Sunday 5th December

The 72nd Birthday of His Majesty King Rama IX. An auspicious day, but not for ballooning as the wind is still with us. We think about walking into town to see if we can find one of the parades that have been prepared as part of the public celebrations, but it turns out that we have an excellent view of the stadium behind the hotel from our window. This is where all the marching bands terminate their procession from the town and we have ringside seats! We arrange our two chairs in the window and settle down to watch the bands and youth societies march in with instruments playing, drums beating and flags flying to line up on the grass and listen to the speeches. Each unit has its own flag and team colours. Numbers on their shirt backs suggest some may be sports teams while others may be voluntary units or cadet forces. There's a complete sailing dinghy on wheels so maybe a local club or school team is represented here. It takes well over an hour for all to assemble, be introduced and to receive the applause of the audience of school children seated in the stadium along with local dignitaries. It's all very colourful. I doze off, to be awakened abruptly by a HUGE mortar round that shakes the hotel: it is the signal for the parade to form up and march out again.

In Thailand the Royal Family is greatly revered and, unlike the UK, the people and Press brook no critisism of any of their activities, neither is any comment made about the King or his family. If you have unfavourable thoughts about them it's best to leave them unspoken. It's about the only thing that will get you into trouble with the Thai people who, as we have already seen are very tolerant of our poor (Thai) manners.

Later we take our noodle break in town followed by another pass through the market where purchases of orchid roots, binoculars, monoculars, compasses, Thai sweets in banana leaves and more, are made. We don't set out for our daily trip until nearly 4 p.m. as the silk villagers who we are visiting this evening don't return to their village from the fields until dusk at about 6. It is therefore dark when we arrive and all the women are wearing beautiful red and gold silk sashes (individually designed and woven by themselves) over their shoulders. Each of us is greeted as an individual with the men-folk taking a more subordinate position in the background. Our welcome is unstinted and quite overwhelming. The type of silk that they specialise in will last for a century at least and they can prove it. They also spin the raw silk themselves and dye it, often using their own manufactured dyes. We are in a low open-sided weaving house with raised platforms for the looms and other devices. Not only silk is made here; some fine cotton goods are also loomed and the range includes throws, scarves and table covers. We buy two more lengths of silk as there is an irresistable creamy coloured one that we haven't seen anywhere else. One tablecloth has a subtle turquoise pattern produced by individually placed threads hand-knotted through and then cut so that the pattern appears on the reverse, a process akin to rug-making, but on a very fine scale indeed. The colour is obtained from an extract of eucalyptus. All the prices are, to our minds, low, reflecting in part the direct line between producer and customer so most of us buy at least one or two items. The above mentioned tablecloth took (we asked the woman who made it) about a week to weave in addition to the thread and dye preparation. Ours for 150 baht (£2.50p). If grandmother had made it in England it would have been handed down as a treasured heirloom. There's more. Apologising for not knowing that we indended to visit until late in the day (!) they have prepared a ceremony in which we are invited to participate. We remove our shoes and gather round a matted area outside the loom house. In the centre we find a large silver vessel holding many delicate fans of palm fronds with each frond tip holding a creamy-white soft ball about 2cm in diameter. There is a plate with lighted candles and another containing fresh eggs. One of the village elders performs the ceremony the purpose of which is to re-unite our souls with our bodies and to ensure good fortune for the coming new year. The vessel is raised three times between the prayers and all participants, visitors and villagers alike, should be touching it or at least touching someone who is. Thus the chain is spread from the vessel to the outer circle. A fresh egg is given to the women to eat the next day. This done the white balls described earlier are detached and pulled gently apart; they are soft wool twists and each one is rubbed on our wrists three times by one of the villagers and tied gently in place. Most of us end up with seven or eight such, which we have to keep in place for three days and nights. We feel entertained, welcomed and blessed all at one. It's a nice feeling. We matter.

Ratchasak, showing his serious side and having made up his mind that I have good (Oxford) credentials, has appointed me to write a suitable message in the silk-bound Village Book to mark the occasion. Just a bit doubtful about this as I'm not in any way a representative of the group, but he insists that I am absolutely the right person to do it. "And you should put in about it being the King's Birthday, King Rama IX, yes, that's good. Don't forget to say how pleased we all are to be here, and villagers are happy too. It's a great honour for everyone, English, Thai, all. Yes, put all that in; you must write all this for them, they are so proud to have us here." I compose a message that tries hard not to emulate that of the Three Tailors of Clerkenwell (the history and literary buffs will know that this refers to the famous letter from three disgrunted London traders to the King that begins "We, the People of England...") - well, you can spot the pitfalls of an incorrectly pitched diplomatic message, I'm sure. It actually read quite well and I sign it pp. The Balloon Group.

Waving farewell we leave the villagers and make tracks for the evening meal and bed. That's yet another magical experience that I will carry with me for years. There are so many such to be found in this wonderful country.

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