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Thailand has long been a popular destination for a wide variety of action sport enthu¬siasts, but until recently paragliders had little oppor¬tunity to spread their wings. The newly-opened Si Khiu Centre at Khao Sadao — 2.5hrs drive northwest of Bangkok — is about to change all that. The site is capable of handling both paragliders and hang-gliders, and offers superb conditions and a range of challenges and flying experiences for pilots of all levels, from complete beginners to old hands.

The site is the brainchild of local fly¬ing guru, Suwat Hannarong Suwat. He secured the lease for the Khao Sadao ridgcline from the local government, and constructed all the facilities which are now available on the site. A certified instruc¬tor, Suwat runs Sky Expert Team (SET) Thailand’s only active paragliding club. He conducts courses for both beginners and intermediate pilots, and offers tandem flights for newcomers who want to get a taste of the action.

Khao Sadao is a flat-topped mountain rising abruptly 220m above the surrounding plains. The flying site is a high ridge that arcs around to form a bowl that’s open to the south. There’s about five kilo¬metres of soarable ridgeline. In front of the ridge open farmland stretches 10km southwards to a range of lower hills. The large, ploughed fields don’t only make excellent landing areas they also generate strong thermals that are ideal for soaring, and even allow cross country flights along the selection of medium sized hills to the west.

Getting high at Khao Sadao ‘s eastern launch site. The conditions here are greatfrom March to July, and the ridge lift can get you up to 500m above sea level — while the thermals can put you 1000m above sea level

Khao Sadao has two launch sites: the western one is for hang-gliders only, but the eastern launch site is suitable for both paragliders and hang-gliders. It’s steep enough to provide the abundant lift required to get you airborne, but gentle enough to allow a launch to be safety aborted without undue drama. Behind the launch area is a 500m, x 200m cleared field which allows enough room for even hang-gliders to top land. (However, in mid-after¬noon the strong thermals generated by this field limit top landings to the more experienced pilots: others must land in the fields below.)
Currently most flyers using the site are locals SET has about 10 active members and 25 students at different stages on the learning curve. The locals are extremely hospitable and will make sure that anyone wishing to fly is well looked after.

Cruising the ridge
Once airborne from the eastern launch site, the standard flight path is to make a right turn towards a local temple about one kilometre to the west. For some reason, the Buddha has blessed this loca¬tion with very good lift, and circling around the temple allows you to derive the maximum benefit. However, you should note that it’s not done to fly directly over the tem¬ple even though the monks seem fascinated by the gliders, and of¬ten visit the launch site. Generally the maximum height obtainable from the ridge lift here is 200m, above the hill, which puts you about 400-500m above sea level.

The best altitude gains at Khao Sadao are from the thermals, and heights of along the selection of medium-sized hills to the west.

Thailand’s newest and best paragliding and hang-gliding site is easily accessible from Bangkok. Membership is growing as city-dwellers seek a new weekend escape ridge takes you over the western hang-glider launch, and more small thermals generated from the rock face ensure you stay well elevated. Venturing even further west takes you towards the knife-edged end of the ridge. Directly opposite is an¬other large hill facing east, which also of¬fers ridge soaring on days when the wind has a more easterly aspect although this has yet to be fully tested. Be careful when you’re flying over this end of the ridge: vehicle access is limited and a bomb-out here can mean a two hour trek back to civilization. The hillside is also covered in dense, none too user friendly vegeta¬tion, though most of it is low-growing so there’s little chance of getting stuck in the branches. Beginners should stick to the eastern end of the ridge.

If you turn left (east) after launching from the eastern site, you fly one kilometre along the ridge to a bare hill rising to about 250m. The lift here is good, and you can enjoy spec¬tacular views of a nearby golf resort and the plains stretch this hill you’re ready to set up your bot¬tom landing. The preferred landing zone, at the foot of the ridge, is a large open grassy field about 500m x 500m. Alter¬nately you can land opposite the golf re¬sort clubhouse — which means you’re closer to refreshments. The resort man¬agement are obliging about landings on the golf course, but using either of the two designated landing zones is preferred. If you happen to land on a distant fair¬way, for a small fee you can even get a caddie to transport you back to the club house on a golf buggy.
Occasionally a beginner pilot lands on the 18th hole — a faux pas looked upon as entertainment by many of the visiting Japanese golfers. Landing on the actual putting greens is considered a serious breach of etiquette, and landing on the driving range is entirely at your own risk! Wherever you land, Suwat can arrange in advance for pickups to get you back to the site, or you can make arrangements with the local villagers for a small fee. A radio is a handy extra piece of equipment to carry,. enabling y6u to co-ordi- nate movements between launch and landing areas.

Practicalities

Weather & flying times
From March to July, south and southwesterly winds prevail at Khao Sadao, creating perfect conditions for ridge soaring. At the start of the rainy season June/July the winds tend to be stronger, but they abate somewhat once the rainy season takes hold. From July to November the site is still flyable, but the rain and stronger winds are too much for all but the keenest pilots. From November to February, strong winds blow from the northeast, and flying is not recommended. The temperature at Khao Sadao reaches the Thai norm of 30-35deg during the day. Temperatures at altitude are relatively comfortable and a light flying suit is suf¬ficient, but if you wish to attempt seri¬ous altitude work you should come pre¬pared with the usual gear.

Getting the best
The best time of year for thermals at Khao Sadao is March/April, when the southerly winds first take hold but the land is still hot and dry. (This is also the hottest and sunniest part of the year, so bring plenty of sunscreen.) As the site was only offi¬cially opened in May, 1997, the full po¬tential of the thermals for cross-country jaunts has yet to he explored. Local pi¬lots are eagerly awaiting the start of the 1998 season.

Alternative sites
From November to February, when north¬east winds make Khao Sadao unflyab1e, pilots use an alternative site in Phu Rua in northeast Thailand, Six hours by car from Bangkok. It’s a high-altitude launch site, and cross-country flights to the Lao¬tian border arc normal fare. There are also flying sites in Phuket and Rayong, but they’re not as good as Khao Sadao and Phu Rua.

Getting there
Khao Sadao is 8km ,vest of a small farming town named Si Khiu, and about 40km west of Korat (Nakhon Ratchasima.) To get there by car from Bangkok, take High¬way I north past Don Nluang Airport to¬wards Rangsit, turn off at Highway 2 and follow the signs to Saraburi (the signs are in English as well as Thai), then head towards Nakhon Ratchasima. You will eventually pass the Lam Takhong Res¬ervoir on the LHS. About 15km past the reservoir turn left onto 201 and head for Chaivaphum. About seven kilometres down this road, you’ll see a large unsealed road on your left with a sign for the Voy¬age Panorama Resort. (A road on the right takes you to Si Khiu.) The unsealed road to the launch site has been improved to allow easy access for cars. You can also bus it from Bangkok’s northern bus termi¬nal near Chatuchak market to Si Khiu, and then take a taxi to the resort (total cost is around 200 baht), or a taxi direct from Bangkok (1500 baht).

Accommodation
SET has developed good camping facilities at the launch site, with water tanks, toilets, shower facilities and a barbecue area. Suwat has had plenty experience of outdoors sports he ran a dive shop for 10 years and camping Thaistyle is more comfortable than you might expect. An alternative is The Voyage Panorama Re¬sort, a four-star establishment with an 18 hole golf course and swimming pool, con¬veniently located below the eastern end of the Khao Sadao ridgeline. An airconditioncd condo for four costs 3000 baht, SET is currently negoti¬ating a package deal for visiting pilots call him for information. Another resort just 2km north of Khao Sadao is a bit cheaper but has still to be checked out.


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