Wed, Mar 09, 2016 - Page 19 News List

Flight instructor introduces aerial sports to Laos

AFP, VIENTIANE

A Laos paramotor flyer team member, left, prepares to take off at an air show in Xayabury, Laos, on Feb. 20.

Photo: AFP

Bad roads, big mountains and dense jungle have gifted Laos a difficult and dazzling terrain — one that is now being enjoyed from the skies by a well-heeled new crop of pilots pursuing a passion for aerial sports.

The pastime, new to the tiny, poor Southeast Asian nation, was made possible by Ravansith Thammarangsy, a Franco-Laotian flight instructor who returned to the country of his birth to set up Laos’ first aerial club in 2010. Now there are about 20 recreational pilots flying above the country’s green hills, with more learning and hoping to compete in global games.

“It was a childhood dream of mine. I lived near the airport and every day I saw the planes go by,” said Soutilack Intsaboung, a student at Lao Airsports Club.

The club’s founder, known as “Sith,” said it took time to convince the country’s communist rulers to sign off on the venture, which uses an airfield 40km north of the capital, Vientiane.

He worked with the government to draft regulations for ultra-light aircraft — including small helicopters — and had to convince authorities that the sport was not a threat the national security.

“We had to fight to get the necessary permission,” he said. “Now they’ve realized that it’s a sport like any other.”

While airplanes are largely only accessible to expats and the wealthiest Laos citizens, paragliding and other airborne endeavors are starting to win a wider fan base. Laos now has an avid crew of paramotor flyers and even a national paragliding team.

“We’re very proud,” said Soutilack Intsaboung, one of the team’s members. “It’s a good thing to show that we now know about this sport in Laos and that we are able to take on international athletes.”

In December last year Laos joined 10 other nations from the region to form the Airsport Federation of Asia.

The organization is seeking a space for sports such as paragliding, paramotoring and parachuting in global competitions.

They have set their sights on the upcoming Asian Beach Games in Vietnam and even the 2020 Summer Olympics in Japan, but for now, international recognition is still a long way off for Laos.

Still lacking large enough facilities, the country’s paragliding team was forced to cohost its first competition last month in Thailand.

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