When Men Chan started out as a cyclo driver in Phnom Penh in 1966, his services were in demand and his salary was modest but adequate.
Now—like most of his colleagues across the city—the 71-year-old is struggling to make ends meet as his income stagnates and the cost of living rises.
No longer able to compete with Cambodia’s love of cars and motorcycles, the few hundred cyclo drivers still eking out an existence now rely almost solely on tourist dollars.
In a further blow for the fate of the iconic vehicles, there has been a 40 percent drop in the number of tourist passengers this low season compared to last year, according to the Cyclo Conservation and Careers Association (CCCA).
This is making life even harder for drivers like Mr. Chan, who survived the Khmer Rouge regime toiling in fields in the countryside and nowadays often sleeps on the street in his cyclo.
During last year’s low season, he could earn $100 to $125 a month, but is now getting by on as little as $50 a month.
“My cyclo business has become more and more difficult because the situation is not so good now and the price of goods in the market is increasing, while at the same time there are not as many tourists to drive. My income has dropped very much,” he said.
The Tourism Ministry in January 2013 ordered that prime parking spaces be set aside at major tourism attractions for cyclos, but CCCA president Im Sambath said the initiative has still not gotten off the ground.
“I met with a technical team from the department [of transport] last year and I have written a report about this point for the tourism minister, but we have to wait and see,” he said.
Mr. Sambath said the steep low season decline, which has seen the average daily number of tourist passengers per cyclo fall from 10 to four, might be due to social and political unrest in Cambodia and Thailand.
He estimates there are fewer than 500 cyclos currently on the roads, down from approximately 1,500 in 2008.
And numbers are likely to keep falling if the situation does not improve.
Leng Sitha, 22, a cyclo driver from Prey Veng province, is one of the few young men in the profession. He is making major cutbacks despite also working as a security guard.
“Before I would have a meal to myself and now I have to share it with others,” Mr. Sitha said. “I’m also cutting back on personal care by using less shampoo and soap.”
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