Writer Caroline Major takes to the skies above Siem Reap with the city’s new microlight company. Photos supplied by Eddie Smith.
“Are you ready?” The question bellows through my headset. “Are you ready?” I nervously mutter, staring down a makeshift-looking runway while strapped into a small, fragile pod with wings attached as if by tent poles.
There’s only enough time for the affable pilot to laugh back at me – not exactly the explicit reassurance I was hoping for – before the three-wheeled microlight jounces along the tarmac-free airstrip at Jayavarman airfield and, seconds later, hurls into the skies over Siem Reap.
Cambodians refer to the fixed-winged, ultra-light aircraft as a “flying moto”. Thankfully, the simple appearance of a microlight disguises the fact that the two-seater is a more complex machine than an airborne Honda Dream, and is limited to two passengers weighing a maximum of 110kg.
Brian Naswall, chief executive officer of AeroCambodia Airline, the company responsible for re-launching microlight flights in temple town this year after former operator SkyVenture disbanded over two years ago, is quick to point out it’s an advanced piece of equipment.
“It’s no lawnmower engine,” he defensively quips. With a $30,000 certified airplane engine, it is classed as a plane with the licensing, insurance and international safety standards to boot.
As the aircraft fluctuates up and down on its ascent with small stomach-tightening bounces, I can only be thankful we started out early in the morning before the weather warmed up. As heat rises, it causes air pockets, resulting in a more adrenaline-inducing aeronautical adventure.
The flight quickly settles into a smooth glide, emulating more feathered avian friends. With an open cockpit, panoramic views of Cambodian rural life unfold from our lofty vantage point.
Palm trees punctuate the patchwork of paddy fields below, patiently awaiting the onset of more rain to quench barren surfaces and transform doleful brown hues into a luminous green life-source. Rust-coloured paths weave across the farmland.
Eddie Smith, the experienced pilot, excitedly points down below to raised land that intersects rice fields. “That’s an old Angkorian highway,” he informs me. The ancient infrastructure sits right next to contemporary tracks. Moments later he highlights a round mound encircled by trees – remnants of what was once a temple.
The microlight flight routes, starting from 15 minutes in duration, all fall outside the heart of the Angkor Archaeological Park. The historic monuments can’t be directly flown over and have a 250-metre-radius restricted no-fly zone; flying over Angkor Wat is limited by one nautical mile.
Nonetheless, an airborne position on the fringes of Siem Reap puts the vast scale of the Angkor civilization into perspective. Historical features that are hard to notice on ground level to the untrained eye effortlessly jump out of the landscape.
The terrain is all very familiar to Smith, who is from Virginia, USA, where he qualified first on Cessna aircraft and subsequently as a microlight pilot and instructor. Coming to Cambodia 12 years ago, the pilot initially worked with the Greater Angkor Project.
“Archaeologists were mapping [terrain] to proof satellite images they already had. Microlights are cheaper than flying a helicopter and with the ability to fly lower to the ground,” he explains. He went on to fly across the country while working for CTN (Cambodian Television Network), National Geographic, Discovery Channel, WWF, the HALO Trust, ABC and independent photographers.
More recently, Smith flew tourists for SkyVenture for
17 months, clocking up over 1,400 hours of flight time for some 2,800 thrill-seeking travellers. He resumed his piloting expertise this year under AeroCambodia.
Ascending over Phnom Krom – avoiding direct passage over pagodas so as not to be higher than Buddha – the hilltop temple is clearly identifiable as the vast expanse of the great Tonle Sap Lake comes into view.
Smith’s explanations on the ground did well in dispelling my fears of any potential disasters as terra firma slinks further away. In the unlikely event the engine cuts out, which has happened only once in Smith’s 2,000 hours of flight time, the plane “simply turns into a glider,” Eddie describes matter-of-factly, citing that the microlight evolved directly from a hangglider.
We soon hang a left along the margins of the lake where the bordering vegetation appears lush and Amazonian from on high. Directly below us floats the village of Chong Kneas. Houses are built on bamboo rafts to cope with the ever-changing water levels of the Tonle Sap lake, which swells in size up to six-fold annually. Usually packed with tour groups, flying over is a much more serene experience and, aside from a single passenger plane in the clouds high above, we are alone.
The microlight’s ability to fly low – at 700ft compared to a helicopter at 2,000ft – means it’s more than just a visual experience. “You can smell the grass and see people’s faces,” Smith tells me, describing his love for flying. Indeed we are close enough to see buffalo bathing, fishermen tending their arrow-head-shaped fish traps, and farmers in the fields who momentarily put down their tools to look up and wave warmly.
Though microlights have the capacity to fly three to four hours at a stretch, reaching speeds of 100 to 120km per hour, our half-hour scenic tour quickly draws to a close. Heading back to town, we pass over crocodile farms and urban developments before touching down.
“When I make a landing I don’t use the engine. But I don’t turn it off either, just in case a cow appears on the runway or something unexpected,” Smith lets me know before our descent. On solid ground the natural air-conditioning sadly switches off, but not the memory of stunning scenery – this is an opportunity to see Cambodia at its best.
For more information, visit www.aerocambodia.com. Flights cost from $75 for 20 minutes.