Day 15 - Saturday 5th

The King's Birthday (and Norman's duel). Attired in bathrobe, Tilley hat, glasses and supporting himself shakily with a walking stick, Norman enquires if it's considered sporting to fight an old, infirm man who wears glasses? Nigel reckons that it is and silently gestures towards two trays bearing the weapons that he has secretly been buying during prime Retail Therapy time. These consist of pairs of plastic pellet pistols, rockets, tanks and fire-cracker batteries. Back-to-back in the traditional style with pistols first. The pellets fly - or at least we assume that they do as it's a bit too dark to see them - but no hits are claimed. Back to the trays and catapults. We withdraw somewhat as the rockets, which fizz overhead, fly safely over all heads. The tanks fizzle and pop, but don't really live up to expectations, but the fire-crackers are a success, with each battery emitting a fusillade of twelve screamers. The Thai crew look on, puzzled, their incomprehension at our rituals a reversal of our normal roles. The combatants shake hand, vowing eternal friendship, or at least until next year as one protagonist is hear to mutter as he leaves the duelling piste to find his balloon.

There is another duty to perform before we fly. We present our Thai ground crew with their own gilets, the body-warmer like jackets with myriad pockets. They have been admiring Norman's and were obviously taken with it. As group quartermaster, I had done a bit of trading with one of the market stallholders and came away with three such garments in different colours. They're highly delighted with them and we share their joy at gifts given and received. We all pose as a team for the official photographs before getting down to the job in hand.

This will be our last flight in Thailand and so the flight is Norman's. Flying for about an hour, never tiring of the views, crop patterns and people waving from below, we see that two balloons have landed ahead. We discover that the surface winds are anything but predictable. On one approach Humbug veers to the right (the opposite to what she should theoretically do) and a few minutes later does the exact opposite. Each projected approach ends at a tree, fence, crop or powerline. We actually zig-zag across the main road twice before thumping down by a sugar-cane field, but there's no access for our vehicle and so lift off again. Landing number two is close to a grove of trees. I scout ahead, but it's muddy and we don't want a wet envelope festering in its canvass bag for two months in a ship's hold. The fields beyond are all pineapple crop - these have vicious saw-toothed leaf tips and will easily rip fingers as well as balloon fabric.

Off again, taking the opportunity to disembark Barbara and give a flight to our pickup driver who has performed so well. We finally put down after a flight that has been our longest yet at 1 hour 45 minutes. The pickup with the second driver arrives shortly after and we wonder how he has found us so quickly as we're a long way from the road. He must have got a bearing on us as we rose briefly to clear a large pylon system half a mile back - very slick work indeed. The airband crackles into life as Richard informs us that the crew bus is up to its axles in mud.

We vent our remaining propane (with care) as filled tanks are not allowed for the return journey by sea. The official thinking is a little muddled in this respect as a full fuel tank is much less of a fire risk than an empty one containing vapour. All packed up, we set off in company with Nig's pickup and crew to try and recover the bus using our heavy quick-release rope. This is a forlorn hope and the Toyota eight-seater is abandoned for later recovery. We return for a very late breakfast and say goodbye to Humbug: it will be mid-January before we see her again. Sadness at leaving this lovely hotel resort as well as we've all had a happy and relaxing time here and have got into a comfortable routine.

We embus for Bangkok with mixed feelings; this is technically the end of our flying holiday and so the end of this journal also, mainly on the grounds that we are now just ordinary tourists staying in Bangkok for 36 hours in a hotel of such size and splendour that I can't really relate it to what has gone before. OK, so we still talk, meet, shop manically, go to temples, buy bananas in the floating market on one of the klungs (canals), sample fresh milk shakes at the best waterfront hotel in town (the Oriental) and generally marvel at life and trade in this roaring, bustling city.

But for me the real Thailand that remains as an enchanting memory, in the gloom of a British winter, is very different. I long for the broad sweeping Thai plains set between mountain ranges, the countryside wreathed in mists and back-lit by the early morning sun, the influence of man evident on the landscape with plantations, dwellings, temples and endless rice fields. Holiday romances are all very well, but I've fallen for the country and am having real problems readjusting to my home diet and climate. Maybe I'm just impressionable - but that's one of the joys of new experiences. My pilot, not an individual particularly given to sentiment, shares this view, which augers well. This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for all three of us - is it possible that we might do it again, next year?

Geoff Lescott
Oxford - December 1998

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