Phnom Penh is a motorbike and tuk-tuk town. Until now, no metered cab service has managed to survive.
Global Taxi, a Chinese company, may be changing that equation. Less than two months after launching, Global has already doubled its fleet. The company now dispatches 24 white cabs across the city, 24 hours a day, and plans to increase its fleet to 60 cars by mid-October.
Andre Lim, general manager of Global, said he sees metered taxis as a complement to Phnom Penh’s existing mix of transport options, not a competitor. “We have our customers, and motos and tuk-tuks have theirs,” he said.
Tuk-tuk drivers see things somewhat differently.
Thantha Meas, 28, says he is already feeling crowded out.
“In the city center, there are so many taxis now,” the tuk-tuk driver said Monday.
“Some passengers say taxis are the best way to go when it’s hot or raining. More taxis will bring down my business.”
Tho Bora, 39, said the new taxis have been the talk of the tuk-tuk circuit.
“I’m really worried about the competition,” he said. “All the tuk-tuk drivers are worried.”
Perhaps there is reason to worry. For Lim Channarith, 28, one of Global’s 48 taxi drivers, business is booming.
“Taxis don’t wait for customers—the customers wait for taxis,” he said.
Andre Lim touted Global’s cars as “safer, more secure, and more comfortable” than other methods of transport. In some cases, a metered cab may even be cheaper than tuk-tuks, he said.
Global taxis charge a fixed rate of $1 for the first 2 km and 400 riel for each additional 200 meters. Tuk-tuk driver Ngout Chet, 28, says the price for riding in his tuk-tuk is open to negotiation, but he typically charges $1.50 to $2 for a 2-km trip.
Vorn Pao, a moto driver and president of IDEA, Phnom Penh’s tuk-tuk, motodop, and street vendor association, says that many tuk-tuk drivers take out bank loans to buy their vehicles, often putting up their family’s land in the provinces as collateral.
Tuk-tuks first appeared in Phnom Penh in 2000. Vorn Pao estimates that the city is now home to about a thousand tuk-tuk drivers, around 400 of whom live out of their motorized rickshaws.
According to driver Ngoun Chet most of Phnom Penh’s tuk-tuk drivers originate from Svay Rieng and Prey Veng provinces.
“People there grow rice only once a year, so they come to the city to make money in their free time,” he said.
Ngoun Chet said he owns half a hectare of land in Svay Rieng. When he’s in Phnom Penh, he sleeps in his tuk-tuk at night. He’s worried that the new competition in the city and drought at home will cause him to default on his bank loan. “Maybe I’ll have to sell my farmland to pay my debt,” he said.
Global is not the first firm to try to bring metered taxis to Phnom Penh. A year ago, Mai Linh Open Tour, a Vietnamese company, launched a service but it quickly folded.
Andre Lim explained why he thinks Global will succeed where others have failed. “We studied more than one year before deciding to start this company,” he said. “The former company was too expensive. Their price was $1.50 for 2 km, and that was when the gas price was lower.”
Global saves money by using only Chinese-made BYD manual sedans with Mitsubishi engines, which are more fuel-efficient than the 10-year-old automatic Toyota Camrys used by the Mai Linh service, he added.
Global is still operating in the red, Andre Lim said, and doesn’t expect to turn a profit for another six to twelve months. “The other taxi companies wanted to make money too fast,” he said.
Vorn Pao of IDEA said that even if tuk-tuks survive the taxi boom, hostility from the city may prove a bigger threat. “If the city bans tuk-tuks, the taxi company will definitely succeed,” he said.
Chreang Sophan, municipal deputy governor in charge of transportation, said Monday that only Governor Kep Chuktema knows if there are plans for a tuk-tuk ban. Kep Chuktema was abroad Monday and could not be reached for comment.