling has mooched all the way down in to my right hand, and the knuckles and fingers are pudgey and white. It’s looking decidedly Sigourney Weaver and Alien.

Mr Beng shows me to the bike shop a couple of doors down and I sift through the dusty collection of tyres hanging from the wooden rafters. There’s no point getting the tube fixed if I can’t find the right tyre. They’ve only got about a dozen in all, so I’m not holding my breath.

But, wouldn’t you know! There it is, a 26 inch x 1.75 nobby tyre, made in Thailand. I strip the back wheel off the bike and hand in across to the bike shop guy. What a find! Who’d have believed it?

OK, lads! Fix the tube, fit the tyre, bugger the cost and give me a yell when it’s all done. I’ll be drinking coffee with my new best friend Mr Beng, and chatting up his waitress.

I pay the bike-shop guys 16,000 Riel ($4.00), which is a pretty good deal for a tube patch and a new tyre, and I hit the road.

The clouds are building up, and sooner or later it’s going to rain, but it’s only about sixty odd kilometres to Sisophon, so it’s gonna be no different than the last few days. Wet, and mostly shit-house, but what the hey! I’m working through my own little personal hell, and I’m sure it’s doing me good.

And despite the flat tyres, the bike is performing beautifully, and I’m getting distinctly fitter, and more resilient. And despite the swelling and occasional ache, the arm is not impeding my progress much. I need to take it off the grip every now and then and flex it, but apart from that, no worries.

But also, I must say, I’m in need of some Western company. Preferably someone who likes to talk about concepts, and maybe even better, someone who likes to listen to my concepts. I don’t ask for much.

Oh, Jesus, who loves me and always provides what I need, not what I want, send me a conceptualist! Thanks again, your pal, Feely, over and out.

The road out of town is surprisingly dry so I step on the pedals. I go past paddies in flood, and the usual stream of Khmer farmers calling out and waving as I go by. And the traffic is very light. A few pick-ups packed with smiling Khmers, some small tractors and trailors, and of course, motor bikes.

The new back tyre is hanging in beautifully, and I’m making great time, weaving around the ditches, cutting back and forth across the road and enjoying the view. Cycling can be exhilerating at times.

It’s a decidedly simple activity, really, but requires concentration and stamina, and as the days go by, you feel your body changing, getting taught and able.

And you are forced to excede your limits, forced to go on when all you want to do is lie back in an ice cold jacuzzi of Coca Cola, with ice chunks the size of footballs bobbing gently up and down and making the Coke go fizz-zz around your ears.

But so you get fit and mean. Is good.

16 km down the road I come to Thmar Puok. It’s a small village with the usual gaggle of shops and services, and I pull in for a Coke and some food. The clouds are looking menacing now, so after 15 minutes I push out on to the road again and move in to top gear.

There’s blue mountains out towards Thailand and green paddies all along the route, and the odd broken down bridge. The wind is kicking up in short gusts, and a light rain sweeps in from the west. It’s not enough to dampen the road or my spirits, and I cycle on, and it passes.

By the time I get to Svay Chet the sun has broken through and all of a sudden it’s hot. Yeah, things change out here. I stop at a café and ask to use the loo, and they direct me all the way out the back to the Wat.

I like country Wats, and have spent a lot of time in them over the years, and this one is no disapointment. There’s an old monk brushing up some leaves by the kitchen so I wander over and ask if I can use the toilet. He’s old and wrinkled, and amused, and gives me a key and points to the ablution block down the path.

It’s clean and quiet and shadey inside, so after attending to business I strip off and take a long shower. I pour the cool water slowly over my back, and let it run down my legs. My God, this is close to heaven. Over and over I pour, until I’m almost cold myself, and intensely refreshed.

When I take the key back to the monk I stop and tell him what I’m doing and where I’m going, and he asks me if I need a place to stay. How I love these guys! Normally I’d probably take him up on the offer. The thought of getting off the road and wandering around the grounds for the afternoon is appealing, but my arm beckons.

I say my goodbyes and head back to the café. Pleasure time over. While I’ve been chatting to the monk the clouds have rolled in, and a storm is on the way. It’s about 35 km to Sisophon from here, so I either sit it out, or brave it.

I decide to head out, and hope I can find a roadside café somewhere down the road when the rain hits.

Half an hour later I get caught in a deluge, and the road turns immediately evil. And there’s no café, just paddies and Khmer’s sheltering under trees. I ride on through the gathering mud until I’m so soaked and exhausted and pissed-off that I ride off the road at full speed and come to a slithering, agressive stop under a small tree.

I dismount and stand by the bike. I feel like Ratty in Wind in the Willows; wet, bedraggled and was having a good time but now it’s all turned bad. Ah, shit. Fuck this! I wanna be in Sisophon, now. Watching telly.

Two hours later I get there. It’s late afternoon, and the rain has stopped and it’s hot again. I check in to a cheap-o Guest House, take a shower and climb on my bed, feeling lonely and depressed.

My, how it all changes.

Am I the only idiot in the world who crawls in to his Cambodian hotel room, locks the door and doesn’t wanna come out?

Well, maybe not. I take a snooze, and wake up hungry. OK, that’s something: feel hungry, go get something to eat. Right on. Very Zen.

There’s a long line of cafes in Sisophon beside the park, and I cycle along the strip, looking for the right one. Just as I get to the end I see a Whitey at one of the tables and he waves. OK, this looks like dinner and if I’m lucky, a conversation.

Klaus is German, is working in Cambodia, is married to a Khmer girl and is a sometime cyclist. Excellent. He’s also a thoughtful chap, and a conceptualist.

After the prerequisite formalities, we launch in to all the world’s problems, the joys and sorrows of cycling and the mind-numbing terrors of the farang in Asia.

My, oh my! Who’s the Doubting Thomas? Who’s the guy that’s gonna get up to the Pearly Gates and get directed to the door marked: "Doubters"? And what on Earth am I going to say? Oh, boy.

Klaus inspects my arm and thinks it’s probably a spider bite that’s got infected. But no worries, if I can wait until lunch time tomorrow he’ll come and pick me up and take me to the best doctor in Sisophon.

But, Felix, he says, the best doctor in Sisophon is maybe a little bit not so good, and you may have to go to Thailand to get it looked at by a real doctor.

OK, no worries, let’s see what the local quack says, and take it from there.

Before I head back to my Guest House I send an email to my friend Sothy, an American-Khmer living in Chicago. I talk about the arm, and ask her what she thinks.

Any particular spiders or bitey things that you know of in Cambodia? I write. Any particular thing I should do?

Back at the Guest House I crawl in to bed and bury myself in my book. Doctors, I hate doctors almost as much as I hate Custom’s Officials.

OK, another lonely night in Cambodia. Read my book under the 20 watt globe until I can’t see anymore, turn out the light, go to sleep.

Next door there’s a couple of Khmer’s playing Cambodian pop music on a shitty little sound system, but that’s normal.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Cycle Day 9: North West Cambodia

Samraong to Banteay Chhmar - 57 km

The Ride/the Route:

A flat dirt road, mainly smooth and firm, but a few intermittent sections where the road is cut up. There are a few dodgey bridges where you will need to dismount and walk the bike across, but apart from that, everything is straight forward and easy. The traffic is very light. As usual, an easy run in the dry, apart from the dust, but difficult in the wet.

Drinks available along most of the route, and some decent food at the small village of Am Pin, 30 km due west of Samraong. From there it’s 27 km south to Banteay Chhmar.

Banteay Chhmar is a small town, with a market and a few cafes, but there is no Guest House in the town itself. In normal circumstances, you’d be advised to ride straight through to Thma Puok, a further 16 km south down the road, where there is a Guest House (although I didn’t see it), or all the way to Sisophon, 64 km from Banteay Chhmar.

The temple ruins in Banteay Chhmar (what I saw of them) look interesting and untouristed, and there is apparently a Guest House some 10 (or maybe 20?) kilometres out of town at the main temple complex. I don’t know the price or exact location.

The people are very friendly and helpful out here in the north-west, and they don’t see many tourists, especially on bikes.

The scenery is pleasant and rural, paddies and forests, with blue mountains in the distance along the Thai border. There’s quite a few live mine-fields, but they’re all clearly marked. Stick to the road and well worn paths and you’ll be OK.

The Day's Ride:

I roll out of bed at the Phra Chea Thmey Guest House in Sam Raong at the usual early hour and Ouch! My right arm is swollen and sensitive to the touch. The little red volcanoes where the spider (?) bit me are still oozing puss, and the swelling has spread down the arm from the elbow to the middle of the wrist.

Yep, it’s now a medical problem, and not just a minor bother. Just what I need.

It’s also been raining all night, and I woke up a few times and listened to it pounding on the roof. I don’t mind too much if it rains at night, as long as it clears by morning, and there’s a chance that the road will dry out as the day progresses.

But no such luck today.

The clouds are heavy and grey, and there’s an annoying drizzle coming down as I walk out of the Guest House and cross the road to get some breakfast. The Ryk Reah restaurant serves up a big plate of French fries (Freedom fries? Save me!) and good coffee, so this cheers me up a little. French fries are not common fare in Cambodia, so I’m winning on the food front at least.

I order an extra coffee and sit at the front table by myself, gazing out on to the road and the early morning activity.

My arm hurts, it’s raining, I’m lonely, and the roads up ahead will be turning to mush so it looks like I won’t make it through to Sisophon today, about 120 km away. I’ll try for Thmar Pook, about 80 km south west of here. A couple of Khmers have told me there’s a Guest House, so that looks to be the day’s reasonable destination.

If worst comes to worst I can stop in Banteay Chhmar, a small town about 60 klicks down the road. Three out of four Khmer’s tell me there’s also a Guest House there, and these are reasonable odds for the lone cyclist.

And I’m slowly coming around to the idea that I’ll need to go to the doctor to get my arm looked at.

Oh, dear, the Cambodian doctor experience. It’s one I’ve luckily avoided up until now, but it looks like my number is up. Khnom bproo-ay! which is Pigeon Khmer for I’m a little worried about this!

So why don’t I just catch a pick-up all the way into Sisophon and save myself the trauma of two more days riding in the mud with a bung arm? Well, that would be cheating of course, end of story.

Like the Canadian Mounties, the Texas Rangers and any other gung-ho idiotic group of testosterone driven dick-heads you can imagine, the international cyclist comes through.


Well, ladies, down this bung arm and in to these legs flows the blood of Ned Kelly, the Man from Snowy River and possibly the milk-man who used to deliver dairy products to my great grandmother while my great grandfather was away fighting the Hun up along the Rhine River Valley in 1914.

No, defeat is out of the question, even if it kills me. I don’t have many material possessions but I have my pride.

At 10 am I climb on the bike and push out in to the rain.

The main road through Sam Raong is sealed and in very good condition, and heads due south to Chung Can (Chong Kal) and further on to Siem Reap. Considering the rain, the mud and my arm, it would be the wise choice, but I’ve been to Siem Reap a couple of times before, and the glut of soft bottomed tourists doesn’t spin my wheels.

No, it’s the north and north western back roads for me, so I take a right turn off the main road and push west towards Thailand.

It’s muddy and slippery, and there’s deep ruts in the road, and it’s approaching biking hell before my odometer hits 5 kilometres. But no use complaining, just turn those pedals over and over and forget about the pain.

You can do it, Feely. Be a man! So I tell myself.

At the 10 kilometre mark I’m getting cramps in my stomach. What next? Maybe it’s the French fries?

Two hundred metres on I pass a Halo Trust encampment, and the Khmers lying under the awning of the house call out as I go past. OK, this looks like the toilet stop, so I turn the bike around and roll in.

The Halo Trust is one of the many NGO groups here involved in de-mining, and one of the Khmers lounging about under the house speaks good English, which is always a relief. I use the loo, and take up the offer of coffee. And as I sit there sipping it, the rain really sets in.

It looks like the elements are really against me today. I belt across the road to the little variety store and buy a big bag of boiled lollies, run back, share them around and climb in to one of the hammocks. If I’m gonna be stuck here, I might as well get comfortable.

And then I drop off in to a deep sleep. God knows what’s going on. The weather’s screwy, my arm is screwy and so is my metabolism, it seems. The only thing that’s working well is my bike, and the Khmers.

And thank God for their easy going hospitality. No rush, no pressure, no questions. Just lie in the hammock and make yourself at home. This sure is a long way from Switzerland, at least the German speaking part.

I wake up at one o’clock and drink another coffee. Thanks again, lovely Khmers. The rain has stopped and I’m feeling fresh enough to go on. And I’ve only done 10 kilometres, so it looks like Banteay Chhmar might be the end point today.

Up and out along the road I go, working against the mud, sliding and slipping, standing on the pedals and straining to stay upright as I slither from rut to rut. Minute after difficult minute.

There’s farms and paddies all along the way, and a few rivers with broken down wooden bridges. I actually love these old bridges, with their horizontal planks lying across the roadway in all directions, and upright supports standing askew. The wood is grey and weathered, and the bridges have withstood the ravages of weather, time and twenty-five years of serious social conflict.

Beside the rivers, which are swollen from the rains, grow big shady trees, and you’ll often run in to kids fishing off the railings, or women washing clothes down on the cool, dark banks.

But of course, I’m being romantic. If you’re a Khmer, you’re gonna prefer the new metal bridges that are popping up all over Cambodia. They’re clean and functional, and have a certain Stalinist feel to them, but like most things Russian, they do the job.

At the 30 kilometre mark I stop at the small village of Am Pin. It’s almost 3 PM and I’m in need of more coffee and a little food. There’s a market and a string of cafes, but it’s a grubby place, with flies buzzing around the food and dogs sniffing about under the tables of the cafes. It’s also not helped by the rain and mud, but the Khmers are helpful and friendly, as usual, and tell me it’s about 25 kilometres to Banteay Chhmar.

The man at the café also tells me there’s a Guest House there, but the woman selling sugar-cane juice tells me there isn’t. It seems my odds have dropped to 50%, but there’s nought I can do about it, whatever the truth. All will be revealed in God’s good time.

But I’m so exhausted I take a good hour to freshen up, and then it’s back on the road. I’m only averaging ten kilometres an hour in this mud and slush, but I should make it in to Banteay Chhmar by 6:30 PM, just on dark, accidents notwithstanding.

On I go again, down the road, through the mud, slowly and painfully on and on. It’s like dragging a dead weight. I’m doing my best to keep my spirits up, and thankfully my arm, which is still swollen and doesn’t seem to be getting any better, is not impeding my progress.

I pass a few small villages, and the Khmers are friendly and surprised, but gee, this is hard. But by now the rain has stopped and there’s only dark clouds hovering overhead, and as the day turns into late afternoon it’s actually getting chilly out here.

It turns 6 o’clock and I check my odometer. It says 56 kilometres. OK, maybe five to go, maybe ten at a push. I think I’m gonna make it. It’s going on dark already, but not far now.

And then, POP!, a loud bang from the back wheel. Oh, Jesus, no! I’ve blown my back tube. I cannot believe this. Not now, Lord!

This is the last of the super-high-tech self-sealing tubes that they talked me in to buying down at the Melbourne Bike Shop before I set off on this mud-caked odysee (may a pox descend on them and their children for seventeen generations). These tubes aren’t worth a pinch-of-shit. Scheiße!

Not only has the tube blown, it’s taken out the side wall of the tyre as well. And finding a replacement tyre out here in woop-woop is gonna be difficult.

Oh well, cycling over for today, nothing else for it put to walk and push the bike. At five kilometres an hour I should make it in to town in one hour, or maybe two, depending on the distance.

It’ll be well and truly dark by the time I arrive, and then there’s the problem of finding the Guest House, if there is one. And if not, well, it may be the restaurant floor again, unless of course I find a good Samaritan Khmer who will take me in and say nice things to me.

And so off I set.

My God, I’m wet and miserable. The traffic’s non-existent, so it’s just me and the mud and my bung arm and now my equally bung back tyre.

If only that good Samaritan Khmer would come by and rescue me. It’d be also nice if he/she spoke English so I could explain my problems, and maybe go on and on for a while. Nothing like off-loading on someone when you’re in deep shit, but it helps if they know what you’re talking about. But fat chance out here.

You’re on your own, Feely, nobody loves you and you’re a dick-head.

Yep, I’m a dick-head, and my life is a bag of shit. Nay, a muddy, wet bag of shit…

And then, Hey! Hello! You need a lift?

There’s a Khmer coming up behind me on a small tractor and trailer, and he’s speaking English. And quite good English. Almost my favourite type. This is really blowing my mind. I can hardly believe it.

Am I hallucinating?

No, I’m not!

It turns out to be Orn, a 25 year old Khmer who is studying Philosophy at Phnom Penh University, and he’s stopped beside me and is asking me to put my wounded bike on the trailer, and no, there’s no Guest House in Banteay Chhmar, but why don’t I come home with him, meet the family and spend the night?

This really is too good to be true, but I’m willing to give it a try, trusting and desperate soul that I am.

I throw the bike on to the trailer and climb in after it. I whisper a quiet prayer: Thank you, Lord, I will never, ever in my life doubt you again. Amen, over-and-out, thanks again, peace be upon you!

A kilometre up the road we reach Banteay Chhmar town, and turn right in to Orn’s driveway.

Orn’s house is a typical Cambodian affair, large and airy, made of wood and standing on stilts. The family is somewhat startled to see what Orn has brought home, but they soon compose themselves and begin looking after the muddy, but honoured guest.

I take a shower at the outside well and climb in to some clean clothes. By the time I’m done, Orn’s sister has cooked up some fried beef and rice, and I gratefully tuck in to it, and sip some hot tea. Life is good.

That evening we sit around and Orn translates the many questions his family has about my fascinating life as a Westerner. I’m the first one they’ve studied up close, and a real curiosity piece.

As I’m sorting through my panniers, Orn spots my I-pod and asks what it is. I explain that it’s an MP3 music player, and I’ve got 20 gig. of Western music on it, everything from Rock to Jazz, Techno to World and Swing to R & B.

I set up my speakers and show him how to skip through the artists. He’s intrigued, and stops on The Sex Pistols.

Who is this? he asks.

It’s probably the word sex that’s attracted him, but how do you explain The Sex Pistols?

Ah, yeah, The Sex Pistols, I say. You probably won’t like ‘em. They’re a bit heavy.

But Orn insists. He definitely wants to hear The Sex Pistols, and so do his family. For real Western music that for real Western people listen to, and with a bit of sex thrown in. Can’t be all bad. Let her rip, Mr Feeliks!

And so I do.

God save the Queen,
The fascist regime!

The Pistols bash it out, and I let it run all the way. I don’t really know what else to do. By the time we get half way through the set, Orn’s father is looking seriously appalled, and Pretty Vacant pretty much does him in.

He excuses himself and goes upstairs. The rest of the family slowly follow, and Orn says: Yes, thank you, very interesting!

I try to explain that there’s a lot of different types of Western music, and maybe I could find something that they’d all like blah! blah! but the damage is done, and there’s no way back.

Western music is definitely a no-go in Orn’s house from here on in. Oh, well.

That night I sit quietly on the stairs smoking a cigarette and watch the lightning cracking over and over way off over the hills in Thailand. Big horizontal bursts of light, snaking across the sky, and the rolling thunder rattling the wooden boards underneath my bare feet. It’s a beautiful thing.

As I crawl under my mosquito net, Orn and family are huddled in the far corner watching a Cambodian soapy on the tube, and that’s pretty much the last thing I remember. I roll over, carefull not to put any pressure on my swollen arm and enter Dreamland.