Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Generosity of Earth and Sky

After a couple of flying trips to the French Alps over the years, and many great trips to Woodrat and Chelan and the Owens Valley, I thought my heart would not have room for another deeply beloved flying destination. Then over the past couple of years I started to hear about epic cross country flying in Thailand, of all unlikely sounding places. I never imagined I’d go there myself, but when I mentioned it to Dorothy, she encouraged me to try and make it happen. Against many odds and logistical hurdles, everything came together at the last minute for me to join a paragliding tour there in March. And after ten days of flying, feasting and relaxing in that magical kingdom, I can say I’m truly in love with everything about that place.

At the very last minute I thought I might have to cancel, because during a perfectly normal flight at home a week before the trip, the speed system webbing on one of my risers gave out. I knew from bitter experience it would take many weeks to get a replacement. But then an angel stepped in to save me: when Gaza heard about my predicament he immediately offered to loan me his sweet new Mantra 6. What a sweetheart! He was about to have a baby and figured he might be busy for a while anyway. I’d always wanted to try the wing but I never expected it would be under circumstances like this!

I had a lot of miles saved up on United and I used them all to book the entire trip in first class cabins, on United and also their partners Thai Airways, and Asiana. It’s a nine hour leg to Tokyo, a layover there, and then a seven hour leg to Bangkok. I arrived at my Bangkok hotel at midnight in time for cocktails at the rooftop Sky Bar overlooking the city. I felt like I’d entered another dimension. The next morning a driver picked me up and ferried me three hours south to join the tour.

The tour was run by Matty Senior, a PWC pilot from Issaquah, with whom I’ve flown (way below and behind of course) in a few US competitions, and also Graham Saunders-Griffith, a former London barrister turned paragliding instructor who I met once at Woodrat. The two of them do an amazing job putting these tours together. They are based in Pak Nam Pran, a little squid fishing village which is also a kitesurfing destination, three hours drive south of Bangkok, on the peninsula that Thailand shares with Myanmar. They rented villas for us there, and they drove us around to a wide variety of flying sites, some of them coastal ridges only accessible by boat towing or scooter towing, and some of them inland hills with drive up and hike up launches. They run three tours each season, each limited to six pilots because of the logistics of towing and getting people into the air during the best flying windows.

On our tour there were two pilots from Australia, one from Hong Kong, and two of us from the US: myself, and Jakob from the Bay Area. Also there was Roger, a longtime Rat Race assistant, who had been a participant on the second tour, and remained in town as an assistant for the third tour. We also enjoyed hanging out with Howard, a Tri-cities pilot who flies with Oahu expatriate Doug Hoffman. Howard was injured while participating in the second tour so he stayed on to recuperate. Also assisting were Manu, a French kitesurfing instructor who speaks beautiful fluent Thai and is learning to paraglide, and Teague, a kitesurfer and speed flyer from Chelan.

For me and for Jakob, the focus of the trip was definitely on cross country flying. The others were newer pilots and were just looking to enjoy some airtime in Thailand. In pursuit of that agenda, and with the support of excellent weather, we flew eight out of ten days, and I logged twenty hours in the air. I probably spent about twenty hours driving all over the country as well! I flew 250 foot launched cross country kilometers over six of those days, including one big flight with an elevation gain of over 10,000 feet and a distance of 102 km, my best outside of a competition, and my second best ever. I also enjoyed a couple of scooter-towed ridge soaring days over a gorgeous seaside vista, and a day of boat-towed thermal hunting over a lake and surrounding hills.

Flying from Khao Den the first day with Matty Senior, after the lowest save ever, where I swear I had my feet out of my pod to land at the bomb out LZ, I was excited to find a perfect storybook cloud street forming downwind of the little inland hill where we launched. We turned in thermals and connected the clouds for 50 km before it became clear that the sea breeze had found us and was going to hinder further progress. We landed in strong turbulent wind that was also super buoyant. It took forever just to get down, all the while just trying to keep our wings open and over our heads. Then Matty pantomimed our desire for a ride out from the field where we landed to some farmers, and they dropped us off at a little house with a storefront selling beer where we waited for Roger to retrieve us. An exciting and perfect first day which set the tone for many more.

The next cross country flight with Jakob from the same site was similar, except that the wind took us in a different direction and we got a neat little tour along the foothills of the mountains separating Thailand from Myanmar, dotted with lakes and smaller limestone features. Again we landed in very strong and super buoyant wind, after a long time getting bounced around and hoping for some smooth sink. After those first two flights I started to call it Cantland instead of Thailand.

Then Graham took the newer pilots on a field trip to a site at Chumphon, a couple hours drive south, for some scenic ridge soaring and diving, while Matty took me, Jakob and Roger on a long field trip to Khao Sadao, Thailand’s most well known cross country site, six hours drive to the north. On the way we stayed overnight at a hotel in Bangkok. Jakob had come up with the idea for this long field trip because he’d done this tour the previous year, and he’d heard about the northern site, and he was more interested in a cross country field trip than one focused on ridge soaring. I thought the site would be new to all of us, but then we found out on the drive that Matty had flown there before. In the 2011 Thailand Open Paragliding Competition. Which he happened to win. So we were definitely in good hands as far as guiding!

This site is on top of a long and low bowl-shaped ridge facing southwest, with nothing but flat farmland behind for hundreds of miles. The idea is to grab a thermal, get high, and head over the back to keep thermaling downwind as far as you can. On our first day at the site, Matty drove retrieve while Roger, Jakob and I flew cross country. The three of us thermaled up together and headed over the back towards the nearest cloud. Roger beamed himself up to the cloud while Jakob and I struggled to connect. That was the last we saw of Roger!

Jakob and I tried to stick together for a while but I was worried about the military airspace downwind to the east, so I ended up ditching Jakob to shoot for a more northerly line. At some point after that I heard Jakob exclaim over the radio that a couple of fighter jets had just blasted by below him. And then I heard it myself, the familiar sky-ripping rumble that we know from the fighters here on Oahu. I definitely kept my line as north as I could after that!

After about 50 km I was getting low and feeling spent. I heard from Roger that he’d landed at a little town another 10 km or so ahead, and I made that my goal, even though it seemed like a long shot. Somehow I found a couple of thermals that got me over to that town, and then I got a doozy that shot me up to space, and I had to tell Roger I was gonna keep going. A couple times after that, I found myself getting low over nice little villages that I knew would have lots of little houses with storefronts selling beer, but then both times I caught the most perfect thermals over the village temples and shot back up into space to keep going. I thought of them as Buddha thermals.

Finally the sun was sinking on the horizon and so was I. I was running out of thermals and I was exhausted. I set up a landing outside a nice little village with a lake nearby. As I set down in a fallow field, some kids showed up on scooters to see what was going on, and they were fascinated to watch me fold up. I only found out later I'd flown just over 100 km, after five long hours. Soon Matty and Roger showed up with cold refreshments and we set out to find Jakob, who had flown almost 100 km himself along a slightly different line.

The next morning we packed up the truck to return south to our base at Pak Nam Pran. But first we were going to try for another cross country flight. On this day the wind was blowing the opposite way. We had to use the hike up launch at the other end of the ridge, a site called Khao Phrik. Matty, Jakob and I were going to try and fly as far as we could south towards Bangkok while Roger would drive the chase vehicle. Matty launched first and got up high, then headed upwind out over the flats to scope out the air and wait for the rest of us to join him.

I launched next and got up to a decent height, but soon after that, both Matty and I started to sink. Everywhere we flew. It was a massive flush cycle. Matty ended up landing at the bomb out LZ, while I fought ferociously below launch to claw my way back up in one ratty little thermal. Somehow I made it up and out of there, only to watch as Jakob launched and bombed straight to the LZ. So now I was going to have to figure this route out on my own!

I headed over the back, staying high above the huge prison compound that we’d been warned to avoid. I continued on to fly over a massive escarpment, a long cliff line separating two plateaus. I headed to the foothills of a small mountain range that I knew I’d have to cross, and tried to get as high as I could there before charging through the mountains. I’d almost got all the way over them when I took a huge whack in super turbulent air, and I fought to reopen the wing. It was rough going for a while, and then I got into super strong smooth lift beneath some big clouds as I got back over the flatlands.

Only later did I realize I’d just made my way from the bad side to the good side of a convergence line on the other side of the mountains. But at the time I only knew I was feeling spooked. And I was perplexed to find that I was suddenly in a headwind after having enjoyed a tailwind up to this point. So I just decided I’d flown far enough, and I flew through a bunch of lift without turning, to land after two hours and 50 km in a burned out field. Of course it was near a family storefront where I folded up and bought some beer while I waited for the guys to find me. In hindsight I wonder how far I might have gone that day if I’d been feeling braver. But still I was super happy with the flight. From there we continued the drive back to our base down south.

Thailand turns out to be an amazing destination for cross country flying: sweet thermals and cloud streets during the dry season, great launch sites, endless open fields and navigable roads for safe long distance flights. It lived up to my wildest expectations for great flying. But at the same time, I was surprised to find I was falling in love with the place for reasons other than flying. I was intoxicated by the exotic sights, sounds, flavors, smells, and sensations of the Thai countryside. Not to mention by Thai beer and rum! Clearly I wasn’t in boring old Hawaii anymore!

I loved the topography of the place: smooth flat farmland punctuated by the occasional lonely sentinel of a forested limestone formation at the coast, with hills and mountains further inland. One thing I didn’t fall in love with was the omnipresent haze in the air that made it difficult to see very far. It made the flying especially tricky because at times we couldn’t see more than a kilometer in any direction. When we were high we could barely see the ground. And when we were low we often couldn’t tell where the clouds were forming. Because the visibility was so limited, often I relied on my map screen to figure out what kind of terrain features were coming up in a given direction: hills, lakes, roads, etc.

The roads were an entertaining visual feast: scooters everywhere, many with makeshift sidecars, canopies, and racks. But even a simple unmodified scooter would sometimes be loaded with a family of five! The lines marking lanes on the highways and roads in Thailand are merely suggestions. In fact most drivers would hedge their bets about choosing a lane by riding directly on the lines. We saw all shapes and sizes of trucks on the roads. Many big trucks were decorated with ornate and colorful abstract Thai designs. Many pickup trucks had special tall racks so they could be loaded incredibly high with agricultural products or supplies.

I was surprised to see stray dogs lounging in the roads and pretty much all over the place. Apparently because it’s a Buddhist society, stray animals are tolerated and everyone takes care of them. They seemed super friendly and happy.

I was entranced by the myriad beautiful Buddhist temples, shrines and statues nestled all around the countryside. Even in the tiniest rural village there would be a huge elaborate temple. And almost every house had an ornate little spirit house set up in the front yard.

The food in Thailand doesn’t need any introduction. Most of us are already familiar with the distinctive flavors of lemon grass, kaffir lime, galangal, chilis, curry, coconut. But the food is cheaper and simpler than what we’re used to, especially in rural areas. Also there are street stalls and carts everywhere, cooking up all manner of delectable and often unrecognizable treats. I’ll never know for sure, but I’m pretty certain I ate barbecued frog liver a couple times. I got a Thai sausage on a stick one day that was amazing. And I discovered a couple of awesome Thai breakfast dishes: Khao Man Gai, and Khao Tom Moo.

And did I mention the heat? The dry season is indeed really, really dry, and incredibly hot. It never rained once. After hiking, launching, flying and landing in the merciless midday equatorial sun’s oppressive heat, it was a huge relief to find some shade and relax in the cool breeze, and to enjoy an ice cold Thai beer at the nearest family store.

Finally, I have to admit that my favorite part of the trip might just be riding the scooter the organizers provided for each of us to to get around in the village where we stayed. I’ve never ridden one before and I never expected that I would, but it turns out to be the perfect way to get around a place like that. I won’t soon forget the sensation of the sea breeze blowing through my hair, um, I mean, my shirt, as I careened full speed down the coastal byways on a zippy little scooter, taking in the sights of the rural countryside.

It was an unforgettable trip. I’ve barely covered any details but I’ve already gone on way too long! Thanks for bearing with me if you made it this far. The title of this article is a line from a Thai poem I read that is pretty much a love poem to the rural countryside.

Thanks again to Gaza for loaning me his amazing wing. Now that is a rare and special kind of generosity!

I made a video of the trip and I'm pleased with how it came out. I think it captures the feeling of the whole experience. Please expand it to full screen and enjoy it properly!


Dorothy Colby said...

Where is the link to all your photos from the trip?

JK said...

Well, I'm very happy that we have returned to cool stories about adventurous flights in paradise. What an awesome trip and an equally awesome writeup! Be ready for some company from HI next year.

Thom said...

Thanks for the read I had to go Through a couple cups of coffee for this one.

If I ever, I mean when I fly again I hope to make this trip. There are so many great places to fly in this world.

Unknown said...

Wow! I read every word and savored every frame! I'm impressed, a little jealous, and very proud of you for just going for it, Alex!

JD said...

So awesome Alex! Headed to Thailand for a two-week vacation in July! Now I'm super excited for the trip.

George Sturtevant said...

You nailed it with your prose and video. C.J. and I were there for the first session and didn't have the XC but the flying, eating and sightseeing were great!

Igor said...

Great one! Thanks Alex! Inspiring.