Poipet, West Cambodia
Klaus parks the truck beside the new Immigration Office, and switches off the motor, which goes clunk-de-clunk! Shudder. Oops!
I can't wait to get out of the truck. Driving is fun - after cycling it's almost wicked! - but give me the wind rushiing down my neck, and my legs occupied in the simple, sweaty activity of cycling.
Ah, cycling! I might be having a crisis of identity, but I can't blame it on the bike.
It's just after 8 PM and we've driven in from Sisophon.
We're going to get some free coffee at the casino, and kick back for a little while. Klaus wants some duty fee chocolate, and I'm heading across the border in to Thailand in the morning to go to the hospital, but right now, let's enjoy the sights.
We hoof it across the street, and walk in to the casino, past the guards, who barely look up, and take a couple of quick turns through the gaming areas.
I'm lost already, but Klaus's been here before and knows the way. "I found out about the free coffee a couple of years back," says Klaus, "and I've been to coming here ever since."
We get to the stall marked: Free Coffee and Tea, and I can see it's only Nescafe and powdered milk, but I'm still impressed.
Free is good.
Free is the promise of a beautiful, slim Eurasian woman with flowing, shiney black hair, wearing a white leotard and lying easily, and yet knowingly, on a cream couch next to a rubber plant. (Which is why they put that picture on the cover of healthy lifestyle magazines, by the way.)
At the coffee stall there's two very cute Khmer girls in tight red dresses. Bonus! They smile when we approach, and start giggling.
We order, and I don't know why, but the coffee seems to be taking an inordinately long time to put together. We stand there, waiting, and I must admit, I feel kinda cheap. Time to reflect can be a dampener sometimes.
The girls get distracted by a shout from across the hall, a disconcerting sound: the sound of pain? Loss? What? Who knows, but I'm losing patience. Come on, for chrissake girls, get it together! I want my coffee.
Eventually they hand 'em over. More giggling as I load two sugar satchels in to mine, and give it a stir. What's the joke?
I look at Klaus for a lead, but he's off dumping his spoon, and peering intently in to the green plastic bin. What's in the bin? Who cares, just give me my coffee.
We clutch our free drinks in the equally free plastic cups, say thanks, and walk off.
We do a loop around the gaming tables, looking at all the money, and go back for a refill. Same routine, same giggles, same laughs at the two sugar satchels. No, no idea.
But this whole thing is mind-bending: outside there are folks wandering about in rags, and here, inside the casino, there are folks, mainly Chinese-Thais it seems, rolling through the dollar bills, spending it like there's no tomorrow.
Klaus and I settle ourselves in an alcove by one of the fish tanks near the roulette table, and sip our coffees and watch. It's fascinating, kind of.
There's about twenty people at the table, all of them sitting hunched over, in groups of two or three, eyes fixed on the little ball darting around the wheel, making pleasant little clicking noises as it jumps daintily from lucky number to lucky number.
They nervously stack and restack the coloured chips, rolling them sensuously around their fingers, caressing them, fondling them, making more pleasant clicking noises.
Click-click-clickity-click! You can hear it throughout the hall. It's the sound of utter, bone-crushing boredom, and oh, how I wish I was rich, and maybe a bit cleaner.
I take a sip of my coffee and notice my fingernails are dirty. My right arm, which is swollen and bandaged, and has blood stains running from the elbow half way down to the wrist, and looks like leprosy. Or maybe the plague.
Still, that's one of the great things about being a Westerner in Asia. You can go anywhere and do pretty much anything, no matter what you look like. Every whitey in Asia is a somebody, even if you're a nobody.
Which is fine, as long as you don't start believing it, like Sid did. (Well, OK, he wasn't in Asia, but the world of pop music must have similarities.)
On the way out Klaus stops at the Ye Old Duty Free Shoppe and buys a dozen blocks of German chocolate.
There's an extremely beautiful Cambodian girl at the cash register, in a super-tight back skirt and breast-hugging white cotton top. She makes the coffee girls look like "5"s.
She's so clean, and utterly gorgeous, I actually miss a breath. I feel goofy all of a sudden, and lose control of my limbs, akimbo. I stand behind Klaus while he makes his purchase, peering over his shoulder to get a better look.
I know I shouldn't; it only hurts more, but such is the nature of desire.
She's friendly, and smiles while Klaus is fumbling with his money and I wonder whether she knows the effect she's having on us. At least I assume Klaus is affected, but being Klaus, he's not showing many ripples.
We walk out of the casino, and I'm glad to be gone.
Out on the street Klaus is clutching his bright yellow Ye Olde Duty Free Shoppe plastic bag, and is looking pleased with his purchase.
Chocolate, it's a wicked thing. And twelve blocks of it! At 4,000 Riel a pop, a dollar each, this represents about a fortnight's wages for the girl at the cash register.
No, the Americans have got it wrong, again: we aint all born equal.
Across from the casino is a small outside eatery, and we dart across and park ourselves at one of the tables. We order a couple of beers and some spicy beef on rice, and hoe in. It's a warm night, and the beer is cold and wet, and a welcome relief.
Around us are a few families, kids and all, middle class, well off, Chinese, but from where? Hard to tell, but they're coming alright, the Chinese. It's the big racial buzz in Asia, along with mobile phones.
Beside the fish tank is a table of very rich Thai men, elderly, and their rather young and exclusive female companions. The men are knocking back the Johhny Walker and laughing loudly, patting each other on the back every now and then, while the girls sit demurely, legs together, filling up the mens' glasses and looking attentive.
Oh, how I wish I was rich and had never read a book.
There's an Indonesian band on the small stage beside the bar playing the usual Santana standards (Wouldn't you know?) but nobody's listening, despite the rather snappy rendition of Black Magic Woman.
Klaus and I agree that they're a good band and turn to face them, smiling, nodding, letting them know we're listening. They nod back and start to play to us. It's nice, cool even.
A couple of minutes later there's a scream of feedback out of one of the speakers, and the song limps to a stop while the band members hustle about the equipment, pulling out a couple of plugs and looking perturbed.
The singer says something unintelligable in to the microphone - what langauge is he speaking? - and they down instruments and move across to the bar in a tight cluster and sit down. So much for that.
Silence reigns, and it's even better.
And then it's time to leave. Klaus's gotta get back to Sisophon and the family, and I've gotta check in to a guest house and get some sleep. I cross over in to Thailand tomorrow to get my arm seen to, so I need to be my chirpy best. You never know what trials lay ahead.
We pay our bill and head back to the truck. I pull the bike out of the back, get my panniers in order, and after a brief handshake, and a quick goodbye, Klaus climbs in to the front seat and hurtles off down the road. I stand there and wave.
Boy, what a gentleman. "Best of luck, mate!" I call out.
Poipet. I stand on the side of the road, alone, and for the first time really breathe it in. It's going on 10 o'clock, and the place is still nervy, frantic.
Across the street is a guest house, non-descript, but as good as any. I wheel the bike across, dodging a couple of motorbikes, and go in. Five bucks a night, with fan, TV and inside bathroom.
Sounds good, looks OK, let's do it.
I lock the bike up to the fish tank in the foyer, drag my panniers up the stairs and walk along the thin corridor.
The hotel's all concrete, and nothing esle, and smells of new white paint. It's part of the boom-town thing that's going on here, despite the bad road.
Outside one of the rooms, by the door, I see a massive bundle of shoes and sandals. I stop and count eighteen pairs. Eighteen! I re-count, amazed. How many Cambodians can you fit in a hotel room, for chrissake? And how do they work out who watches what on the teev? Amazing!
My pad is across the hallway and when I slip the key in to the lock and open the door, I stop. I don't wanna go in.
The room is white and cavenous, and empty. A man could get lost in there. Thoughts will bounce off walls and come back at you. Danger, Will Robinson!
Just then I hear a couple of kids laughing and squealing, obviously enjoying themselves, the voices coming from the Cambodian encampment across the way.
Maybe I could borrow a couple of Cambo kids for the evening? Ease the over-population, spread some good will. Win-win!
We could all get in to our jim-jams, snuggle up on the couch, pop open the very large tub of Strawberry and Honeynut Twirl ice-cream, and watch Finding Nemo on the vid.
Sounds like fun!
But no, I'd get arrested. Man found in Cambodian hotel room with children! Claims they were watching videos! Wouldn't sound too good. You've only gotta slip the word Cambodia in to the headline, and you're a dead-man.
Even my friends wouldn't believe me.
I unpack my panniers, take a quick shower, turn on the teev and lay down on the bed. I flick through the channels, and find HBO, but I can tell immediately it's a bad movie, so I roll my bandaged arm over my eyes, sink back in to the pillow and breathe out. Christ!
Antibiotics. An-tee-biotics. An-tee-bye-ot-iks. I roll the word over in my mind a few times, and it seems comforting, almost magical. An-tee-bye-ot-iks. The power of the Word. I might be losing it.
I wish I had a woman. One I could talk to. How about a game of Diplomacy? I wonder what Mick Jagger's doing right now? I bet he's not short on scintillating company.
I go back to the film. The lead actor has one of those really bad boofed-up 70s style hair-dos that never moves, and an insincere laugh, or is just bad acting?
"I cannot watch this crap!" I say out-loud, and spring up off the bed. I stand there for an instant and shake my head.
I gotta do something.
How about a ride around town? Maybe I can wear myself out, and anyway, I don't know if I'm coming back to dear old Cambo for a while (but I'm having trouble letting go, I admit, which may be part of the problem), so a goodbye tour around Poipet may be a good move.
Anything's a good move when you're at rock bottom, but I have a sneaking feeling I'm a rat in a maze, and every turn will lead to a sharp, electric shock. Who's doing this to me? Who's pulling the strings? Who's the arsehole?
I go downstairs, unlock the bike and let myself out past the sleeping night-guard.
Despite the fact that I accidently run in to the plate glass window on the side wall and it makes a god-awful ba-ung-ung noise that reverberates around the foyer, he doesn't move.
I cycle off down the main drag back towards Sisophon and take a left towards the market.
I figure there'll be a few night cafes open and the ubiquitous massage parlours are dotted around the area, buried amongst the shacks and stalls, and they're always good for some action.
I need something distracting, I need to lose myself so that sleep can sneak up on me, shy and furtive thing she is.
Last time I was here there was a dozen or so massage parlours; small affairs, wedged in together in ones and twos, unobtrusive. But as I cycle along the street I see that's it's now all lit up, gone festive, and there are parlours and girls all the way down on each side of the road for fifty metres, and more down the side lanes. Business must be good.
I cycle further along, actually looking for the nice cafe with the nice, kind lady that I stopped in once before, a couple of years ago. Some kindness would be good.
I spot it, but wouldn't you know, it's now a parlour and as I slow down I get accosted by a couple of girls who spill out on to the street, calling "You! You!" and grabbing at the bike.
For a moment I'm pedalling hard, legs going around, but the bike is standing still, with the back wheel spinning in the dirt. It must look ridiculous, and the girls and punters standing around on both sides of the street break in to an uproar.
It looks like I'm the entertainment for the night. The tourist becomes the attraction.
I dismount, and the girls are quick to surround me; full embraces, arms around my waist and chest, rouged mouths oozing over my shoulders, breath flowing warmly, freely in to my ear. And this has a lightening effect on me. I feel my body respond, go red. Jesus, I must really be lonely.
The working girls in Cambodia are usually very sweet, under the seductive swagger and shitty job description, but these two have got the Devil in them, and won't let go. They can smell the shift.
I stand stiffly, upright, and explain as politely as I can that I am looking for a particular cafe that I know, blah, blah, and it sounds lame, and stupid.
"Seriously, girls!" I switch to English, and take a deep breath, hoping that the drop in octave will save me. "It's not what I want!" I say, and I as I say it I feel the corners of my mouth go down, and for an instant I want to cry.
Boy, this really is getting a little much.
I prise myself loose, firmer now, but I can feel the emotion stirring around inside of me, about to come up. Oh, dear. "I come back later, I come back later!" I say, (Yeah, right...), lower my head, clench my jaw, and forcefully push the bike off down the road.
The crowd's still laughing and shouting. And who can blame them? They're monkeys, I'm a monkey, we're all monkeys. I hoist myself up on the seat and turn the peddles over, and make some distance.
You gotta know when to call uncle sometimes, but of course, I don't.
I find a cafe a bit further along the road that doesn't have blinking lights, so I stop, lean the bike against the wall, lock it and go in.
I figure a coffee might still help, and despite the fact that even the most positive of thinkers couldn't pretend that this is fun, I hang on. I'm more terrified of the hotel room than anything else.
I sit down on a plastic chair, sodden, and sad. I shouldn't have got off the bike, I know, but here I am. It's too hard to move. I make my order.
I drink milky coffee and eat a sickly sweet bun of some description, but I'm tasting nothing.
It's hot and stuffy in here, and I'm overly conscious of myself, the lone barung with the hang-dog face sitting under the too bright flourescent light on the white plastic chair with his elbows resting on the grubby laminated table.
My jaw is going up and down in slow motion, my teeth are grinding the pastry, and small lumps of whatever it is, mixed with saliva, are getting stuck in my throat. I think it's is the sadness coming up in the other direction that's causing the bottle-neck.
I really gotta go.
And when all else fails, there's pure Will.
I sometimes think that this is the missing line out of the Sermon on the Mount.
Blessed are the cheesemakers and all that, but sometimes, against all odds, you just gotta Will yourself through. I do wish Jesus had of said that. I'd feel better about myself.
I take a breath, stand up, pay the bill, say thank you, walk out, unlock the bike, and wheel it out in to the centre of the road.
My bike. My beloved bike. It still moves me whenever I look at it.
I climb on and feel the weight of the seat pressing up in to my body, and as I push forward on the pedal with the right foot, the pedal pushes back.
I roll forward, and for that most fleeting of moments, I'm not in control.