Saturday, February 01, 2020

Amazing: Thailand 2020

As I write this, I’m nursing a lower back injury, a weeping scab on a fresh divot in my scalp, a nagging sniffle and cough, and a sore ankle. I’m a mess! But it hasn’t kept me from flying. I’m not dead yet, am I?? I’ve been home from a truly amazing flying tour in Thailand for two weeks, and despite my lingering ailments, I’ve been flying so much here at home since I got back, it’s taken me this long to massage the hours of video I shot there into shape and write a story to go with it. Yes, it has a happy ending!

After enjoying three intense competition trips last year, I thought I’d begin the new year by signing up for a more free form and relaxing flying tour, returning to Thailand, an utterly fabulous flying destination which I last visited for a memorable Matt Senior tour in 2016. This year’s tour would be different because instead of using his former southern base of operations in Pranburi, Matt planned to bus us around between four or five different sites he’d been exploring in the north central and northeast and central regions of the country.

It turns out this trip would be anything but relaxing! We traversed the craggy Thai countryside by minibus and paraglider for countless cumulative kilometers from dawn to dusk every day, for eleven straight days without a break. I personally logged 24 hours and close to 240 miles (378km) of spectacular mountain and flatland XC flying. Many others on the tour definitely logged even higher numbers! A lot of great pilots in this group for sure. There were ten of us all together including tour leader Matt who often led the charge in the air. Despite the frenetic pace I relished the ten days of fun and challenging flights with that awesome crew, and at least three of those days felt like epic superhero missions where I truly surprised myself by how far I got!

Just before the tour I was almost sidelined by a debilitating disk/nerve issue in my lower back and also a skin cancer diagnosis on my scalp. But fortunately neither of those issues kept me from traveling. I got a little inflatable lumbar pillow which I carried around everywhere, and I used it on the plane, in the minibus, and even in my harness while flying. It really helped! And my skin doctor said no problem to wait on the surgery for my scalp until I got back, so we could monitor the healing here on Oahu. (I’ve had the surgery now and they confirmed they got it all!)

So what’s special about touring and flying in Thailand? First, the people are the nicest, most helpful and generous on earth, with a culture and language that I find endlessly fascinating. Then there’s the hazy landscape of mountains, valleys, ridges, plateaus, and yes, escarpments, all often halfway obscured by the notoriously smoky atmosphere that plagues most of Asia, but also the prettiest ever during sunrise and sunset. And the truly ubiquitous Buddhist temples and statues, some perched in the most unlikely places. Add to that the omnipresent street markets and vendors selling the most delectable and spicy delights, often unrecognizable but always delicious. And the little family stores operated out of houses on street corners in every neighborhood, selling food, snacks and beer. Plus all the sweet dogs and cats lounging everywhere like they own the place.

We flew five days from Phu Thap Boek, a 6,000 foot mountain looming high over the wide valley in the north central Phetchabun province. There is an established site and school there, run by Matt’s buddy and local legend Chucheep. We launched and scratched our way up above the crazy looking sharp and pointy golden stupa of Wat Pa Phu Thap Boek, then flew along the range in both directions and also explored various lines to cross the 25 km valley to the mountain range on the other side. While in Phetchabun we also flew one gorgeous sunset flight from a lower mountain overlook on the other side of the valley, at Tat Mok national park.

My best and favorite flight was my last one here, an arcing line north to cross the wide valley along the northern foothills to reach the mountains on the other side, team flying with half the crew, and landing under a clear stable sky after three hours and 31 miles, next to a cool looking dam over there, to be greeted by half the village on mopeds. Matt had promised us that once you get to the west facing mountains it was all gravy. Like big rock candy mountain! But the clouds were looking best to the north by the time we arrived so it seemed like the gravy was a moving target. Matty pointed out an important maxim later: Fly the day. Not what I say!

We flew two days from Wat Prong Chang, an established site in the northeastern Chaiyaphum province. We launched from a low ridge at the temple there right next to a white seated buddha statue draped in a golden robe of actual cloth rippling in the wind. The goal here was, first, not to sink out from this low ridge line, and then to climb high enough to head over the back to make distance back towards Phetchabun.

Here my best and favorite flight was my first one, team flying half the way but lost and forlorn the second half, wondering where everyone had gone, practically crying on the radio for any hints about crossing the looming ridge, then just blazing over anyway, and not realizing til I landed that I’d actually eked my way a little distance past the others, after three and a half long hours and 53 miles.

We flew three days from Khao Phraya in the central Lopburi province. It’s a known site, but according to the locals it’s only good for soaring, not cross country. Matt was eager for us to prove otherwise, and we sure did. We launched from a small clearing along the road on a low ridge. It wasn’t actually a clearing when we first checked it out - thanks to Matty and Scott for doing the clearing and buying a tarp. Here again, the first order of business was not sinking out. From there we tried some really cool lines in many directions, once over the back towards Phetchabun, and twice out front, crossing the flatlands south towards the hills dividing Lopburi from Saraburi province.

My best and favorite flight was definitely the second day here, where I flew with the crew all the way south across the valley to the next line of hills, until I got slowed down by an impossibly low save, creeping up from almost landing with Ray (thank you for your help Ray! And thank you for your sacrifice Meggie!) I lost the group shortly after that and I decided to make my own way back towards launch, on a wide line to see if I could score an FAI triangle. And I did, 30 miles in four long hours. With many many improbably low saves along the way.

I should point out that when I talk about team flying, I’m not really great at team flying. I have always struggled to stay with any size group of pilots during competitions, even though I want to, and I know it’s more efficient. Matt really coached us to fly as a team during this trip, and when it worked, it really worked great. I have to say, my best team flying on this trip was the part where I was slightly above and behind the others. Not sure if that counts though. Thanks to the others who helped me find so many good climbs! And hopefully I managed to return the favor at least a few times.

I wound up fighting off a Thai plague by the end of the trip, starting with an ominously severe sore throat, followed by a couple days with my nose, ears and lungs full of fluid. I was having trouble clearing pressure in my ears on the last couple of days in the air while climbing or sinking, and on the final day I was actually sort of relieved to sink out in tricky leeside launch conditions and call it a day. Sort of relieved. Only four of our ten stalwarts made it up and out, so I was in good company. But still a bit envious, as Matty and Mike blazed farthest south towards Bangkok and the rest of us caught up in the minibus. Also I sprained an ankle landing in massive leeside sink on a super hard packed dirt LZ on that last flight. Seems like an ignominious ending but at the time I was sort of happy it hadn’t happened earlier! But sort of not happy it happened at all.

On the plane home I felt a bit sad to have added a Thai upper respiratory infection and a mildly sprained ankle to my lower back issue and my little skin cancer spot, very soon to be excised. And I was worried my head would explode at 40,000 feet with my ears so jammed up with fluid. But thankfully, my head didn’t explode, and I actually dozed happily, dreaming of turning lazy circles and cruising at cloud base in Thailand with my friends, and already plotting my next trip.


sandy said...

Wow, what a fun tale (complete with somewhat comedic relief of your ailments, sorry for those!)! I know I'll never fly so well to have such flights like you have there (those are the extra rewards of all the hours you get in the sky here) so it's nice to be able to fly them in my imagination. But it also sounds like a place I'd like to visit and try fly sometime. Thanks for the story!

firedave2 said...

Fly the day, not what I say! Epic line.

Great adventure.