Day 13 - Thursday 3rd

A 20 km drive through the hills takes us well away from the coast and the Mayanmar border, to another sports field for today's flight. This is a very special one for me because not only do I do the inflation, checks and takeoff, but the entire flight is mine including all the low level stuff I can handle. In these conditions, surely ideal for training balloon pilots, I finally cross the line between mechanical flying and getting an instinctive feel for the balloon in flight. It is so hard to put into words, but every pilot will know what I mean as I tune in to Humbug and become one with the machine. I fly, burning at just the right level to hold 20 feet altitude over the pineapple plantations, rising only to clear the odd tree or fence pole.

There is a stage when learning to drive a car when you realise that you are performing the actions of changing gear, steering and assessing road conditions quite automatically whereas before you had to think about each move, so that an hour's drive would leave you mentally exhausted. I've reached that stage and it's exhilarating! The only landing option before major power lines are reached is between trees and Yutakit has already occupied it, which is fair enough as we took the approach to yesterday's field, being lower. I put Humbug into a steep descent over the trees when Normal says that he'll do the next bit and twenty seconds later takes us through the treetop. To my surprise he than says "OK - land it, Geoff" and I'm back on the burner, arresting the descent to within 20 feet above ground level pulling the parachute top out hard with the rip line. Humbug settles with once bounce and stops. Our pickup is only ten feet away - he must trust us - so I pop some heat back into the envelope now that Richard has disembarked and then I fly onto the back of the pickup.

I'm as high as a kite after this flight and will, no doubt, talk about it for ages, but am also aware from my gliding days that it would be foolish to assume that I haven't got a lot left to learn. Overconfidence can often be a good thing, but in the air, on the ground, on and under the sea, it kills.

Back in the hotel, breakfasted, showered, we plan the day as we are free until morning. I go down to the beach to book the catamaran for the afternoon and a traditional Thai massage with oils for tomorrow morning. Then a chat by the pool followed by a lounger in the shade of the coconut palms on the beach to write. Two men are fishing from the beach using throw-nets. Each cast produces a catch of a few dozen sardine-like fish. I can't see any shoals of fish myself, but they must be there because the net never seems to miss. I'm skipping lunch today as we'll eat in Hua Hin tonight.

Later that evening we review the day. The catamaran gave Richard and myself a gentle, civilised sail that was enjoyable rather than exciting. We've booked it again tomorrow and hope for stronger winds.

The Night Market expedition is a great success, starting off well by us paying the correct fare into town this time. We head for the Railway Hotel, reckoned by many to be the best hotel in S.E. Asia, not excepting Raffles in Singapore. A couple of ballooning chums of Nig's who are staying there and who came out with us this morning reckoned that they preferred our hotel, so it's obviously a matter of taste. I do think that the Royal Village shows all the signs of being extremely well managed and could be safely recommended to anyone who likes lazy beach holidays. We three have a quiet drink and nibbles, record the event for posterity and head into town to eat a jolly good meal for 410 baht including drinks. Second course is taken on the hoof with the banana pancakes being reprised and banana waffles "onna stick" being pronounced a worthy addition to the repertoire. A number of our party choose to eat in the hotel, which I rather think undoes the point of Nigs and Yutakit's patient introduction to Thai food. Chacun a son gout, as they say. Retail Therapy continues unabated with Norman finally having to purchase his own second suitcase to hold his booty - now I can evict his plastic car kits "for the children at Christmas" that I've been carting around for a week now, and stock up on more silk ties and shirts. Richard videos all this with the air of one who already has doubts concerning excess baggage. He's not alone in this, of course - if we don't break our luggage allowances it won't be for want of trying - but no-one else has bought a large carved mirror frame while being almost certain that a 747 overhead locker will be big enough...

We return in style in a Tuk-tuk, somewhat embarrassed by the smart salute by the uniformed gate officer as we trundle asthmatically past, trailing a smoky plume. What a smashing day.

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