A Thai balloonist friend and I headed into town to check out the Three Kings Monument Square in the heart of Chiang Mai. We met with representatives from both UNICEF Thailand and Special Olympics Thailand. All was in order and a couple of marquees were set up for guests. At the same time, a number of processions by local schools were happening. Hundreds of school children were parading down the street bringing gifts to the numerous temples in the area. It is a tradition just before the Buddhist lent, the Buddhist lent lasts for three months.
We travelled to the Three Kings Monument early the next morning, where we met our three other balloon crew. We set the balloon up as a number of guests and VIP’s arrived at the square. One of the children from the special needs school welcomed the guests. The deputy representative of UNICEF Thailand gave a speech and then we started to inflate the balloon. I gave a speech once it was fully inflated. The balloon was quite dominating in the relatively small square. 35 special needs children gave postcards to me which they had made, and I gave postcards to them from children in New Zealand and Australia. Later a few kids climbed inside the basket for a photo before we deflated the balloon.
A number of the kids helped us to pack the balloon, which they really seemed to enjoy. Some more speeches were given, then the guests went to the special needs school, while I went to refuel the balloon. I joined them after and was shown the work that UNICEF and Special Olympics are doing in their health screening programme. Many doctors and nurses check the kids’ health and if they identify a problem, they will send them for more specialised care. Many of the kids come from rural areas and board at the school. There are around 400 children and 100 staff at the school. It is a great asset to the area and they are lucky to have a place which looks after children with special needs in the area.
The rest of the afternoon I had media interviews and was quite tired by the end of the day. We had a great dinner back at the Balloon Resort with my friends to celebrate the successful event.
The following day I made the long drive back to Vientiane in Laos, the same road I had travelled the week before. I tried to extend the Temporary Import Permit for my truck a couple of days earlier at the Thai Customs office at Chiang Mai Airport. I was hoping to leave it in Thailand for two months while I went to fly commercially in France. When you import a vehicle into Thailand, a piece of paper must be signed which states that you will take the truck out by a certain date, usually within 30 days. If you don’t, you have to pay 3 million Baht, (Around US$95,000). Through contacts of friends, I could’ve paid $300 and left it in Thailand, but it was going to prove difficult, so I made the decision to drive back to Laos where I had arranged to keep the truck at the UNICEF compound there.
I left at 6.30am the following morning. There are a lot of roadworks and the road will be great when they finish, in the meantime it makes for slow going sometimes.
I got to the Thai/Laos border at around 7.30pm. The crossing on both sides went smoothly and only took around 45mins. I made my way to the same hotel car park where I had parked up the week before. It was a tiring day and I was happy to hit the hay.
I drove to a recommended mechanic the next morning. The mechanic, Mike, a Canadian expat, looked over my truck as it was due for a service. It will be done when I return from France, but I wanted him to look at it in case there were any major issues which required ordering parts. He is probably the best mechanic in Laos and definitely knows his stuff. We had a good chat and I left for the UNICEF office around 1.5hrs later. I met with one of the UNICEF Laos workers and he showed me where to park the truck for the time that I will be in France. We had to lift a low cable to get the truck into the compound, which was only a hassle because it was pouring with rain. We managed though.
I took a tuktuk to the same border that I had crossed the night before and got a taxi to Udon Thani Airport in Thailand, around one hour away. I feel I know the border crossing very well now after crossing it a few times. I arrived at the airport with a couple of hours to spare, then flew to Chiang Mai. I arrived at night and caught a taxi to a hotel. I hadn’t booked anything and a taxi driver recommended one close to the airport. It was comfortable and cheap. A great thing about Thailand is that it is a relatively inexpensive place.
I got up at 5.30am and caught a taxi to the airport, from there I flew to France via Bangkok and Amsterdam.
I am flying balloons commercially in the Dordogne Valley for two months while I prepare for the next leg of the project. This has involved many phone calls and e-mails to UNICEF offices across Asia. It is coming together and I will publish a rough timetable soon.