For some reason, i was thinking we were just going for a quick burn around the village. On the borrowed 250. Maybe say hello to some of Miss Wanderust's Kampuchean friends, then back to the hut to crash out for the rest of the day. But perhaps that was just the Valium talking. And the fact that we'd been up all night. But once we hit the Battambang railway line - after coffee on low stools at a wooden roadhouse shack, hours of meandering dirt roads, rice paddies, coconut palms, and one road that simply ran straight into a lake - i realised i was not going to get any sleep. No. Not today.
Today we are riding out in search of enlightenment, seeking to find our way to a mythical, remote Buddhist mountain to visit monks who live in caves. To meditate, to sit atop boulders and soak up the time-space continuum, like a strawberry daquiri through a giant cosmic straw. If all goes according to plan, that is. Which it doubtless won't. But still, it's good to have a plan.
Miss W stops to ask directions from a couple of locals busily engaged in loading a nori train with sticks. A nori is one of those bamboo rail carts that motor up and down this almost disused railway line. Don't ask me why they are loading it with sticks. I've long since abandoned all hope of understanding how people eke out a living in this country; the whys and wherefores of their quotidian grind generally elude me. These two i suspect of being into speculation. Investors; they've picked up these sticks cheaply while the market is in freefall, only to sit on them and bide their time, waiting for the inevitable recovery of the global stick market.
The couple are friendly, but of course i don't understand a word they are saying. I've been living in the Penh too long, where you can get away with "turn left, turn right" and "watch out!" (an indispensable phrase when riding on the back of a moto) "how much is that?" and "too expensive!" And, of course, mi cha mowan, which is Khmer for chicken and fried noodles. Mmm. Chicken.
But i digress.
When you live in a village, however, it's another story. Wanderlust, over the past year working as a district schoolteacher, has pretty much mastered the tongue. The girl comes back with more vague secondhand directions, points in the direction of some distant mountains, climbs on the back of the bike, and we continue on our confused way. I drop the clutch, throttle on hard, and power away, clicking up through the gears. We're flying again, heading on through the sunshine and light on this benzodiazepam-fuelled dirt path to enlightenment.
It's insanely sunny, this wide open road. Are we literally heading for enlightenment, i wonder? Or just sunburn? Is this the one true path? We are, according to the girl, headed for a Buddhist pagoda, a huge phnom capped by an immense boulder, in the dead centre of nowhere, where monks live in caves, nuns make soup, and all is peace and light. Me? I'm not insensitive - i just don't care. I do love a motorcycle trip, even more so with a girl on the back. I'll just try to avoid running us off this wooden bridge and into that rice paddy, that's the way. Watch those potholes. Ooh, that's a big truck. I'm having fun. Enlightenment? It can wait.
The bike coughs and splutters, and i switch to reserve. There will be a village ahead somewhere with fuel in those one-litre glass cool drink bottles. 3800 riel, or about 90 cents. And maybe we can get some water. I'm parched. We come to a large stone archway over the road, and a T-junction. Turn right! Wanderlust shouts, flailing a vague, checkered-sleeve arm. A few kilometres down the track we come to a small village - in fact nothing much other than a wooden, tin-roofed shack - and pull up in a cloud of dust. Chickens scamper as curious kids appear from nowhere, munching cobs of corn. An old lady smiles us a toothless smile and says something in Khmer. She is clearly happy to see us.
We drink a couple of gallons of water, and stash a litre in Wanderlust's backpack. I down a tin of Red Bull, surprised i haven't yet dozed off at the handlebars. However, i'm not too happy about the sunburn. I've had my bare arms stretched ahead of me in a horizontal position, like some kind of speeding somnambulist, for the past two or three hours under this harsh tropical sun. They have turned a worrying shade of red. And without a helmet, i can feel my face taking on the unappealing incarnadine tinge of a boozed up Brit backpacker on Bondi Beach.
Wanderlust, at least, has a long-sleeved shirt, a pink krama and Jackie O sunglasses to protect her skin; her skin, delicate, young, smooth, soft, supple, elastic...
But i digress.
We fuel up the beast, and she does a bit of bartering with the villagers, managing to procure a long-sleeved shirt, hat, and a scarf for her scorched driver. Laughing, they throw in a rather delightful pink hat to match her krama and shoes. Thus outfitted with fresh supplies and bedecked in the style of your typical Cambodian weekend explorer, we mount the trusty steel steed and sally forth.
The road winds upwards, and slowly increases its rate of climb. There are no more villages, but we see the occasional oxcart and moto. The foliage is beginning to thicken. We pass under another large archway across the road. Beside it, caught in perpetual mid-stride, stands an impressively gigantic concrete elephant, an escapee from some long-forgotten concrete jungle. Two children sit underneath in its mammoth shade. The road continues upward.
Can this really be the path to the Buddhist mountain and enlightenment? Or is the truth far more harsh and tangible?