Published on July 14, 2007
A pair of German bicycling enthusiasts who call themselves the Burma Riders are trekking the Thai border and beaming a live feed of their trip to the world to publicise the plight of Burmese refugees.
Florian Fischer had learned of the refugees' sorrowful living conditions from his friend Max Lingk, who has made several documentary films about them over the past decade.
Together with another pal, Florian Niethammer, Fischer set out to raise money for the cause - on two wheels - and secured the backing of the non-governmental organisation Helfen Ohne Grenzen, or Help without Frontiers.
Help without Frontiers established the website BurmaRiders.com to netcast live updates on the ride. Visitors can watch the feeds and view photos, articles and videos and "virtually" join the ride by donating a minimum of five euros - a little more than Bt200.
They have with them Lingk, who's filming everything, a Thai translator and a Tai Yai driver. Their goal is to ride the 1,200 kilometres between Mae Hong Son and Tak.
The month-long journey, due to end this week, was scheduled to visit seven refugee camps and raise at least ¤30,000, says Help without Frontiers chairperson John Pohl.
All the money raised - with nothing deducted for expenses - will fund 13 projects, mainly providing medicine, and building and equipping schools.
All contributing netizens are assigned a bike-rider icon that's wearing a shirt they can redesign themselves as they keep track of the duo's progress.
There's no such fun for the riders, though.
"Behind the scenes of what you see on the website is much worse," says Fischer, exhausted from rising daily at 6am, riding in all kinds of conditions, and gathering material for their film, netcast and articles. Fresh documentation is uploaded at least three times a day, and often they don't sleep before midnight.
There are heavy downpours to cope with, creating constant worry about their equipment as well as their own health and safety.
"We have to ride no matter how hard it rains," Fisher says. "Sometimes the rain gets in the cameras and all you see is foggy images."
But the strain and a pair of halts for bicycle repairs have not discouraged them, he adds, because they've been well received by Thai border officials all the way, and words of support are regularly posted on the website.
As of July 10, the site had nearly 1,200 virtual riders - high-school kids, office workers, all kinds of people - and had raised more than ¤21,000, approaching Bt900,000.
"The interesting thing is we are using the Web technology to reach out to people who it would be impossible to reach with the old methods," says Pohl.
"Plus, normally these kinds of issues are difficult to get across to young people in Germany, because they're overfed with information and news from all kinds of media."
The Web-based fund-raising has enabled the small-scale organisation to do something inspiring, Pohl says, and raise even more awareness among its target groups. "It has a fun factor that makes it easier for young people to absorb the heavy material."
The website, he says, will remain online to follow up on how and where the money is spent.