Could the Kingdom’s first few skydiving jumps at the Sea Festival last weekend mark the start of a burgeoning new hobby set to take hold in the country? Bennett Murray meets the enthusiasts.
When Chhoeung Barang, 20, jumped out of a helicopter 3,000 metres above the Kep coastline last weekend, he likely became the first Cambodian civilian to skydive in the Kingdom. He was still ecstatic about the experience on Tuesday as he described his descent.
“During the freefall, when I saw all the other parachutists falling with me, and I realised I could move around, that was the best part,” said Barang, who goes by the nickname, meaning “foreigner”, after his family and friends decided his hair looked Caucasian.
His only moment of fear came the second when he stood in the “drop zone” before he dived out the door in tandem with his foreign instructor, he said.
Barang was joined by two other skydivers – both foreigners – who jumped seven times at a public display for the second annual Sea Festival in Kep province. According to the Cambodian Air Sports Federation (ASF), members of which conducted the jumps, it was almost certainly the first civilian jump in the Kingdom.
ASF member Ansiau La Planeta, an ex-French special forces paratrooper who previously trained the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces’ airborne soldiers, said the jumps would hopefully be the beginning of a thriving skydiving culture for the Kingdom.
“We want to show that we can practise such sports with seriousness and safety,” said La Planeta.
“It’s extreme, sure, but less dangerous than driving a motorcycle in downtown Phnom Penh.”
ASF president Seang Teng said he wants to promote all air sports, which also encompass paragliding, paramotoring, hot air ballooning, aeromodelling, skydiving and ultralight flying.
The weekend’s jumps attracted a crowd of onlookers, he added.
“[Air sports] are new, and all the people come to cheer and they want to see it, and we want to create enjoyment for the people,” said Teng.
But Ky Piseth, ASF secretary-general, said that paramotoring and aeromodelling were the only air sports to take off in Cambodia, with the legal status of skydiving in the Kingdom unclear. Although not specifically banned, the State Secretariat for Civil Aviation has yet to grant approval for jumps.
But with the blessings of the Ministry of Tourism at the Sea Festival, the ASF was able to debut the sport last weekend. La Planeta said that the next steps were to get endorsement from the Ministry of Education, Sports and Youth and the State Secretariat for Civil Aviation.
Money is also an issue for the ASF, which lacks regular sponsors or a proper aircraft from which to conduct jumps. The Kep jumps were made possible thanks to funding provided by the Wildlife Alliance and Total, which covered the costs of renting a costly helicopter.
Much of the parachuting equipment was provided by La Planeta, who said that he never travels without one.
“The way you never forget to carry your laptop, I never forget my parachute,” said La Planeta, who owns two.
But to keep parachuting and other air sports operating in the Kingdom, Piseth said more sponsorship would be needed.
“My concern is Cambodia is a poor country, and these activities need to be high level, so we really need a sponsor to develop the players to join with international activities,” said Piseth, adding that Cambodia has no chance of winning international competitions without better resources.
But despite financial and legal obstacles, La Planeta already has plans for future skydives around the Kingdom.
“The dream of course is [skydiving] over the temples, because I heard during the year 1992 the military did that.”
Once more widely available, La Planeta said he has no doubt that the sport will catch on among Cambodia’s youth.
“The problem is when you start this sport, you will be an addict. You never go to the drop zone for one jump.”