Ready, Set, Rickshaw

An epic bajaj race has begun, as teams from 12 countries motor from Jakarta to Bangkok. Ready, Set, Rickshaw Teams of drivers prepared their auto rickshaws in Jakarta before the Asean Rickshaw Run kicked off on Sunday. (Reuters Photo/Supri)

At one time or another, most people in Jakarta have hopped in a bajaj — one of those sputtering, bright orange, three-wheeled vehicles — for a short trip within the capital. But how many of them would take one out of town, out of Java or out of the country?

Participants in the Asean Rickshaw Run have set out to do just that. Teams of up to four people are steering their motorized buggy of choice from Jakarta to Sumatra, across the Malacca Strait to Penang, Malaysia, and hopefully all the way north to Bangkok. The entire trip is expected to take up to two weeks, covering more than 2,500 kilometers.

A total of 64 people from 12 countries took off from the starting line at the Asean Secretariat in South Jakarta on Sunday, heading out in a new fleet of bajaj, with each one decorated to promote a different charity.

Supported by Asean, the event was organized by a British-based travel outfit called the Adventurists — the same company that oversees the Rickshaw Run twice a year in India and the Mongol Derby, which claims to be the world’s longest and toughest horse race.

Tom Morgan, founder of the Adventurists, said the travel company was excited to hold its first-ever event in Southeast Asia.

“Southeast Asia is a huge part of the world that we have never been into,” he said. “It has pretty great and unusual countrysides. Its a great destination for holding an adventure. We’ve been very lucky to be working with Asean, and very well received.”

After starting the race in Jakarta, participants are free to choose their own route, winding along the roads and the wilderness on their way to Bangkok. Morgan admitted with some relish that the bajaj, or rickshaw, was not an ideal vehicle for tackling long distances.

“It is certainly more difficult and challenging to drive a rickshaw than a crappy car,” he said. “[Rickshaws] are less powerful and they are open, so it will be great when it rains. And most of all, they are not designed for off-road.”

The most important part of the race, he said, is its sense of adventure — and raising money for charity, of course. The Adventurists raises more than 1 million pounds ($1.6 million) a year for the various charities it supports.

“Participants who sign up for the adventure are asked to raise at least 1,000 pounds, but what usually happens is that they manage to get much more than that,” Morgan said.

Half of each team’s donation goes directly to the event’s official charity fund, and the other half goes to a charity of the team’s choice. The official charity funds for the Southeast Asian event, Morgan said, will go to Harapan Rainforest, an organization working to restore forest areas in South Sumatra, as well as Burung Indonesia, a local affiliate of the worldwide conservation group BirdLife International.

The participants, who hail from countries as far-flung as the Netherlands, New Zealand, Singapore and the United States, also represent some of their own personal interests.

The University of Oxford’s team, for example, is representing the university’s Southeast Asian studies department, and is called Project Southeast Asia.

“Apart from the sheer fun of the event, we are also taking on this challenge in order to underscore Southeast Asian unity, to raise funds for charities — the Cambodia Trust and BirdLife International — and to raise awareness of the need for a dedicated Southeast Asian studies center in a top university,” said Project Southeast Asia representative Xin Hui Chan.

Although Southeast Asian countries are hosting the event, however, few local adventurers have agreed to take part. Indonesia, which chairs Asean this year, does not have a single representative in the race.

“This is our first time to hold this race in Indonesia,” Morgan said. “I hope we will have more countries in the race next time.”

The Adventurists usually manages to attract interested participants from all over the world for its different events.

“People [in the events] come from all walks of life, a diverse background of professions, from investment bankers to plumbers,” Morgan said. “Basically, anyone can join as long as they are keen, understand the risks they are taking on and are willing to raise money for charities.”

The Adventurists provides minimal support for participants once the race has kicked off, leaving teams to fend for themselves against the elements.

“Unexpected things will surely happen along the way,” Morgan said. “We’ll get them lost, get stuck, experience the cultures of the region they are in — and that is actually the sense of adventure in itself. And that’s what I call ‘fun.’ ”
Widely known in Jakarta as bajaj (bha-jay), the auto rickshaw has for decades been a popular means of transportation, especially for low- to middle-class people. The name bajaj comes from the company in India that produces the vehicles.

A regular bajaj can comfortably fit two to three adults in seats behind the driver, though people sometimes push the limit by squeezing in five or more passengers. Heavy loads are often tied to the roof to save space inside the vehicle.

In the Asean Rickshaw Run, racers will travel in a type of bajaj known as the bemo penumpang , or the passenger vehicle, manufactured by Dayang Motor Indonesia in Solo, Central Java.

What distinguishes the bemo penumpang from the old-school bajaj is its steering wheel, said the company’s marketing manager, Krisnanigrum.

“A bajaj’s [steering wheel] is just like the handlebar of a motorbike, but ours is like that of a car,” she said, adding that each passenger bemo sells for around Rp 35 million ($4,000). As for the Asean Rickshaw Run, she said, all the units are new and were produced this year.

The Adventurists:

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