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Escape: Charity challenges: Saddle sore, but it's all for a good cause: Gruelling hills, bucket loos and a hard floor to sleep on at night: a charity cycling challenge in Laos is not everyone's idea of a holiday but David Joss Buckley finds the gains worth the pain

By: David Joss Buckley, The Observer, March 24, 2002

Goodness knows what they made of us. The entire population of a tiny hilltop Hmong settlement - young and old - squatted on their haunches and studied us solemnly. I'm sure they'd never seen anything quite like the 50 assorted Brits dressed largely (in some cases very largely) in garish Lycra who had just pedalled up to their village on shiny new mountain bikes.

Big Eric, 16 stone, 6ft 4in of Scots affability, strode over. 'Hello. Sabaaidi! ' It was like a light going on. Their faces split. They roared. I'm pretty certain they'd never encountered an Edinburgh publican in Spandex before, or heard their language spoken with a Lothian accent.

The laughter was innocent, uninhibited and shared by infants and elders alike. Their houses were simple bamboo huts on stilts. Underneath kids played happily alongside chunky pot-bellied pigs and stringy chickens. They appeared to have nothing but huge smiles and all the time in the world.

Cycling for charity is big business and the National Deaf Children's Society that arranged this five-day, 450 kilometre ride across Laos is a pioneer in the field. It launched its first ride in 1996 across Jordan, followed by Cycle Cuba in 1997.

The appeal is obvious: months of gruelling training before heading off to an exotic part of the world and testing yourself against the hardest terrain. In return, you get to wear out your nether regions and raise money for charity. In this case, I had to come up with pounds 2,300, which included a pounds 199 signing-on fee. The charity strives to keep travel and accommodation costs low, which means roughing it at times, but hey. . . it's not a holiday, it's a challenge. The profit on this trip alone amounted to pounds 50,000 - these events are a vital component in the NDCS's fund-raising programme.

NDCS claims Cycle Laos is its toughest challenge to date. Having done two other trips (a ride in Jordan and London to Paris), I see no reason to argue with this. Cycling for softies it was not.

On the first day, still jetlagged after a 15-hour flight, we set out from Luang Prabang over the Annamite Mountains. In the morning we hit one 15km hill, rising to 1,000m. In the afternoon we cycled for 20km up its big brother - a 1,200m brute. It was like cycling to the top of Snowdon for lunch, followed by Ben Nevis for dinner.

The night was hardly less arduous, camped on the floor of a village school with my fellow bikers, one of whom snored for Britain. Rudimentary bucket-showers and toilets helped remind us of why we were there. Crouching over a hole in the ground is more bearable when you're helping to raise money for a good cause.

After a second morning grinding uphill, we were rewarded with an exhilarating 30km downhill swoop. Pete, a tourist information officer for London Underground, grinned gleefully as he told us that the computer on his handlebars had gone well past 40mph. Bikes are provided but you bring your own helmet - they're compulsory, and just as well.

By day three we were riding alongside the Nam Xong river through luxuriant plains full of water buffalo. We bowled through villages teeming with life and industry. Chillies dried on mats in the sun, bamboo was being stripped to make screens, modestly dressed young people cycled sedately to school, holding parasols. Everywhere there were ready smiles for us, waves and the cry 'Sabaaidi' (Hello, how are you?). Grinning kids would run to the side of the road, hands out for high-fives as we shot past. . . slap, slap, slap.

Vang Vieng was the closest we came to a tourist town. It's big with European backpackers who float on the river in giant inner-tubes, out of their sun-burnt skulls on cheap local beer, Beerloa, and other substances.

Our brilliant support team supplied us with endless quantities of bottled water, high-energy snacks and fruit on the road. In the evening we ate well - steamed vegetables, fried rice and chicken were served up with fragrant sauces - Laotian food is similar to Thai. In Vang Vieng we had the culinary surprise of the week at a restaurant owned by a Dane, who conjured up 50 roast dinners complete with Yorkshire pudding.

The Classic Tours backup team, led by the charming and erudite John Depury, included mechanics and doctors, plus our cycling-master, Woody - a Thai champion cyclist. The NDCS representatives Sarah Bradbury and Theresa Cunningham possessed boundless enthusiasm and humour. They rode with us, cajoling and consoling, making each of us feel vital to their cause.

Our fifth and final day took us to the capital Vientiane on the eastern bank of the Mekong. In 35-degree heat we encountered the only traffic of the week as we passed through the Anousavari Monument - Laos's equivalent of the Arc de Triomphe. There we toasted each other with Chinese champagne before cycling slowly to the new four-star Novotel, where we succumbed to the luxury of soft beds and sensible toilets.

We rounded off a fantastic week with a celebration dinner under the stars in the hotel's garden that night, followed by some ill-advised thrashing of limbs in the disco.

It's impossible to get a broad picture of an entire country in such a short time - and it's a long way to go for five days, after months of training (and you do need to train) grinding around the roads of London. But the sheer fun of cycling with such a mad assortment of characters and the sense of achievement for the miles ridden and monies raised made it worthwhile.


The National Deaf Children's Society (0870 129 0111) is organising cycle challenges in Mexico, Costa Rica, Cuba, India, China and Laos. The next Cycle Laos runs from 7-16 February 2003. Participants have to raise pounds 2,300, plus a pounds 99 registration fee.

The NDCS also offers treks in the Amazon, Cuba, China and along the Inca Trail. For those with limited time, it offers three-day cycle rides from London to Paris and Glasgow to Edinburgh. The three-day Tartan Trail from Glasgow to Edinburgh runs from 6-8 September.