Text by Hilary Cadigan
Photos by Tinnakorn Nukul and Saranyu Laipawat
I strap on my helmet and adjust the microphone before stepping into the tiny aircraft. It's early in the morning but the day is just starting to heat up, and my pilot, Prayote Chaimongkol, who also happens to be the owner and builder of the Microlight plane we'll be flying in, says we'd better get a move on before the air gets too hot and the ride gets choppy. I feel a strange, zen-like calm as I strap on my seatbelt and plug in my mic. I have faith in this flying machine...and plus, the wings look big enough to carry us down at least semi-gently should anything go wrong.
The little two-seater plane vrooms loudly as we taxi to the end of the grassy runway and turn around. Prayote checks the engine and wings by pressing full throttle on the gas and tilting the steering bar left, right, up and down. All is in order. It's time to fly.
Suddenly we're speeding toward the distant mountains. I throw my arms in the air and ham it up for the cameramen as the wheels leave the ground, and then we're airborne. The trees below shrink to toy-sized as we soar over rice paddies and swimming pools, a hillside temple and the sparkling expanse of the Mae Kueng Dam. It's an exhilarating feeling, to be sure, up in the air with nothing between you and the ground but a two-stroke engine and a triangular wing.
Prayote and I converse over our headsets. His voice is crystal clear even though I can't hear myself speak; the wind takes my words and whisks them away. He points out landmarks – a mountain temple, a school playground – while I mostly just utter inspired phrases like "COOL!" and "EVERYTHING LOOKS SMALL!" He even lets me steer for a minute before quickly snatching back the bar to avoid nose-diving into a rice paddy.
It's my maiden voyage at Chiang Mai Sky Adventures, the first-ever tropical Microlight flying centre in Thailand. Open since 1998, the Sansai centre is owned and operated by the exceedingly affable Prayote, a native of Doi Saket with an inspiring story about how he came to possess one of the coolest jobs in Thailand.
After growing up poor, Prayote moved to Bangkok as a young adult and got a job working 16 hour days at a factory. Pay was low and conditions were bad. Then one day, a near-death experience, in which Prayote missed being smashed in the skull by about one centimetre, led to a re-evaluation of life. "I was almost killed," he recalls. "And my first thought was, 'if I die, I was born for what?' "
It was then that Prayote's life began to take an upward trajectory, not by luck but by sheer willpower and hard work. He quit his job at the factory and found another one at a Japanese factory with much better conditions. From there, he realised that in order to move up in the world, what he needed was more education. So he went to a Japanese restaurant, where he offered to work in exchange for lessons in Japanese. From there, he segued into a job with a Japanese tour company, first in Chiang Mai and then in Phuket. He planned to stay on the island for a month, but ended up living there for eight years, where he eventually opened up a scuba diving company with a friend. "I love adventure," he says with a smile.
It was on a scuba diving trip that he met a man from France who was the owner of a Microlight plane factory. Intrigued, Prayote befriended the man and was mesmerised by notions of flight. Eventually, he saved up enough money to travel to France where he visited the factory and learned to fly Microlight planes. From then on, he was hooked, and so he decided to bring Microlight to Thailand for the first time.
"Back then, at the beginning, everything was pretty much illegal, but everyone was happy," he recalls. "I used to do takeoffs and landings on the superhighway, which used to be only one lane." Then, as traffic increased, Prayote moved to the ring road, and then later to Wing 41 where he convinced officials to let him use their runway in exchange for special favours, like dropping flowers on holidays. Four years ago, he moved to the large grassy area he now owns in Sansai, which features a ten-kilometre radius of approved airspace where he can fly his self-built fleet of five planes. "Now there's all kinds of rules and regulations, but for me, I started with nothing," he says.
In 2001, Prayote took his longest Microlight flight ever, a five day journey from Chiang Rai to the Malaysian border. "It takes awhile because you have to land to refill the gas every two hours!" he laughs.
Today, he employs several staff members, all of whom he trains himself from complete novices. They must complete 20-40 hours of flight training before they're allowed to take paying passengers, but Prayote will train anyone who is passionate, about adventure, and still enjoys every flight.
Of his journey from impoverished factory worker to Microlight mogul, Prayote says simply, "It's fun...I follow the sun!" He smiles as he looks to the sky, where a trainee is circling overhead. "If people have time, why not take 15 minutes to fly with me? It's different from everything else."
Flights at Chiang Mai Sky Adventures last about 15 minutes and cost 1,900 baht each, including transport to and from the city. For more information, call 081 993 6861 or visit www.skyadventures.info.