The flight over the agricultural suburbs of Sukhothai and again, the sheer number of multi-cropped plantations and houses is a delight to the eye. The houses are invariably on raised pillars to avoid damp in the monsoon and to keep cool in summer. Some have palm thatch, but most have corrugated iron roofs, which look out of place in Wales, but strangely enough, not here. They are very sturdy and often of a very fair size by European standards. The main first floor is reached by a hardwood stair, often with a decorated balustrade. They look at one with the landscape because they always surrounded by trees and shrubs and don't appear to be crowded by their neighbours. This flight is Richard's - I help rig and do the crownline for him. He flies at 250 feet, low enough to wave to individuals groups who come into their gardens to see us, but not low enough to start Norman twitching. Ahead of us the Belgians have done an intermediate landing, often used as a way of exchanging crew or even fuel cylinders mid-flight. With six in their crew, they prefer to fly four up and change two en route. The road they have landed on has filled with local people, some coming out of the fields with their sickles and hoes. They wave as the 105 takes off again.
Balloons are measured in standard sizes: 56, 65, 77, 90, 105, 210 and even larger, where the figure represents volume in thousands of cubic feet. There are conventional types that describe the subtleties of shape as well: N-type, O-type, Viva. Humbug is a Cameron N-90 and in general private balloons don't usually exceed 105,000 cubic feet because above this size the handling, packing and transportation problems become too much for a small crew. We can only manage Humbug here because of the efforts of our non-flying Thai groundcrew.
Barbara, who is in the retrieve truck radios that there is a nice empty field next to the road and as it is on our flightpath she has sent the driver into the middle. We are told to look for a red shirt: we pick him out from half a mile. The landing is performed with a very steep approach - Norman places the basket directly on top of a straw rick and we hardly feel the touch-down. As the pickup is close, he flies onto the back. We pack up, surrounded by field workers, schoolchildren et al. Our driver has bought us some sticky rice. These are Thai meals "to go" and consist of a length of bamboo hollowed for half its length and filled with special rice with a few beans, or pieces of onion added. The bamboo is then cooked in a slow fire and the starch in the rice binds everything together. To eat one, you remove the fresh green palm leaf plug and strip back the bamboo like a peeling a banana, and enjoy. Delicious.
We stop to regroup in the village, where we are surrounded by all humanity. We're lounging around our vehicles and equipment and they've seen us fly over and are curious as to what we are. Everyone is there, the police are standing back, observing the situation in the manner of policemen the world over. Farm workers are being transported on bus-like vehicles powered by single cylinder diesels which thump their way slowly at about 5mph. There's another curious type used for transporting a group of 6 or 8 plus the driver. This resembles a basic metal cart with bench seats and a parasol. The passengers face inward, while the driver steers the third wheel via a long tiller that pivots what looks remarkably like a converted rotovator. We are now all together again, drinks have been purchased and the crowd give us a good send-off. We haven't had so much fun in ages. We breakfast and rest, because we have to fly to our next destination, Kanchanaburi, via Bangkok and a long drive.
The airport at Sukhothai is the most attractive I've ever seen. The grounds are beautifully planted and the buildings are as near to the Thai tradition as possible. The open-sided steep roofed structures glow with polished wood and tile from both departure, arrival and check-in buildings. The formalities of air travel are all in place, but much less intrusively than most airports. Clearance done, we enjoy a complimentary Thai banana - shorter and sweeter than the ones we have at home - and wait until the recently arrived Fokker Friendship is ready. Then we simply walk out of the other end of the open building on a path through glowing flower beds to board an open tram-like bus that takes us to the aircraft.
Another dusk arrival at the hotel on the River Kwai. Dinner is early because it is the River Kwai Bridge Festival and after a magnificent al fresco meal there is to be a son-et-lumiere. We all know the film script (historically suspect anyway - the Japanese certainly didn't allow POW s to design and build the bridge and in fact 3,000 of their own engineers died building the line into Burma) and the show, when it starts, seems to follow that. The viewing is from floating pontoons with safety rails and white garden chairs. The commentary is in Thai and the show is preceded by what I thought must be the National Anthem because everyone stands for it, but Jerry (the journalist covering this trip) tells me that it is a piece composed by the King and is played at the start of every public performance of pretty well everything in Thailand.
Can't help wondering why the local fire-boat is moored alongside us, but the scale of the subsequent pyrotechnics soon answers that question. Particularly effective is the steam chine whistle of an engine, coming nearer and nearer in the darkness until you can hear every exhaust beat - there's even a puff of smoke over the trees to add authenticity. Nice touch. Far from being a stage effect, however, a real steam train emerges from the trees and runs the gauntlet of simulated air attack using white star-shells which come in horizontally and bounce upwards off the bridge s metalwork, while a huge detonation under the bridge represents a bomb hit. There was serious ordinance involved. Great fun. I wonder what HSE would have made of it back home.