Nig's pilot's briefing was just that. Brief. "Fly over some mountains - err - small hills?, well, you'll see what I mean when you get there, stay away from military airfields, don't land in the swamp and when you come to a road, land". Barbara soon comes on air-band to tell us that they're lost and will see us in a few days time - dry humour is all part of the stock-in-trade and we don't rise to the bait. Over the swamp, Norman is invited to look at the punt-like boat that are being poled or, in some cases, paddled through the muddy waters below. He is taken aback, thinking that he was much lower and that these were pieces of wood. We reassure him that he is technically correct - L'Equipage Humbug is back on form! From this height (600 feet) it is possible to discern structure - small islands, or possibly just bushes sticking out of the water, link tiny dykes that mark some sort of boundaries. They're not at all linear as, for instance, a hedgerow in England would be, but rather meander sinuously across what would otherwise be trackless waste. The paddled punts contain, we decide, fishermen and the poled ones dyke menders. There seems to be a largish gap in one dyke where the missing soil has been replaced by blue piping. It is all strangely beautiful as the sun starts to make its presence felt. Avoiding the large temples which have emerged from the morning mist over the swamp, we note the positions of the power lines.
Barbara now tells us that they have us in sight; and indeed we can now see both the black pickup and our minibus. Norman, declaring that it is time for a bit of competition standard landing, swings over the road with its power lines, drops rapidly to pick up the "left" airstream that he has noted from cooking fires exists near the ground, and executes a perfect stand-up landing about 10 metres from the road in the only available uncultivated ground with open access. Brilliant. I wish I could do that... The crew get to work while we chatter excitedly with Barbara and thus fail to spot that the envelope has been detached before it is empty and is in some danger of disappearing if a gust or thermal should catch it. Our fault for not paying attention to the job in hand. All is well, however, and our crew have bought us sandwiches, custard cakes and water to sustain us. The flying wires are in a complete mess so I lay them out in rough order and remind myself to check them tomorrow before rigging. We hear later that Nig's crew had connected up back to front - his delayed departure caused by the need to rerig after cold inflation. We've used one 60 litre tank of propane and a bit out of a second to inflate and fly , which means a flying rate of 60 litres per hour - not bad for an elderly N90 3-up in these temperatures. We benefit from having a predominantly black envelope and so are made more efficient by virtue of solar gain..
Back at the hotel and Zodiac's crew confirm the fishing punt theory: they have seen eels from the swamp area on sale by the roadside. A full breakfast, shower and a quick write-up before Norman and Richard are off on the river trip and I wait for the Mayanmar one in the shade of the main portico. The booked party of 14 turns out to be only six. The entire fleet of minibuses ordered is reduced to two and the remainder sent away. The buses are airconditioned and can take comfortably take 8 or 9 persons each, but the Thais regard it as better to have only 3 in each. The surplus drivers don't seem too happy about their wasted journey and words are spoken and gestures made when we aren't looking and who can blame them?
We stop in the Thai border town where we purchase temporary visas. The office is huge and empty except for three desks with banners in Thai over them. I am reminded of an empty car showroom and there is nothing that indicates the building's function from the outside except a small pavement sign. We reach the border and shuttle between officialdom in their booths. The Burmese border guards and policemen are noticeably more flamboyantly dressed than their Thai counterparts, but here there are children begging, some very young. They are fairly persistent but very gentle and smiling. We nevertheless sense a different atmosphere, although that may just reflect the tensions that exist at most national borders.
The choice is to wander around the town of Ta Kee Lek by foot or to hire either a taxi or tricycle rickshaw. A ragged jumpered fellow ushers us into a taxi, which is open sided and at the rear with roof-rails to hang on to. We scramble aboard over the tailgate which is left down. The RJF clings to the back as we motor off and does not look well. The first stop is a monastery, pretty and impressive, with a separate shrine. There is a service in progress and chanting is relayed to the outside world via a loudspeaker on a pole. The four broad steps leading up to the entrances are covered with pairs of sandals: these belong to the Buddhist congregation who are sitting cross-legged inside where four monks on a low dais are chanting into microphones. I realise that the inside and outside sounds do not match - a curtain twitches aside and another monk is revealed working a cassette player and amplifier. This is the source of the "outside" service. At the rear we can see many domestic goods, some potted plants bearing paper money "flowers" on their stems. We are told that the people provide everything that the monks need for their daily sustenance and in return the monks will offer prayers. Tom is puzzled by this, especially as some of the goods are unusual, and wonders why they need so many washing-up bowl sets. I remind him that a casual visitor from a different culture might well find it odd if he visited an English church which happened to be holding a jumble sale. The principle is not all that different. Our RJF then, somewhat incongruously, shows us an ancient Austin Seven in another building. In is very far gone and someone has replaced the original dynamo with a modern alternator. Even to my untrained eye this is what is known in the trade as a "basket-case" and we smile politely when we hear the price - one million Baht. Tom and I figure this to be about £16K and we decline the offer, explaining that we couldn't get it back on the plane...
Next stop is a shopping mall, which doesn't really surprise us. I purchase a small soapstone elephant as a memento and Yutakit tells me that the RJF is a crook. On to a monument to a past king of Mayanmar, splendidly gilded and set on a pleasant marble flight of steps attractively bordered by bright flowers. There is, in the background, an argument between Yutakit and the RJF. The taxi leaves and we walk back through the market; Yutakit is quietly angry. The RJF is, apparently, nothing to do with the taxi, but attaches himself to the parties as a guide. The taxi driver has told Yutakit that he can't get rid of him and is scared of him. Yutakit has offered him a token sum, but is refused. He follows us and takes the money, but is far from satisfied. Earlier, I had spoken to him and discovered that he spoke three European languages sufficiently well to guide people to his country, seemed quite bright and might do well for himself in many other circumstances. The market goods have a strong Chinese and Russian bias towards electronic goods of which there were plenty, whereas the Thai markets are more orientated towards clothing and material. The people seem to be generally less well off and it appears that the RJFs of this area would much rather live in Thailand where they say the living and opportunities are easier.
We return to the hotel a little sobered by the experience and our mood is not relieved by the exuberance of our aquatic travellers, who have returned from their trip very sunburned and windswept. Seated four to a boat, this had been a 50 mile trip at high speed (30 knots plus, according to our ex-naval experts) in Thai long-tailed style. A slim traditional sampan-like hull is cropped at the rear. The propeller shaft is very long, at least 10 feet and it and its engine are pivoted on the sternpost so that it also acts as the steering mechanism as well as allowing the shaft to be swung clear of the water to avoid obstacles. The engines are tuned diesels, virtually unsilenced except for a tuned stub and come in a variety of sizes up to and including a V8. I'm quite envious, but part of me wonders briefly about environmental damage.