Day 1 - Saturday 21st

Drive to Gloucester Green in Oxford and say fond farewells to Pauline at the roadside. The bus is waiting and arrives on time at Heathrow. I find Terminal 3, Area D and am spotted by Maggie Pertwee who has already found Norman and Richard. The Humbug Group is now convened and yarning starts, but checkouts have to come first! I dismantle my jacket and stow the fleece inner. We find something to eat - egg and bacon salad baguette and I'm surprisingly hungry but am out-wolfed by Norman & Richard as they repeat their orders and I wonder briefly about Norman's diet. I am not my pilot's keeper.

On to hand luggage screening where Norman kicks up a fuss about the "Film Safe" X-ray scanner. Despite assurances that it is approved by both Kodak and Fuji, his film is not to go through. Each canister is unpacked and inspected while Richard and I watch from a distance. Another "technical discussion" at the desk ensues. We seem to have walked miles but after a wait in a huge departure lounge which I discover is dedicated to one aircraft load (ours) we meet up with Josephine, Jackie, Tom, Chris, Peter and Dawn. Norman starts talking ballooning with a couple of middle-aged blokes one of whom has a pony-tail and the other a beergut, boots and a bush-ranger's hat. Richard opines later that they seemed like nice paedophiles and might well have been reading my mind as I had also been thinking along similar lines. Blind prejudice, of course, as they're off for a bit of back-packing in Thailand. Not in those boots, they're not...

Scoop up Norman, who is last, and board the 747 - my first trip in a jumbo. It's a lovely aircraft and the flight of twelve hours is as pleasant as it's possible to get. The Thai cabin crew are incredible and the in-flight catering the best I've ever had. The drinks (I stick to orange juice alternating with plain water) just kept coming. Twelve hours is an awfully long time to spend in a seat. I think that I only moved twice for a short comfort trip, but other passengers are tirelessly fidgety and pace restlessly. Massive headache before and after the descent into Bangkok, but aspirin strips are in the hold.

We transfer to the Chaing Mai internal lounge, transitting another "Film Safe" machine at which I note Norman makes no comment. The security staff have spotted a gun-like object in his hand luggage and he cheerfully rummages and pulls out his emergency pilot jet spark lighter which is shaped like a pistol and pulls the trigger to show that it's quite safe. Of course he was blissfully aware of how the armed security police were reacting to all this, but that's Norman for you. A bus ride to the aircraft, an Airbus A300, which travels mainly empty on this trip. Same charming service from the crew who serve us our second breakfast which includes lychee stuffed with fresh pineapple. I will discover later that night that Norman told one stewardess how much he liked lychees and had been presented with a complimentary tray of them as he left the aircraft. He'll never starve, that one. Sit next to Jackie, who is also a pilot. She's very upfront and entertains me with a description of the job that paid for this holiday.

At short notice she took over the catering at a golf club and the first function was for "around 20 to 30 people", so when over 150 needed feeding, there were a few logistics to overcome. One member, finding that his meal choice was not available took it upon himself to enter her kitchen and hold forth. This is a lady who doesn't always use tongs to remove fish from the fryer, so when he told her that she was unhygienic as well as inefficient, she threw a full-size catering tray at him and terminated the discussion, being rather one-sided. I remind myself not to cross her...

We land at Chaing Mai, a moated city of some 1,000,000 souls. It's raining. Nigs Pertwee, who has organised this trip for us all, greets us and says that it never rains here at this time of year. Guess who's only one of two in the party with a raincoat? Smug mode. We decamp into various mini-buses to the River View Lodge. Large, though it doesn't seem so, it nestles into the trees on the banks of the Mai Num Ping River in such a way as to make it almost impossible to photograph. Cool and low, with terrace, pool, shrine and altogether a peaceful spot, with more than a hint of colonial style about it. Palm trees line the banks and make a green curtain against the brown of the river. We unload baggage and crash out for an hour. It's been an artificially long day since leaving home - 2 p.m. here, but 7 a.m. in the UK, so we've been up and travelling for 24 hours and there's still half a day to go.

Norman wakes me, thankfully, otherwise I won't sleep tonight and says I was snoring. Cheek! But I know he's right. Phone Pauline, whose day is just starting, on the mobile - thanks, Cellnet! Norman's Vodaphone leads him on a trail of local operators, who tell him that his phone will only work in Bangkok. He's not too pleased.

The evening is spent, literally, in the Night Market, where Nigs buys us each 100 baht worth of vouchers which are swapped for various dishes at the vendors stalls. There is a large variety on offer and all are prepared fresh in front of you. I select two main dishes, a selection of fruit in coconut milk and a drink. This last was simply a young coconut, prepared by a girl wielding a machete. With a few skilful cuts at the nut held in one hand, she hinged the lid back to reveal the drink inside. The base had already been squared off so adding a straw was all that was needed to complete a natural drinking glass. The juice was clear and sweet and so refreshing. The white flesh was very thin compared to the ones we are used to getting from coconut shies in England and didn't taste of anything much.

Serious shopping followed, resulting in the purchase of a second case to keep it all in. It's all done by haggling, which I'm frankly not good at. At the end of the day we all found that others had paid a little less than we had for some goods, although some of the best hagglers had paid a little more. There are two prices for most things in Thailand and our faces automatically qualified us for the higher one. The very fact that we can afford to be here means that we are wealthy by most Thai standards and we shouldn't forget that at the prices offered we were still getting bargains. The Thai traders were very motivated and persuasive although courteous and never pushy. Most stall holders seem to have a main day job and one that I spoke to after buying socks was a Chaing Mai postman during the day. I bought a belt from a trader who made it up while we had a beer in the shop near his stall. He brought it to me to test the fit (I had given him the one I was wearing as a pattern for the length and hole positions) and even wrapped my old one for me to carry. He quite forgot to charge me until I offered him the money. More shopping, mainly for the lacquer-ware which is very eye-catching, then back for drinks and talk until gone midnight. Where did Sunday go?

Back to Index