He’s got 2,000 hours of flying time in Cambodia under his belt, flown 3,000 passengers and now Eddie Smith and his microlights are back in the sky. Formerly operating under SkyVenture, Smith is now flying with new local airline Aero Cambodia, and thrill-seekers will once again be able to cruise over the temples of Angkor, Tonlé Sap and the floating villages.
Siem Reap’s popular microlight flights ceased two years ago when English-run SkyVenture closed down after the owner, David Sayer, was forced to return to the UK after a bad motorbike accident. Now, however, Aero Cambodia is taking up the mantle.
“The new name will be Aero Cambodia Above Angkor,” says Smith. “Right now I’m flying from our old spot to most of the same routes that we flew before.”
Of the various flights now available, the shortest trip is 15-20 minutes and the longest lasts one hour, with prices ranging from $75 to $225. As before, Smith flies from a small airfield 4km east of the Siem Reap River, behind the Apollo Plaza.
“The smallest journey flies to the Roulos Group and does a circle round there. We don’t fly over any temples,” he adds. “Apsara Authority and Unesco are very clear – no one can fly over the temples and no one should fly over a pagoda because it’s disrespectful. We fly 500 metres – or 1500 feet – lateral and vertical distance separation, so we don’t fly so close that we disturb anybody.”
But he adds that Angkor Wat is a special case, and the closest he is permitted to fly is one nautical mile, or 1.7km.
“The machine is very quiet, especially compared to helicopters. It has a lot smaller motor, it’s enclosed, and it has a special propeller and two mufflers to quieten the engine. Most people would not notice it unless they looked up and saw it.”
Other trips take in Phnom Krom, Kampong Phluk floating village, Banteay Samre, Pre Rup and always, Smith says, finishing up with Angkor Wat.
“I like to save the best for last,” he says. “But actually one of the most impressive is the Bakong temple. It’s surprising how many people ask me if it’s Angkor Wat, even Khmers. It looks a little bit different from the sky.”
Smith says the experience of flying in a microlight is unique.
“There’s nothing to compare it to,” he says. “The helicopters are nice, no doubt, but you’re enclosed. With the microlight, it’s all open – you have two people sat in tandem one behind the other. Microlights fly about 100-110km an hour, or 65 miles per hour. They’ve flown over Mount Everest – they can fly for four hours.”
He started off flying Cessna aircraft in his native US and has been a pilot for 30 years. But despite this, Smith says as soon as he flew a microlight he was hooked.
“As soon as I tried microlights I just knew that was what I wanted to do,” he says. “Low and slow and wave at people, and smell the grass where people are cutting the lawn. You can actually see peoples’ faces.”
Smith says his customers used to mainly be archeologists, hydrologists and geologists studying the temples, but now tourists make up a fair proportion of his business.
He first came to Cambodia 12 years ago to work with the University of Sydney on the Greater Angkor Project, and since then has also flown for the World Wildlife Fund, Animal Planet and National Geographic.
“When I first came here I was doing aero-mapping and surveying – working with the archeologists, flying them around mostly in Siem Reap,” he says. “After five years that project wound down and I worked for CTN (Cambodian Television Network) for a while. I’ve flown 21 of the provinces in Cambodia, I have about 2,000 hours flying hours in Cambodia and about 3,000 people that I’ve taken flying.”