Cambodian Journal 2011: Eddie’s Story

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When Donald and I left Cambodia last February, Eddie”s future in Cambodia seemed to be on hold. After Donald”s plane had fallen off his trailer, Donald provided the additional parts and Eddie put the plane back together. As before, he would have the use of Donald”s plane but due to Apsara, the Cambodian organization that controls the Angkor Archeological Park, he no longer had permission to fly out of the rice paddy field in the village of Pom Prei. Apsara”s decision also ended his plans to start a business flying tourists around the temples.

Since late December 2006, Eddie has been living full time in Cambodia. He spent two years in Phnom Penh before moving to Siem Reap. He earned his way giving flying lessons, mostly to expats, and doing contract flying for various organizations. One of his most interesting “gigs” was flying with one of Cambodia”s most prominent reporters. He was making a TV documentary requiring him and Eddie to visit most of Cambodia”s provinces. When we left last year, he was preparing to fly a group of Hungarian archeologists over the temples at Koh Ker. After that, only time would tell. In truth, he was heading toward the bad times. If things did not soon fall into place for him, he was facing a future less bright than his past. If uncertainty makes you stronger, than Eddie is one of the most powerful men I know.

What directs the course of one”s life? Is it guided by fate, a predetermined sequence of inevitable events, or by fortune, unexpected chance encounters? Personally, I find life more fun if you make yourself available to the serendipitous moment and as I always say, nothing happens when you stay in your room. A chance conversation with “the major”, who I now understand is the self anointed internet guru on Cambodia, led us to Roland Fletcher. He invited Donald to become part of his Greater Angkor Project, which enabled Donald to invite Eddie to be his copilot.

Then it was Eddie”s turn to benefit from a chance encounter. In March 2009, Eddie had accidentally left his external hard drive at an internet shop. The manager and his staff were crowded around watching one of Eddie”s many flying videos when David Sayer walked into the internet shop. Standing 6″3″, he had no trouble looking over their shoulders while the Khmers kept saying helicopter, helicopter is flying. David saw a shadow of the ultralight as Eddie was filming his flight over Phnom Krom and knew immediately it was not a helicopter but an ultralight.

David is from Suffolk, England and had recently learned to fly an ultralight, called microlight in the UK. He wanted to meet Eddie and with dogged determination, which would serve him well later on, he obtained Eddie”s phone number. Eddie, a seller with an idea, met with David. After several conversations, Eddie persuaded David that they should set up an ultralight business catering to tourists, something he had been trying to do, on a modest scale, out of the rice paddy. By the time Eddie met David, he had already sold off his real estate business in Suffolk and was looking forward to adding another chapter to his life. As many before him, David had already succumbed to Cambodia”s charm. Cambodia had even seduced his wife who was willing to come to Siem Reap to work as a mid wife. It was a perfect fit. Eddie is an experienced ultralight pilot, plus he had been flying in Cambodia since 2002. David, a beginner with less than fifty hours in the air, was willing to relocate to Cambodia and had money to invest. Convinced their joint venture would work, they only had to convince the Cambodian authorities.

By the time we left last year, David was hard at work, nibbling his way up the food chain, expecting eventually to reach the one decision maker, the big fish, who would give them the final approval. Realizing the surface of things was just the beginning, he interpreted every “no” as just another challenge. Catching on quickly to the Cambodian way of doing business, he soon realized most of the officials he met were interrelated and small cash “donations” would speed his way through the maze of nepotism and bureaucratic inertia. While pursuing the authorities that be, David was not willing to sit idle and before the final permission was obtained, he went into action. Having already purchased a high performance microlight, he then rented a piece of property on the outskirts of Siem Rep just off National Highway 6. He set up a metal hanger, built a reception center and put down 900 truckloads of crushed laterite to make a hard surface runway. (Sounds like a lot to me??) In honor of past Angkorian rulers, they aptly christened their new air strip, Jayavarman Air Field. Undaunted, he had invested approximately $100,000 while still paddling through the small pond dealing with tadpoles, i.e. no permission yet.

Walking an idea through to its logical conclusion, he continued to believe in what he wanted to do and finding it unbelievable they would tell him no, David persevered. He made phone calls that were never returned and often traveled to Phnom Penh for meetings that were canceled. One of the problems they faced was the lack of rules to regulate the type of aviation they wanted to do. On the advice of one of the officials, David set up a document of rules, cut and pasted from British aviation laws. He faced another problem when his plane, a Pegasus Quik GT-450, became mired in the invisible web of customs control. Unlike our old friend, Gary Christ, who believed God would release his container when he was ready, David was more practical, trusting more in the language of greenbacks than in God to speed up the process.

Then finally, his first break through. Apsara described his proposed business good for the tourist trade and he had their permission. Now he was ready to see the big man, Sok An, the Deputy Prime Minister and Head of Aviation. Eventually, he had his meeting. It went well; there was a level of understanding, both sides steeped in pragmatism. From money flows expediency and soon David, Eddie and Air Ventures were in business. Apparently, David”s timing was perfect. Hun Sen had been on an “anti-corruption” campaign and they received permission to set up their business free of any Cambodian interference. Finally, they had to promise to obey the set of regulations that David had previously set up. The good news continued as they were no longer required to file a flight plane as Donald had done. Even though they were now allowed to fly around the temples, they were not allowed to fly out of the Siem Reap zone. That was ok.

Eddie made his first flight on May 23, 2010. Today Eddie is living in the good times. SkyVenture is a proper business with an excellent web site, featuring Eddie”s photos of temples and landscapes. To date, they are considered Trip Advisor”s number 4 attraction out of 106 other possibilities. While flying his customers, Eddie provides a constant commentary and he has received only rave reviews. Since the beginning, Eddie has flown 600 hours and treated approximately 900 people to the joy of seeing Angkor from above.

To me this “joint venture” is an interesting relationship, each one contributing that which they do best. David, who has not had enough hours on the trike to fly passengers, does all the paper work, all the scheduling, and planning. That leaves Eddie responsible for what he does best, flying and taking care of the plane. Without David, Eddie would have to find something else to do. For David, he will never find another ultralight pilot who knows Cambodia the way Eddie does. With a little luck and a strong resolve both were able to exchange the possibilities of a predictable, placid life at home for a life in a distant still exotic country where possibilities are infinite and time melts away, turning minutes into days. So far, they have been very successful but in order to keep this business operating, they need each other. On the other hand, there are a few ultralights stored in the hanger that Donald can fly, which only leads me to the next story.

TO BE CONTINUED
For those in the know, or want to know: The plane Eddie is flying is a P & M GT450. Made in England, it has a 100 horse power Rotex motor. It cost $50,000 and weighs 475 pounds. It cruising speed is 70 miles per hour but he has had it up to 100 mph. It burns gas only. Out here, the only gas they can depend upon comes from Total, a French company. Maybe one of the few times the French and the British can work together. You can look up his web site: SkyVenture.org

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