We are to fly with Yutakit today. His crew are well practised and there is little for us to do to help. A strong smell of camphor as the envelope is unpacked is caused by the presence of moth balls. On enquiry it turns out that the balloon has not flown for a year and this is a sensible method of rendering it unattractive to insect life while in storage. Perhaps Thai moths can digest rip-stop nylon; I'm not sure! I think that it's more likely to discourage small rodents, but I've not seen it done before. It's a Sky-90 balloon, bright yellow and with less than 30 hours flying time logged. The parachute vent is retained in place during inflation by Velcro tabs which are alternately coloured red white and black around the circumference, making it much easier to match the corresponding closures on the top panels in the correct sequence. This is in contrast with Humbug, whose black tabs on a black balloon can be tricky to follow.
The gas quality is not good and the burner pressures are low. Some dealers obviously mix in cheaper butane with the propane in order to increase their profits, so Yutakit resorts to using both burners for the inflation. The morning breeze is uncharacteristically strong and although the four balloons lift off more or less together our ground speed is higher than we would normally expect. It's a pleasant enough flight though and it's good to be back in the air. The difficulty of finding a suitable landing site in the heavily farmed countryside prolongs our flight to one and a quarter hours, away from the main roads and out of sight of our retrieve crew. We're last to land and the fields here resemble empty square reservoirs with metre high earth banks separating the partitions: very hard and unyielding if hit. We don't, so I'm over the side of the basket with the crown line to try and bring the collapsing envelope down neatly avoiding the crop and various clumps of spiky botanical species. The usual miracle of the empty fields producing dozens of Thai of all ages is duely repeated. They help us pack up and carry everything out of the fields and up to the road, where our retrieve appears a few minutes later. A gunshot rings out from a few hundred metres away. The adults laugh and the children look sulky and start to straggle back through the fields to the school, where the teacher has tired of waiting for his charges to reappear and has signalled his displeasure at being kept waiting.
The midday meal is taken outdoors at a newly opened restaurant on the banks of a waterway. We sit under wooden canopies, suspended over the bank. The food is delicious and far too much as Yutakit underestimated the size of the portions. The star turn is a whole grilled fish served on a platter with herbs. At least one "spare" found its way to the waiting crews - well, they deserve it. We had been ferried around while trying to obtain visas for a trip to Laos in a few days time. This requires photos, forms, a fair bit of currency and a considerable wait while these were inspected at the Laotian Consulate in Khon Kaen. The observation was made that the poorer the country, the more expensive the visa and that it is an easy way to bring in hard currency. It was interesting to find that the Americans are charged more than the Brits for a visa. Don't mention the War....
Following a return visit to the consulate to deposit our expensive pieces of paper and to surrender our passports overnight we are taken on a mystery tour. Northeast of the city we arrive at the Snake Village. Guess what this is famous for? There are about 150 cobras in separate cages and an attendant whose job it is to encourage one of them to rear up and raise its hood in defence. There is a raised stage and some seats and we are greeted warmly and offered glasses of chilled water. We are to be given a show, although apart from the obvious "being bitten by a deadly snake" sketch it's hard to see what entertainment to expect. Three lovely girls perform a dance, holding big snakes. No, really. I wasn't previously aware that it is possible to put a cobra's head into one's mouth without suffering a distressing and possible terminal accident, but apparently it is. Don't even think about the symbolism. Well, at least try not to. It was all gracefully done, let's leave it at that. The men then demonstrated their agility and speed in avoiding snake strikes, being pursued around the stage by one particularly enraged individual who clearly resented being hauled out of his nice cool box and being subjected to being batted round the ears with an old sock. There was also a small stand for the selling of "snake medicine" from which I noticed one or two of our Thai companions purchasing certain items. Again, anyone care to guess what Thai men believe snake medicine is good for? No? Oh dear, let's move along then.
The show, snakes and demonstrations were free with donations accepted. Let's be a bit objective about all this. A village family has, over the years, become skilled in the capture, care and handling of king cobras. It is providing a local service in keeping down the number of snakes in the fields which would otherwise be killed by the field workers on sight. They care for the snakes and extract the snake venom for the production of medical anti-sera. The snakes benefit, the family has both an occupation and an income and the village in becoming known as an unusual tourist attraction in an area considered relatively poor by Thai standards. The family were genuinely pleased to see us and did their best in every way to show us what they had. Ann made the pertinent observation that they had made something from very little and that was meant in a kind way. The girl who handled the big cobra and python that several of us tried on for size was thrilled to bits, along with her family, to see her performance replayed on my video camera. It felt good to give a little something back under the circumstances and her smiles and her parting three word of English - "See you soon" - were music to our ears.
After dinner, a tuk-tuk ride to the Night Silk Market where Peter and I bought silk bolts in 4 metre lengths. it was a bit of a shock to find that the first stall holder had little idea about bargaining. He must have been operating the only fixed price stall out of the hundreds in the place. Late night back and let's hope that this wind dies drops before dawn. It's unheard of for it to be this strong after dark at this time of year.