Sunday 12th December

Today we made the launch field, all vehicles present and in good time, but the wind although gentle was not of the comfortable sort. We watched the met balloon go off, swooping and tumbling crazily as it lifted away over the trees. That's it. The last opportunity to fly has just gone, and my private fears at Mukhadan have been realised. There's little to be done except return for breakfast and to pack for the return to the UK. As we haven't flown there is an option of leaving earlier than planned and spending a little longer in Bangkok before our flight at midnight. The road journey is completed without problems and we end up at the Impala Hotel where Maggie and Nigs will spend a couple of days before their family joins them. The others are doing their own thing - I want to show Pauline the Royal Temples and Palaces.

Leaving our luggage for later, Sawat drives us to the complex and leaves us outside as he cannot stay parked without getting a hefty fine. Last year at this point we were pounced on by everyone from official guides and postcard sellers to people who told us that it was "all closed and would we like a boat trip instead?". This year we stride purposefully through the gate and buy a ticket and are inside before any of that has time to happen. This is positive touring. You can't really describe this complex in words; it needs images because of the incredible variety of building styles, shapes and decorations. It's hard enough with a camera because people are moved and fascinated by different things. You are left with impressions - the skillful use of line, shape and colour in just the rooftiles would be a study in itself, but here the zoom lens will go far beyond and reveal three-dimensional tile carving forming buds and flowers in gorgeous hues, soaring columns inlaid with stunning polychromatic mosaics, inlaid gold, glass. Statues, huge and menacing, warriors to guard your soul, smaller bronze and gilded creatures half human, half bird stand protectively at stairways, here clusters of elephants in assorted sizes, there a statue to a revered doctor, all on different levels and interconnected with courtyards, quiet places and carefully tended holy trees. Sit in one of these for a few minutes and listen to the tiny wind-driven chimes placed every few feet around most of the rooflines - they make a delicate acoustic backdrop to the structures themselves and seem to blanket out even the hushed noise made by the visitors. Suddenly you find yourself wondering not where you are, but when you are - and you realise that this place is not foreign, but you are! Definitely a place not to miss next time you're in Bangkok.

We move next door to the palaces, themselves rarely used by the Royal Family now and usually employed for the reception of important diplomatic guests. Moving on again we are just in time to see round the museum that charts the restoration of parts of the complex we have just visited. We walk down towards the river, taking in the sights and sounds and eventualy end up at one of the numerous water-taxi piers, although this one is a ferry point as well. Here we see one of the huge barge trains pulled by an impossibly tiny tug that run between the inner port and the large container ships down-river in the deep-water anchorage. The long-tailed boats are whizzing up and down, while the ferry clanks and grumbles its way back and forth powered by its huge diesel. We walk some more and come back through the University area and onto a piece of common parkland. Here the temple spires are starting to glow under the evening floodlights and the locals are out enjoying the evening breeze and are flying hundreds of kites on impossibly long strings. We buy one and then another. The kite-seller points out that this one is in Thai national colours, red white and blue. I tell him that that is why we want it and they are the same colours as the UK. This actually registers with him and there are huge grins all around the circle of curious Thais who recognise free entertainment when they come across it (Look, there's a farang trying to buy a kite - do let's go and watch...).

While we have been doing all this the light has faded and we have to solve the problem of getting back across to the other side of Bangkok. All around us thousands of decorative fairy lights in the trees provide a wonderland for us as we hail a taxi and negotiate our ride back. (Unless you know what you are doing, non-metered taxis in Bangkok are not a good idea, nor are tuk-tuks. Not in that traffic, anyway. Even balloonists can do risk assessment). The coloured light displays in Bankok centre are for the King's recent birthday and also for Christmas and so we have an interesting combination video of both displays, lights and Bangkok driving skills out of the back window. They really need not bother to paint white lane lines.... I'm watching the side road numbers approach 22, which should be our turn-off, but we end up two streets off outside the amazing Imperial Hotel. "Err - No. this is the wrong hotel - we need the Impala Hotel". Fortunately he realises his mistake and backtracks at even higher speed and we arrive a couple on minutes later. How much? 95 baht, about £1.50 for a 25 minute ride across the city. Worth a tip, don't you think?

The remains of our party meet up for a final meal at the Impala. Apart from Maggie, Nigs, Yutakit and his family there are only myself and Pauline, Jenny, Barbara and Peter left now, but we make a lively party nevertheless. An unexpected treat is a parting Christmas gift from Maggie, thoughtfully tailored to a holiday event concerning the individual. Mine is a small wind chime in the form of one of the fishing trawlers that I was so keen on photographing back in Rayong. I'm truely touched by this and it now hangs in our lounge in Oxford, a trigger for all the happy memories that we will treasure of our time here. Saying goodbye is always hard and is best kept short. Time to go, so we do.

So, what of this holiday? On the surface, from the flying point of view it wasn't a huge success. There were times when I wondered if there was any point in persisting with the journal at all, but I'm glad that I did. Holidays are all too easily spoiled if you allow your expectations to rise too high. As the saying has it, it's better to travel hopefully than to arrive!. Looking back, I would still have gone even without the flying. There were too many new things, places, people and customs to ever be bored or disappointed in this wonderful country. Life has to be about exploration, of both self and one's environment; these trips that Nigs and Yutakit plan so carefully provide a supportive and easy way to do this without removing the requirement to think and plan. Remember, if you don't understand anything, tham ny ny noi!

Geoff Lescott
Oxford - December 1999

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