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’s first aerial club in 2010.
Now there are some twenty 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.
Ravansith Thammarangsy (L), founder of Laos’s first aerial club, teaches his daughter above the Khoksa airfield, outside Vientiane ©Coraline Molinie (AFP)
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 realised 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 endeavours are starting to win a wider fan base.
Laos now has an avid crew of paramotor flyers and even a national paragliding team.
Ravansith Thammarangsy, founder of Laos’s first aerial club, steers his light aircraft on his way to Luang Prabang, northern Laos ©Coraline Molinie (AFP)
“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 Laos joined ten other nations from around the region to form the Airsport Federation of Asia.
The organisation is seeking a space for sports such as paragliding, paramotoring and parachuting in global competitions.
They’ve 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 co-host its first competition last month in neighbouring Thailand.
A member of Laos’ paramotor flyers team takes off during an air show in Xayabury, western Laos ©Coraline Molinie (AFP)
Locals watch an air show performed by members of Laos’ paramotor flyers team in Xayabury, western Laos ©Coraline Molinie (AFP)