Day 7 - Friday 27th

Richard does the inflation, takeoff and flight today. (There should be four of us in our group, but as we three have absorbed the extra place costs, we have an unofficial rota). There is an "interesting" moment as Humbug starts to track backwards towards a water tower. Climbing to 300 feet gets us into the southerly airstream that the others are flying in. Complimenting him on his takeoff, we advise him to check that the balloon has not been left in reverse gear next time! This is another magical flight in part layered mist. Temples and radio masts poke up through the layers as the sun comes up over the mountains and back- lights the broad plain that we are crossing, bathing all in a light that gives everything a golden, dreamlike quality. There is some top cloud cover, so the sun's heat shouldn't trigger the radiation fog that bothered us yesterday.

There is a huge quantity of rice being grown here; the drying fields form a pleasing nonlinear pattern as far as the eye can see. Here and there are dotted small groups of trees in ones and twos that provide shelter from the sun for the workers. Occasionally there are small bamboo shelters with simple thatched roofs over platforms raised about three feet from the ground. We are limited to 1000 feet for this flight, so we climb to altitude to steer to the right ("right with height") to outrun the tendrils of radiation fog that are creeping outward.

The famous temple complex at Lamphang Luang is now before us with its gilded dome glowing in the morning sunshine. Peter and Nigel in Zodiac are attempting to land in the school yard next to the temple. We see the children in their blue and white uniforms lined up in classes with their teachers and their excited chatter comes up to us in the basket as the wind shifts and dies. Drifting across the temple yard (not respectful - it's a bit like riding a Harley-Davidson round Westminster Abbey) he is becalmed like us, over the houses. Faces look up at the two huge visitors. Every small square and junction is shrouded with power and telephone wires. We go "upstairs" to seek moving air and slowly move onwards. Zodiac heads for a large compound, but the wind is fickle and their path curves away. Not wanting to visit another rice field cuts his options down to one. There's a fish farm - its huge earth tanks green with floating vegetation. A small piece of waste ground in one corner might be an option, but after that the rice fields stretch for miles. Zodiac puts down in the corner of the tank and Nigel leaps for the bank with the handling line and makes it safely. It's a close thing, but Peter has superb control despite the sudden loss of Nigel's weight and they start to pull Zodiac down on the dirt strip. A cheer and a round of applause from our basket acknowledges the feat, but now it is our turn. Norman waits, then puts Humbug into a curved descent to make a standup landing over the upwind boundary of the wire-fenced compound attempted earlier by Zodiac. Local families cluster round, respectful, but very interested in Humbug's construction and equipment. One elder fingers her black and silver panels and I show him that it is airtight by trying to blow through the cloth. He tries the same and nods to show that he understands. The Thai are so quick to pick up new ideas and rarely have to be shown anything new more than once.

After a chicken and rice lunch we visit the elephant sanctuary at Lamphang. Against my inclination, Richard tells me that we ought to do this and I find myself sharing a wooden padded saddle strapped to the back of an elephant for a half-hour walk. The mahout rides on the neck, steers with his feet behind the elephant's ears and, although he rarely uses it, carries a short stick with a metal spike stuck through it. As each animal starts off it helps itself to a trunkful of water which it sprays along its flanks and legs, avoiding its passengers by either accident or, as seems likely, design. We turn in line and walk down the bank into a lake and begin to wade to the other side. At mid-point, the elephant in front of us lifts its tail and defecates. Oh well, travel is said to broaden the mind. It's the sheer quantity involved that involuntarily draws the eye. Did you know that elephant turds are buoyant? A small, green minefield is laid before our startled eyes. Engaging four-legged drive, we forge up the far bank at an impossible angle.

I am wearing a mahout's hat, very cheap and light because I burn easily, This cost 25 baht from the sanctuary stall, which also sells bunches of bananas (10 baht) and bundles of sugar cane. These are for feeding the elephants, each of which gets through up to 250 kilos of vegetation per day. Perhaps the performance in the lake is now understandable, although it doesn t explain the continence of all the others.

Along the path the driver of Dawn and Peter's elephant takes her camera and swings down, leaving no-one qualified as P1 in charge. Dawn implores him to return, but the driver knows the drill and grins, taking lots of pictures to remind her of the experience - not, judging from the racket she's making, that it will be easily forgotten as he doesn't remount for several hundred metres. We return, rather enthusiastic about elephants and ask lots of questions. Another elephant has been ticked off for some misdemeanour and, in a fit of annoyance, applies a little pressure to the roof of the open structure housing the booking office and stand. There is a loud bang and a sizeable chunk of asbestos roof showers down, not that anyone was nearby at the time. It seems that the elephant was aware of this and that it was a totally calculated gesture of annoyance. We embus for a trip to a woodcarving village where we admire the wooden artifacts, gifts and sculptures. They are amazingly life-like and are the sort of goods that would fetch hundreds in the UK and yet here are yours for very few baht considering the time and workmanship that have gone into them.

Driving back with our purchases (more retail therapy has been indulged in), we drowse in airconditioned comfort. Suddenly we stop out in the fields where twenty or so workers are grouped near a fire. They are obviously about to have their evening meal and I feel uneasy at our obvious tourist presence. This is not, I reflect, a chimpanzee's tea party to be stared at. They welcome us, wave, smile and beckon us to join them. We gaze at their fire, which is actually a form of oven. A chicken or piece of beef is skewered on a wooden stick about three feet long. This is driven into the ground and a large tin cover placed over the meat. A large quantity of rice stalk is piled up to form a 5 foot high mound over all and all is then fired. After the fuel has been consumed the oven is emptied, carved and the contents distributed. Their food is offered to us to share with them and also their rice wine to drink. It would be a dreadful slight to refuse hospitality so we partake with a bad conscience about taking their suppers while it hasn't been many hours since our noodle break. If someone had confirmed that this had been set up for us I would have believed them, but no, this was a completely genuine gesture; total generosity to complete farangs (foreigners). I can't see that sort of thing happening in rural England to the Shakespeare Tourists, though. We are sobered by the thought that these people who have so little and who lead such hard lives in our terms should be so generous to us, who for them must represent colossal wealth.

Back to Index