Sunday, May 15, 2005

MBA Pt 8: Great balls of fire!

My Bung Arm Part 8

The story so far: Riding out of Phnom Penh and Kampong Thom, Mr Felix then cycled north through the forest to the Thai border at Preah Vihar. Further west near Anlong Veng he visited Pol Pot’s grave and that night was bitten on the elbow by a spider, or something - Mr Pot’s revenge. A few days later his badly swollen arm was cut open to by the Butcher of Sisophon (aka the local Cambodian doctor) which renewed his faith in the beyond (seeing is believing.) He is now undergoing for five day’s outpatient treatment (with Sister Supachai) at Aranyaprathet Hospital on the Thai-Cambodian border.

Evening, day 3, at Aranyaprathet

While I’ve been off slaying dragons, Yoko and Kayoko, the two Japanese girls at the guest house, have been out scavenging for Japanese food, or the approximate.

They stumble in to the lounge room laden with ingredients, mostly from the 7-11, going by the plastic bags.

"Can I help?" I say, and no, no, Felix-san, you just sit there and make paper aeroplanes with Lek, the young daughter of the Thai owner, which is super-fine by me. I love paper aeroplanes, and Lek’s an enthusiastic test pilot.

We’ve got aeroplanes stuck in holes and crevices all over the room, including one going around on the overhead fan, which is just killing Lek for some reason, and we are busily trying to land another, unsuccessfully, when mum finally calls her into the house for dinner and I’m left to clean up the mess.

We’re not ‘going sushi’ tonight but what we are getting is apparently (almost) authentic ‘southern Japanese rustic style’, whatever that is.

"Have you had southern style Japanese food before, Felix?" asks Yoko. I tell her I’ve got no idea, but I love ‘Japanese food’ and hold up my fingers and make ‘inverted comma’ signs in the air, as you do when you haven’t got a clue.

It seems ‘southern style’ is going to be a whole new experience, and Yoko looks pleased.

Just then Kayoko comes out of the kitchen with a small vase of purple and white Thai orchids and places them in the middle of the low wooden coffee table, right in front of me.

She sits down and turns the vase a couple of times, and adjusts the stems, back and forth, and Yoko comes across and sits down, and as if on cue, they both say "uh!" and lean back in their chairs and look at the flowers.

And they’re simply gorgeous!

I sit and look and for a few precious seconds all movement stops, and the universe is spinning around a small vase of Thai orchids at the centre of our table.

Yoko says: "Beau-tee-ful!" and turns and smiles, and as if on cue again both girls get up and go back to the kitchen, without another word, and I’m left with the flowers, speechless.

What is it about Japanese and flowers?

The same thing, I guess, as Japanese and animation, and I’ve got ‘just the ticket’.

I slip off and get my Ipod and plug it into the stereo speakers, and ask the girls if they’d like some music and yes, that’d be nice, so I hit the button and the opening bars of the ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ theme song come flooding into the room.

Japanese girls really know how to scream, I tell you, and there’s a certain pleasure in being the cause of it.

‘My Neighbour Totoro’ (Tonari no Totoro) was a hugely popular Japanese feature animation made in 1988 by Hiyao Miyazaki, arguably the world’s greatest living animator. (He gets my vote!)

The theme song is a catchy upbeat tune loosely based on, and I shudder to say it, Cliff Richard’s ‘Summer Holiday’. It goes something phonetically like: Ar-doo-ko, ar-doo-ko, wa-deshi-wa-keng-keee… and it’s a groove! I’m so in love with the animation I have the complete soundtrack on the Ipod.

And so we play it through.

Yoko tells me that when she was at school she and her friends would march home along the road in a long line singing the song, and I wish I had of been there. That song’s a winner!

The food hits the palate and it’s salty, and after months of spicy Southeast Asian food my tongue is doing cartwheels, but I’m into it. Kayoko tells me the names of the different dishes, most of which I’ve never seen before, and I nod and repeat the names (and retain nothing) and eat it all up, and just as well there’s no after-dinner quiz, because I’d get zero.

Who’s the happy idiot?

We sip on green tea and chat, and make the obvious ‘John and Yoko’ connection and ‘do you have any Beatles music, Felix?’ and is Pope Benedict a Catholic?

I’m one of those people who would listen to the Beatles playing chess (over and over) and so we play Abbey Road, but the girls don’t know the early stuff, so gee, what an opportunity; almost virgin Beatle fans!

I lead them back through the heady ‘psychedelic era’ and deep into the early Mersey sound, which they especially like, so we keep going and plunge into the crazy worlds of rock and roll and rhythm and blues, and eventually uncover Fats Domino, who’s up there with Miyazaki in my pantheon of high art popular culture gods and ‘do you know how to rock and roll, Felix?’

It seems Yoko has done a bit of dance, so let’s try a few moves. I turn up ‘The Fat Man’ to 11 and we kick off, and by the third run we’ve found the swing, and it’s turned into a party.

And one of the things you don’t have to worry about in Southeast Asia is noise, and we’re making plenty of it. Luckily also, my good left hand’s doing most of the work.

Jerry Lee Lewis is screaming ‘Great balls of fire!’ while Yoko spins out from centre and I pull her back in, and for the world's most boring border town, Aran is a happening burg.

They can probably hear the music over in Cambodia, some six kilometres away, and I do wonder what they’re thinking.

Monday, May 09, 2005

MBA Pt.7: Bikers 1, Zealots 0

My Bung Arm Part 7: At the Hospital in Aran, Day 3.

The story so far: Riding out of Phnom Penh and Kampong Thom, Mr Felix then cycled north through the forest to the Thai border at Preah Vihar. Further west near Anlong Veng he visited Pol Pot’s grave and that night was bitten on the elbow by a spider, or something - Mr Pot’s revenge. A few days later his badly swollen arm was cut open to by the Butcher of Sisophon (aka the local Cambodian doctor) which renewed his faith in the beyond (seeing is believing.) He is now booked in for five day’s outpatient treatment at Aranyaprathet Hospital on the Thai-Cambodian border.

Day 3 at Aranyaprathet Hospital, Thailand
It’s pretty obvious I’m rather taken with good Sister Supachai.
She’s the same every time I come in; shiny black hair tied back in the same ponytail, same stylish black shoes, same elegant silver watch around her left wrist, same easy smile, same grave eyes - but she’s new.
And her crisp white uniform gives off the same scent of lemons, and combined with the fresh smell of her skin (when she comes close) it’s a heady mix, and she’s taking me places I haven’t been in years.
I draw her smell into my body and it permeates my flesh, and float on it.
Yeah, she’s sexy all right, and I’m not just talking about sex. She reminds me, in some odd way, of a picture of Saint Rita (the patron saint of impossible causes) I once bought in the little Portuguese ‘Rosary Church’ on the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok.
In the picture Saint Rita is kneeling on a stone floor in her brown habit, eyes cast towards the heavens, and a light, like a laser beam, is exploding out of the clouds and hitting her square in the temple, and by golly, that’s sexy (and I’m moved!)
But yes, people have trouble with this human phenomenon from all sides of the overeducated spectrum.
There’s fire down below all right, and it’s a furnace, feeding the great generator of the heart, and it’s rocketing the mind skywards through the clouds all the way to Vega. Seems logical to me.
Still, we musn’t get carried away, as my mother once said to me when I was a boy and I’d come home from Mass and told her I’d seen a fire around the body of the girl in the pew in front of me, ‘just like in the holy pictures, mum!’
"Yes, but we musn't take these things too literally, darling!" said my mother.
“What, you mean the Church is lying to me?" is what I wanted to say, but I think I ate a sandwich instead. Still, when you're strangely moved, you're strangely moved, and I bet it was a good sandwich.
(The girl was in a class below me at school, by the way, and the torch was burning mutually bright from both ends! Woo!)
So yeah, Sr. Supachai is doing more for me than just fixing my arm, and I’m making the most of it.
And whatever madness is going down it’s better than the ‘shock and awe’ promulgated by the Butcher of Sisophon (and his band of Cambodian heretics.)
That kind of religious experience is a once only sling-shot sub-orbital flight, which is fine on the way up, but hitting terra firma without a parachute is a dog with fleas.
In the middle of my revelry, Sr. Supachai looks down and asks if I’m ok - she’s so observant! - and I smile and say buoyantly: “I’m fine! Never felt better!”
She looks a little concerned but goes back to the scraping and bandaging.
Johnny’s still sitting on the same bed in the same opposite corner but they’ve changed his bandages (and his pants) and even he’s smiling today (and, I guess, picking up on the vibes, ‘cos it sure is vibey in here!)
I nod and say ‘Sawatdee!’ and he gives me a shy ‘wai’ which is a vast improvement on yesterday, and the day before.
I figured our relationship had gone up in a ball of flame just after launch (‘a major malfunction’) but lo! “We’ve re-established contact with Johnny, Huston!”
“Roger that, Aran! Crackle! Crackle!”
“Yeah, he’s over on the next bed in a new pair of pants waving as I speak!”
“Roger that, Aran! Crackle! Crackle!”
But such is the embracing influence of good Sr. Supachai on the hearts of men.
(And as long as Johnny doesn’t get too comradely and float over and try to dock with us, things will remain fine. “There’s only room in this capsule for two, Johnny boy, and me and Sr. Supachai makes ‘two’, so that leaves you over there in another orbit, but we’ll wave back when we sail past if you like!”)
Yep, Aranyaprathet General, it’s a hotbed of humanity, and I’m digging it.
It’s so bright outside when I leave the hospital that I have to squint, and I start perspiring as soon as I climb on the bike and roll down the concrete ramp.
I wave to the guard at the gate and he waves back, and I cycle off down the main street past the clock tower and stop at the little coffee stall I found yesterday by the soi opposite the ATM machine.
The woman who runs it speaks pretty OK English, and her name’s Mon and she’s small, sinewy and intense, and the coffee’s only Nescafe but it’s a good spot, and I get to converse, more or less, and eat sweet rice cakes, rather than just sit alone and unplugged.
Mon tells me that tomorrow she’s off to Bangkok for some big Buddhist get-to-together or other, and there seems to be about thirty going from Aran in a big a/c bus, and would I like to come?
Well, no thanks, that’s very kind but I’m in the middle of anti-amputation treatment and besides, I’ve got my own religious experience on-tap right here at the moment and it’s not wise to mix your drinks.
I sip on my Nescafe and chew on a rice cake and Mon pulls out a brochure on the Wat she’s going to and unfolds it on the laminated table. It’s big and shiny and she flops it open so fast I have to quickly pick up my coffee and rice cake and balance them on my knees, which is a little annoying, but I can see she’s determined.
Yeah, I’ve got nothing better to do, so on with the show, I guess.
At the top of the page is a wide-angle colour photo of the main stupa area and it’s gobsmacking. It’s something out of ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’.
I lean forward to get a better look and make ‘oo-wee!’ sounds and Mon says: “You like?” and I say: “Yeah, it’s amazing!”
There has to be about five thousand devotees, dressed in white, lined up in rows at the foot of a run of white stone steps leading up to, what looks like, a giant white flying saucer embedded into the top of an immense, square marble hill.
The temple is the classic saucer shape and there’s a small ramp leading up to the centre of the fuselage, and a curved doorway (leading into the inner chamber) from whence presumably Klaatu emerges at the start of Act II.
Mon’s interpreted my ‘amazing’ as ‘good, good and good’ and is talking excitedly and her English is breaking down under the pressure.
I finally work out she’s talking about Matreya the Buddha, and hence, of course, the fervour, and I think she may think she’s looking at the next convert.
Matreya is the name of the returning Buddha, promised to arrive some 500 years after Gautama Buddha’s death, at around the time of Christ. Despite the slight date discrepancy, there is a belief amongst some neo-Buddhist movements around the world that the ‘second coming’ is imminent.
And if Matreya the Buddha does return, albeit 2,000 years late, and pops out of this hyper-tech time capsule it’ll be an event to behold, and you can bet your bottom dollar the blonde haired woman with the dog face from Fox Asia News will be on hand to cover it.
“How did it fe-e-el to be reborn, Mr Matreya?” she says thrusting the mike in his face.
And someone better warn Him to keep it short and snappy. “No long Dhamma discourses, pleeese, your Grace. It’s all sound bites now!”
Fox Asia News Alert:
Matreya the Buddha returns in a UFO!
“Lay down all thought surrender to the Noid!”
Which of course is a misprint, but Fox News, being Fox News, doesn’t know the difference and run it on the scrolling news bar at the bottom of the screen for three hours before somebody from Sri Lanka emails in and tells them that ‘Noid’ should probably read ‘Void’, not that it makes any difference to Fox.
“Why you not come, Felix?” Mon asks again, and I can see she’s all fired up with religious zeal, so I figure I better draw a line in the sand here before it gets out of hand.
“No, really, looks great, Mon,” I say, and hold my hands up and pat the air, “but I’m a Christian, so thanks, maybe next time.”
And now she’s miffed! Jesus, that didn’t take much. But what can you do? So I order another coffee and cake, and make a lame attempt to downgrade the conversation: “Gee, it sure is hot today, Mon!”
She doesn’t answer, but folds up the brochure in swift jerky motions, and grunts. (I’d actually like to souvenir it, but it’d be a gross mistake, so I let it go.)
A couple of minutes later she hands me my second coffee and plonks the rice cake on the table – thunk! Am I sensing an emotional shift here?
She sits down opposite me and says nothing, but I can hear the wheels of her mind going ‘whirrr-whirr!’ and it’s tense and I really can’t be fucked with this, so I sip my coffee and go off to the 7-11 in my mind and buy a packet of barbeque flavoured chips.
“Grandparents, alive, Ostalia?” she asks, which brings me back with a jolt. What’s this about?
“No, grandparents dead…” I say, cautiously, and point to the sky and nod sadly (as you must, in Asia, when talking about deceased family.)
“Mother, father, alive?” she asks, which seems like the logical next-step, but I’m now on alert. She’s got the look of a cocker spaniel closing in on a quarry, read: defenceless duck.
“No,” I say, quietly, “Mother dead. Father dead.”
Mon turns quickly back to the coffee stall and starts rifling through the draw under the Nescafe tin and I’m left hanging with my dead family, waiting for the next move.
She turns back and places an orange envelope on the table in front of me, keeping hold of it with both hands, and looks into my eyes. The envelope has a picture of a dhamma wheel embossed on the top right hand corner and the name of the Wat splashed across the top, and it’s obviously official, and important.
And unfortunately for Mon I know what’s coming: it’s ‘dana’ time! ‘Dana’ is Pali for ‘gift’, and if she can’t get me to join the movement, she’ll do the next best thing and extract a few bucks out of me.
And here’s how it works: Mon gets me to give a monetary donation to the temple, which buys me ‘merit’ (a kind of spiritual bank balance), and I can keep the merit or direct it to whomever I please (my parents, for example), and Mon gets ‘merit’ for getting me to ‘make merit’.
It’s very win-win, and, of course, the temple benefits, and from the look of the temple, they’ve got a mountain of debt, but that’s not my problem.
Mon holds the envelope up and stares and tells me that if I put money in here – she opens the envelope and shows me the hole – then I will ‘make merit’ and buy my parents a better rebirth, and she will take the envelope to the temple and deposit it for me.
“You ‘make merit’ for mother, father, in separate envelope!” she adds, which presumably will double my donation depending on how I feel about mum and dad as separate filial units.
And of course, this whole thing is ‘loaded’ – how can you refuse to give money to help your parents find happiness?
(And I do believe she would actually deposit the money at the temple, rather than steal it. She’s too fired up with genuine religious zeal to risk her own hell and damnation.)
Now that the irresistibly good carrot is dangling a short reach from my nose, Mon sits back in her chair, while I’m now supposed to wrestle with my conscience, weighing up the hope and the doubt (and think of a number, and double it.)
Fucken’ hell! I know I’m getting ‘put upon’, and if I was Thai she wouldn’t have pulled this stunt, but such is the fate of the tourist, and how to handle it?
But some folks just can’t leave well enough alone. “You buy them a better rebirth!” she says pointedly, and unnecessarily, when she sees me wavering.
I came here for a coffee and a cake, and a little conversation (and I’m happy to pay), but now this, and I’d love to tell her she’s a zealot and if she doesn’t back off I’ll punch her in the nose, but no, for the sake of international harmony, I’ll be decent.
“No, really, Mon,” I say, as measured as I can, “my parents are Christian and I am Christian. Really, thank you, but, no, not today.”
“Why you not give them better rebirth!” she shoots back with a look of (mock) horror.
And that’s a ‘red card’.
This situation is, of course, one of the perennial problems tourists face in Asia, or anywhere for that matter.
In the face of alien madness and blatant rip-offs, you’re the polite bunny, the koala on the freeway, the Lee Harvey Oswald in the big parade: “I didn’t shoot nobody, I’m just the patsy!” (Yeah, poor old Lee, may he rest in peace.)
And God knows you want to give the (poor) locals the benefit of the doubt, but if this was happening at home any reasonable person would have told her to go and fuck herself, and threatened non-payment (the only power you have.)
And I suppose I could just cough up a few bucks for the sake of peace and a guilty conscience, like some lame-arsed backpacker, or maybe take the middle path and just walk away, like a good Buddhist (or the romantically minded politically correct) but fuck it, I’m a cyclist.
And I do wonder how many poor farang fucks she’s laid this trip on in the past.
As St. Francis says: “Lord, grant me the serenity to endure the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
I stare at the ground for a few moments and wonder which one this one is, but when in doubt, there’s only one way to find out.
I look up gravely and motion her towards me across the table, real close. We’re about eight inches from eyeball to eyeball sex (and it’s kind of exciting) and look steadily into her eyes.
“Mon,” I say, leaning forward and keeping my voice low so she has to concentrate to catch my confession. “I’m a Christian, and when I die I go straight to heaven!”
While I’m saying this I jerk my index finger straight across my neck, and smile, and Mon jumps back in her seat, startled.
“Mother dead! Father dead!” I continue, and repeat the cutting motion across my neck but do it slowly this time, and smile.
Mon’s looking horrified (which is good) so I point sharply at the sky with a very erect index finger, and explode with happy gusto: “But they now in heaven! With God! They not come back!”
Mon’s eyes have grown as round as flying saucers, and she’s sitting bolt upright in her chair as far away from me as it will allow.
“So you see, Mon,” I say, leaning back comfortably in my seat and taking a sip on my coffee, “making merit for me would just be a waste of money!”
And so everything falls to dust, and I pay my forty Baht and smile and say ‘thanks!’ and wait for something, but she says nothing, and so be it.
Farang Bikers 1, Aran Zealots 0.
And will we pray for each other? I suspect not.
As I cycle off I remember that the Japanese girls at the guest house said they’d be cooking Japanese food tonight, and I’m suddenly famished and could kill for sushi.
Yeah, it’s been another big day in the world’s most boring border town, and food seems like a great idea.

MBA Pt.6: A new man!

My Bung Arm Part 6: At the Hospital in Aran, Day 2.

The story so far: Riding out of Phnom Penh and Kampong Thom, Mr Felix then cycled north through the forest to the Thai border at Preah Vihar. Further west near Anlong Veng he visited Pol Pot’s grave and that night was bitten on the elbow by a spider, or something - Mr Pot’s revenge. A few days later his badly swollen arm was cut open to by the Butcher of Sisophon (aka the local Cambodian doctor) which renewed his faith in the beyond (seeing is believing.) He is now booked in for five days outpatient treatment at Aranyaprathet Hospital on the Thai-Cambodian border.

Day 2 at Aranyaprathet Hospital, Thailand: A new man!

Sister Supachai is doing more for me than fixing my arm. I sit up on the bed in room 21 while she works away with the long stainless steel spoon scraping out today’s puss, and it hurts like the blazes but I’m resolute under her gaze.

I’m also the cleanest I’ve been in six months; my nails are spotless, my feet are scrubbed, my sandals polished, my pants and shirt washed and aired and I’ve shaved and picked over any stray facial hair that’s popped up in any of the usual odd places above the neck.

I’m a new man!

I’m even smiling, which is awfully disconcerting for Johnny the young Thai boy in the bed opposite with the bandaged head.
After yesterday’s failed stand-up comedy routine he has me solidly pegged as a maniac from beyond the borders of civilisation, and as we all know the only thing worse than a maniac is one that’s smiling.

But so be it. I’m with good Sister Supachai so who cares about popularity? But maybe Johnny’s jealous? I would be, but it’s hard to tell with Thais; after all this time in Southeast Asia I still have trouble reading the emotions, and the Southeast Asians are masters of deception.

Poor old dumb farangs let emotions explode out of the face like volcanoes on Java, or maybe pimples, but the Southeast Asians, no. They’re like the Tonle Sap (the Great Lake) in Cambodia: flat and even on the surface, but in constant motion.
And if you don’t want your little boat to sink you’ll take everything slow and easy, and listen to the currents.

But good Sister Supachai transcends all national barriers and today I’ve taken the hand off the tiller and am floating free. I might even be floating upstream.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

MBA Pt.5: Zones & forcefields!

The story so far: Riding out of Phnom Penh and Kampong Thom, Mr Felix then cycled north through the forest to the Thai border at Preah Vihar. Further west near Anlong Veng he visited Pol Pot’s grave and that night was bitten on the elbow by a spider, or something - Mr Pot’s revenge. A few days later his badly swollen arm was cut open to by the Butcher of Sisophon (aka the local Cambodian doctor) which renewed his faith in the beyond (seeing is believing.) He is now leaving Poipet, and Cambodia, on his way to Aranyaprathet to visit the local Thai hospital. His arm is not looking good, and neither is his mind.

Poipet, Cambodia, on the Thai border:

Blessed sleep has eaten the mental terrors of the night, and I wake early for a sunny Cambodian breakfast of dust and eggs in the little wooden stall opposite the guest house.

Everything is bright; the sun, the sky, the road, the table, and I sit upright on a plastic chair, the only guest, and the Cambodian waitress weaves around me in a thin cotton dress and healthy brown legs, and the old woman on the bench in the yellow sarong is peeling vegetables, and the young boy sitting by the door in the shorts and bare chest swings his legs back and forth and I could sit here amongst these bodies until my bike rusts over. Ah, Cambodia, how could I ever doubt you?

Maybe if I get my arm fixed in Thailand I can come back into Cambo and go cycling along the border south out of Poipet? The road runs all the way to the Cardamom Mountains near Koh Kong and Klaus tells me it’s ‘wunderbar’: hard dirt road, forests, Cambodian farmers, not too many land-mines, no tourists and no guest houses. Sounds like heaven!

I sip on my coffee and visualise: the bike, and me, pushing hard on the pedals, and the pedals pushing back, left, right, left, right, and we move in a straight line down the orange road, through the green…

“One step at a time, Feely!” says Mr Pumpy. “Don’t get ahead of yourself.”

Yeah, he’s right, take it one step at a time. Everything is sunny this morning because I’m leaving, and my flat batteries are giving me one last happy surge of Cambodian delight before they conk out completely and I have to lie down and look at the ceiling fan and wonder what it’s all about again.

I hold up my right arm and turn it around, and it really is a mess. Dirty blood-stained bandages, swollen forearm, swollen fingers and a squirt of fear in the belly. It’s bad news, and I wish it would go away.

Ok, stick to the plan: cross the border into Thailand, go to the hospital, spend a few days in Aran (world’s most boring border town), take some time to ‘heal’ (as the Americans say), maybe have a group hug at the hospital for ‘closure’ (another brilliant concept from the world’s most advanced nation) and hold a press conference on the steps of Aranyaprathet General for Fox Asia News.
Fox News Alert:
Thai doctors save arm of world famous cyclist!

“How did you fe-e-el, Mr Felix, when they were scraping the puss out of your arm?” asks the Fox reporter with the blonde hair and the worried expression of a barking dog. (Imagine being married to that, Christ!)
“Why don’t you go fuck yourself!’ I say, and in the space of two coffees I’ve gone from ‘Oh, Happy Day!’ to anger management issues but that’s flat batteries for you.

I cross the border and leave Poipet, sadly, and enter Thailand, and ride straight past the duty-free market and turn onto the highway. I’m not looking forward to this at all. Aranyaprathet, and the hospital, and another lonely hotel, but I can’t go home until I’ve found what I’m looking for, and I won’t know what I’m looking for until I’ve found it, and anyway ‘home’; it’s not even on the radar screen anymore. I’m in Hansel and Gretel territory.

I cycle a few kilometres up the highway away from the border and cut left along one of the laneways that leads into the back end of town and stop outside a small grocery store. I’m preparing for a heavy dose of invalidism and figure I’ll stock up on junk food.

I lean the bike against a tree and mount the steps and stop short in front of a young Thai girl standing on the veranda with her hands tied to one of the posts. What’s this all about? She looks about sixteen, and is awfully embarrassed at my approach and blinks at me like a rabbit. I’m so surprised I automatically say ‘Sawatdee krap!’ (Hello!) in a bright and cheery tone and it comes out as ‘Howdee doodee!’ and she goes red and tears well up in her eyes. Christ! What to do? Keep walking into the store.

I buy some chips and a couple of Cokes and on my way out the door the mother (I guess it’s the mother) is outside on the veranda giving the girl a savage tongue-lashing. Boy, that girl must have crossed a few lines, and I suppose there’s nothing like a dose of public humiliation to curb the wayward teenage heart, but it’s unnerving, and I sure would like to take a picture, maybe shoot some vid.

I stop by the opposite post and pretend to fumble with my plastic bag of fun things and listen in (to the sound of angry Thai.) Mum’s leaning nose to nose, almost spitting in the girls face, and the poor girl is choking back tears – Chuk! Chuk! - and I’d really love to shoot some vid, but I eventually slip past (you can only pretend to fumble for so long) and get on my bike and ride away. On the way up the street I have a nagging half-memory of a similar incident in my own dim distant past, and my mother beside herself with anger.

At the corner of the soi (lane) that runs onto the main street I spot a sign in English saying ‘Rooms for Rent’ and stop to take a look. The Aran Garden Hotel, about a block away, is the main cheapo tourist hotel, but I don’t want to stay there if I can help it. The management’s unfriendly and the building is unhappy, so I’m willing to look at alternatives, especially as I’ll be staying for a few days.

I go in and get shown into a spotless room by a friendly Thai woman in a white blouse. It’s quiet and clean, and maybe a little too clean, but there’s a TV and fridge and it’s cheap, so I decide to risk it. You never know with small intimate guest houses, but the woman looks relaxed enough, and honest, and I don’t want to be completely alone, so ok, let’s roll!

I plonk my dusty panniers on the floor and take a shower, and lie on the bed and turn on Fox Asia News. I need to psych myself up for the hospital, and a bag of Ley’s potato chips and the dog-faced woman with the blonde hair should do it.

An hour later at Aranyaprathet Hospital I fill out a bunch of forms and get given a piece of green paper and am directed to an adjacent room and told to sit and wait. There’s a long row of numbered plastic seats along the wall and one young Thai guy sitting alone on the first chair by the door. I sit down a couple of seats along but the orderly points sternly at seat No. 2 beside the Thai guy, so I shift up a couple. The boy and I rub legs and smile nervously at each other, and sit patiently together in the bare room like two gay guys about to get a test.

Ten minutes later I’m ushered into the doctor’s surgery. He’s a squat, middle aged Thai, with glasses, and barely looks up as I sit down opposite him – which is standard MD behaviour throughout the known universe - and I hold up my arm up and smile.

“What is problem?” he asks.
“I think I got bitten by a spider or something in Cambodia and it’s gotten swollen and infected,” I say.
“How long ago?” he asks. (This is an excellent question, and my faith in the Thai medical system is rocketing upwards by the second.)
“About a week or so,” I say. “Then I went to a Cambodian doctor in Sisophon and he cut it open and squeezed out the puss and gave me some anti-inflammatory pills but they don’t seem to be working…”

I trail off because at the mention of ‘Cambodian doctor’ the Thai doctor looks up with such a look of utter disdain on his face that I realise I’ve said the wrong thing and so I start to laugh. “Hey, Cambodian doctors!” I say, and lift my hands in the air and wave them around as if to say ‘what to do, what to do?’

The Thai doctor says nothing but it’s obvious he thinks I’m an idiot, and so what do you do? Why, you do what every spineless, spiritually flaccid middle-class idiot caught in self-serving fear does: you betray those you love and curry favour with those in power.

“Yeah, Cambodia, it’s a mess!” I say, and shake my head sadly. “But it’s so good to be in Thailand!” I continue, which might be laying it on a bit thick, but feeding the ego of those who rule is a timeless and trusted method of getting ahead.

(‘Bearing gifts’ is another, and I wonder whether handing across Angkor Wat would be a fair price to pay for saving my arm. “Hey! No need to transport anything, doc, just move the Thai border 150 kilometres east to Siem Reap and be done with it. Angkor’s wasted on the Cambos anyway! Heh! Heh!”)

He looks up and says: “Show me arm!” so I unwrap it and he has a poke a round, and I wince and moan (just to show I’m a genuine case and worthy of his expert attention), but he takes no notice and writes me an antibiotic script, and tells me to take the paper to room 12 to get the pills, and then go to room 21 to get the arm cleaned.

“You stay five days!” he says. “Come everyday!” and goes back to his paper work. I say thanks and back out of the room and it’s a hollow walk down the long dark corridor to room 12 while I think about Cambodia.

At the metal grill of room 12 there’s a gaggle of Thai women in white uniforms alert at the approach of the wounded farang, and I hand my paper over, and get handed another, and some laughs, and am told to go to room 13 (right next door), and so I do.

There’s another woman behind that grill and I pay a few hundred Baht and get another bit of paper and am directed back to number 12, where I pick up my pills and a few more laughs, and then get directed on to room 21.

I plod down the corridor and walk into room 21 and hand the paper over to the lady at the desk by the door and she directs me to a vacant bed in a corner at the other end of the room.

In the other corner there’s a young Thai boy sitting up in bed with bandages wrapped around his head, and as I turn he sits up straight, alarmed, and his face turns into an empty bowl, and we lock eyes. What’s his problem?

Then it hits me, of course. He thinks I’ve come to look him over. I’m his worst nightmare: a farang doctor!

And I don’t know what it is about fear in other people, but it sometimes brings out the devil in you, and I start walking towards him in an unblinking bee-line and the blood drains from his face and his mouth falls open, and then luckily – because this is meant to be funny (or something), but it’s rolling over into terror - the Thai woman at the desk calls out something in Thai, which means: “Hey, Mr Farang, the other bed you idiot!” so I retreat and climb up on my own defenceless bed opposite, and sit there.

I wish I knew the Thai for: “Hey, Johnny, had you goin’ for a while there, sport!” but of course I don’t, so I just smile at him and nod and point at my arm, and fuck it, what can you do? Johnny relaxes a notch, but he’s still wary and won’t relax completely until I’m out of the building and standing on the steps talking to the other white idiots from Fox News.

Sister Supachai is probably about forty, maybe forty-five but there’s something timeless about her. If she told me she was three hundred I’d believe her, and in fact, I’d believe anything Sr. Supachai told me. Her uniform is starched white and crisp and smells like lemons, and her shoulder length black hair is drawn back in a pony tale, and she’s elegant and good looking, but it’s what she’s giving off that’s mesmerising.

She stands by the bed inspecting the wound, and I’m immediately disarmed. There’s an air of quiet, professional capability about her, and a deep current of, what is it? Compassion? No, no need to grovel and denounce your loved ones around good Sr. Supachai; she rules with love, and demands trust and honour, and I give it willingly. I’m at my best, and a piece of putty.

She says a few things in Thai, which I only half catch, and then pulls out a thin stainless steel rod with a tiny spoon at the end. It’s similar to the colourful plastic spoons that they put in fancy drinks when you’re hanging out with Mick Jagger on Montserrat but this one’s for scraping out the puss. And so she proceeds.

Oh, Jesus, the pain, the pain! I’ve got tears rolling down my cheeks but I keep glancing at her face, and those dark, steady eyes, and remain quiet and composed. And I have to hand it her; whatever she’s throwing out from deep in that soul of hers is cutting straight through me, and out of respect, and my own sense of pride, I will not flinch.

When it’s done she carefully wraps the arm in clean white bandages, gives it a little pat, and says: “You came back tomorrow, same time!” I assure her I’ll be here (I’d stop off on the moon if that’s what she wanted), and make my way out.

It’s bright and sunny outside, and I cycle down the main street looking for a juice. I don’t know whether it’s my arm, or good Sr. Supachai, but I’m feeling heady, like a weaving, spinning top, and I need to rebalance.

I spot a juice stand and dismount and walk up and make my order and there’s a couple of farang girls at a table on my left so I smile and say ‘Hi! How ya’ doin’?’ and they look up and glare and I get hit with a sudden wave of electric fuck-off! Hoo-wee! It’s like a blast of cold air to the chest, and I’m momentarily breathless. Christ, where to run? But there’s only two tables, and I’m not doing takeaways, so we’re going to be sitting next to each other, like it or not.

I point to the table and tell the Thai lady I’ll be back in a jiff, and dart across the street and buy a Bangkok Post, and come back and sit down as far away from the farangettes as the table and chair will allow, and do what every man does when he needs solace; I read the paper. And it’s amazing how interesting the latest bombing in Fallujah can be.

It’s going on 4 PM and I walk in the door of the guest house and there’s two Japanese girls in the lounge area playing cards, and I say ‘Hi!’ and smile and they say ‘Hi!’ and smile – and thank God for that. They’re a couple of Thai language students from Osaka doing a three month placement in Aran, and they’ve been here for two months and I’m the interloper, and male, so I nod and bow, tread softly on the floorboards.

On my way through the daughter of the Thai owner, who’s about ten, comes out from the hallway and stands against the wall and stares at me like I’m a movie about to start. She’s as cute as a button and shiny as a star, so I turn towards her, pull myself up to full height and make an extremely formal ‘Wai’ and bow and say in Thai: ‘Hello, my name’s Felix, what’s yours?’ She does a half laugh-giggle and says ‘Lek!’ so I bow even lower and say even more formally: ‘Lek! That is a very beautiful name and you are a very beautiful girl!’ and that breaks her up, and she does a little dance on the spot, and the Japanese girls laugh, and the big hairy male farang with the bandaged arm has passed the first test it seems.

Christ, what a day! The water in the shower is poring over my head and down my back, and it’s cold and wet and cutting through my skin, and I take a few short breaths. My limbs feel like lead, and I need sleep. I lie on the soft pillow and clean white sheets and I can hear the Japanese girls talking in the next room, and Lek laughing every now and then, and I rest for the first time in weeks.