Saturday 4th December

Wake to a glorious dawn, a dappled sky and low mist layers over the Laotian hills on the other side of the Mekong River. A problem with the left-hand burner delays us - we elect to fly on one and lift off after the others. We have met the head teacher of the school whose sports ground we are using as a launch site this morning and he, to his delight, has been offered a flight in Rene's 105 which now has a spare place as Noi has returned to Bangkok. Since Khon Kaen, none of the places we visit have ever been overflown by a hot-air balloon and so this is a tremendous novelty for both us and the locals and every face is upturned and most are happily waving at the eccentric farang. You can easily see the smiles from 200' but the main problem lies in deciding which group to wave at. The flight conditions are ideal and we climb to 1000' and move away from the river border until we are safely inland, then, descending to low level, pick up the return wind and travel gently back to the town, climbing again to find the original air stream. You can only play these games in a balloon and it's such fun when it is this steerable. Confuses the retrieve crew as well as they are used to a straight downwind flight and have hared back from their watchpoints out of town, only to meet us coming the other way!

During the second pass over the town, Yutakit has to physically move the gas cylinders around because of the failed burner and I offer to do this while he flies. He declines and asks me to fly while he works. After the changeover he says to carry on - he's worried about flying over the town with only one burner available and understandably doesn't want a rookie pilot of unknown competence getting into difficulties. This Sky 90 only has about 30 hours total flying time and is therefore practically new, has rotation vents and an unknown (to me) type of burner frame and controls. I find that it is as easy to fly as Humbug and realise that I haven't had control of a balloon since Hua Hin, one year ago. Down we go to skim 20 feet over the fields, popping lazily up to rise over the odd tree. After 90 minutes we decide that with the sun now getting seriously hot it's only a matter of time before the air mass becomes thermic and unstable and so a landing a few hundred metres from a road with its attendant power lines is proposed. It's a little sudden as I'm at 200 feet in order to overfly some buffalo, but I put in short burns to keep the balloon mass hot while following an imaginary slope down to a selected point where I hope to arrrive. The only tree around suddenly wants to get in on the act for a while but we move to on side and execute what Norman would describe as a "positive" landing. Well, just one bounce as I haul in armfuls of rip-line. The crew are already bringing the pick-up into the field as far as they can and the next thing I know is that Pauline and Yutakit are out of the basket leaving me in charge to fly the whole kit and caboodle onto the back of it. "You have to finish the mission, Geoff!" he tells me. Gulp. I reheat the envelope (not too much as a 90 loaded with one body gets buoyant mighty quickly and takes some stopping) and lift off with the ground crew steering from the outside. We touch down on the pickup, adjust the basket position and send the crown-line out after Yutakit shows me how he likes the burners cooled with liquid propane to prevent scorching the envelope if it blows over the frame during deflation. While the crew pack up I chat to a man who has come into the field and clearly is no farm worker. He is the director of the local Agricultural Technology College and speaks some English. Again we hand out sweets to the children, having to pantomime an empty box when they run out. No pushing, arguing or sulks from the unlucky ones, we note. Two little girls shyly present Pauline with Christmas cards, an act as charming as it is unexpected. We say goodbye and head for breakfast.

Leaving Nakhon Phanom for the drive to Mukdahan we stop for lunch at Thatphanom and visit the famous Wat there, Phra That Panom, which is one of the principal holy sites in Thailand. Phra That Panom is built in the Laotian Buddhist style with a mighty snow-white tapering tower called a chedi which houses the relics of a holy man. A reliquary, in fact. A few pillars stand near the central complex, draped in ribbons. These are the first pillars of an original building and are venerated because of their antiquity by the Thai in the same way as we would regard the foundation stone of a cathedral. Outside we are subjected to the attentions of the many sellers of lottery tickets, small caged birds, gold leaf and various foods "to go". The birds are to be purchased for release to gain merit for the releaser. (I'm not sure if there is the equivalent loss of merit to the captor, but let's not quibble). The gold leaf is for presenting to the monks to enable them to redecorate the various images of Buddha and other decorative feature of the temple and its puchase also bestows merit.

While filming the house of the big drum we hear an incredible noise from one of the huge gongs that one strikes the correct number of times to ask for various things according to the notice nearby. These wishes are numbered from one to nine and include
1- a wish to be smart (whether intellectual or sartorial isn't specified),
3 - to be granted another rice field
7 - Any Other Wish
9 - to become a Lord.
As I pan and walk the camera round to the side of the gong, it is evident that there is an unofficial way of securing the favours; the hollow boss is being rubbed rapidly to produce a surprisingly loud sound in the same way as one can make a wineglass "sing" by rubbing the wet rim with a forefinger. The girl doing this is about 14 years old and is with her friends. This is also a prayer, I realise too late, because when she stops she makes a bow and a wei to the gong and turns away just as I start a fade. Seeing the camera, she breaks into a huge grin and two victory does look good on the video, though!

From the Mukdahan Grand Hotel we take a tuk-tuk ride to the market. This is great fun. We wander up a side street and buy a freshly cooked sweet pancake from a mobile stall and get about 30 metres away before returning to buy a bigger one! Everyone is so friendly and will almost always return a wave and say hello (Sawadee) if you catch their gaze. Pauline's red hair is a considerable novelty here and she always gets noticed.

We are rejoined at dinner by Ratchasak and Pantip (her husband Suthachai is away on some sort of rally), her son and her maid, who doesn't look much older than he is. Pantip benefits from a much-needed practise of her English and I have to tell Ratchasak that he mustn't translate for her as she turns to him for help very quickly if she misses a word. I tell her, "Pantip, here is a door between you and Ratchasak - look, I've closed it and he can't hear you. You must speak only to me!". Ratchasak enters into the spirit of the game and covers his ears with his hands to show that he can't hear her, while giggling and telling everyone that he has found a proper English teacher, not an American one, and he's from Oxford University, the best! A quarter of an hour later we have exchanged quite a lot of information about ourselves and our families by using the "Ask an easier question" approach (Tham ni ni noi). This has become this year's catchphrase and is employed frequently by Nigs and Margaret. Ratchasak explains later that most educated Thai learn English while at university but seldom use it after they graduate and find employment within the Thai business world.

An early night is taken. The wind has been rising steadily from Laos since late afternoon and is now gusting hard. Ho hum.

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