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THE PHOBJIKHA VALLEY
Phobjikha Valley and Gangtey village are situatetd east of Punakha and northeast of Wangduephodrang.
Paragliding in Phobjikha valley

Bhutan's pristine hills and mountains, which people identify with the country, could be used for more than just prayer flags.

It could be used for paragliding, an area that Bhutan could expand and diversify to bring in more tourists or to reach its goals of bringing in a 100,000 tourists, says a paragliding expert in the United States.

"Bhutan has some great sites for flying and floating over villages, monasteries, temples, rivers, valleys and jungles, with fantastic views of the majestic Himalayan kingdom," said a tandem parahawking pilot from California, Brad Sander, 34, who will lead a 12-day paragliding trip to Bhutan in September this year.

In 2008, Brad came to Bhutan with other nine pilots and paraglided over the valleys of Phobjikha in Wangduephodrang and Jakar, Shingkhar and Ura in Bumthang.

Paragliding is a recreational and competitive flying sport. It is a foot-launched aircraft, where the pilot sits in a harness suspended below a fabric wing, whose shape is formed by its suspension lines and the pressure of air entering vents in the front of the wing.

He said that Bhutan has a potential to develop and expand paragliding into a new adventure sport and make it a popular destination for the adventure seekers.

Sharing his first trip experience to Bhutan in an email interview with Kuensel, Brad said that Bhutan needs to develop a local group of Bhutanese pilots to discover the best flying sites and the best time of year and weather conditions for flying. "What we found was suitable and safe for flying, but more time needs to be spent watching the weather and just trying to fly," said Brad. "Because of this we never managed long flights of more than one and half hours."

Brad is a world record holder in paragliding, especially in Asia, where he paraglided in Pakistan, India and Nepal. In 2008, Brad made a name for himself by flying higher than 7,752 m, and making the longest flight of more than 10 hours in Pakistan.

"If you go to a flying site in Europe, you will have locals that have flown that particular valley every day for 20 years or more, so they know the best conditions for flying and also what conditions are potentially risky to fly in," Brad added. "When there is more time spent by paragliders in Bhutan, they'll find the best sites and times to fly."

However, paragliding is still a new concept for Bhutan, although it was introduced by British pilot Adam Hill and Dutch pilot George Van Driem five years ago. "We hardly receive 10 paragliding pilots in a year," said Karma Tshering, the first and only trained paraglider in Bhutan, who has been trying to get paragliding tourists since 2006 through his Journey to Bhutan Tours and Treks.

The biggest challenge to attract paragliders to Bhutan, according to Karma Tshering, was the lack of infrastructure and too many procedures to comply with the government agencies, which make paragliding trip difficult. "Which is why I have only five guest pilots this time visiting Bhutan," Karma Tshering, who is presently based in Eugene, Oregon, told Kuensel.

Most paragliding takes place in Jakar, Chumey, Shingkhar and Ura in Bumthang, and Phobjikha valley in Wangduephodrang, monitored by licensed pilots with alpine flying experience.

However, there is no access road to the takeoff area and no proper sites. Sites have to be created by cutting bushes and bamboos. "Moreover, we have to take care of transporting flight wings to the flying spot and paragliders have to hike uphill more than four hours," said Karma Tshering, 42, from Gaselo in Wangduephodrang. "There are many paragliding pilots from Australia, England, France, Austria, Switzerland, Germany and the USA, who already expressed their interest to visit Bhutan," said Karma.

The other bottleneck, according to Karma Tshering, who was trained in 2004 in Pokhara, Nepal, is the many procedures and high fees charged by the government. "We have to pay Nu 2,500 fee for special flight operations certificate to the department of civil aviation for using air space and another Nu 3,765 as spectrum fee to Bhutan infocomm and media authority for the radio frequency clearance," he added. Radio is required to contact pilot to pilot, when someone is flying at high altitude and in the mountains.

He said that paragliders in other countries pay only for flying fee to the civil aviation. "Here, DCA is treating paragliding like a jumbo jet," said Karma, who added that there is no risk involved and that it was safer than mountain biking.

Contributed by Rinzin Wangchuk , University of Oregon , June 2010
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