The Fall and Rise of the Phnom Penh Cyclo

Once a utilitarian mode of transport, cyclos see survival in tourists

On a small street near the Roy­al Palace in Phnom Penh, dozens of men wait in the shade, lounging on the brick sidewalks and in the bucket seats of their bicycle-powered rickshaws. A tour coach pulls up, and as several dozen Western tourists pour out, the men scramble to pull on their bright green T-shirts and line up be­hind their cyclos, ready to take on a passenger to tour the major sites near the riverside—the Pa­l­ace, Wat Phnom, the In­depen­dence Monument and the Na­tional Museum.

Unlike pedal-powered rickshaws popular in other parts of Asia and around the world, Phnom Penh’s iconic cyclo puts the driver and his pedals behind the passenger, who is comfortably situated in front in a low-slung seat, often complete with a retractable hood to shield him from the Cambodian sun.

But the cyclo is a relic of old Cam­­bodia. Once a popular means of getting around the city, younger Cambodians have tended to abandon the slower traditional pedicabs for motorcycles, tuk tuks and the new wave of taxis. Some have even forecast the complete extinction of cyclos as a means of affordable, and comfortable, public transport in Phnom Penh.

“Cyclo drivers are aging, and many cannot work anymore,” said Im Sambath, the executive director of the Cyclo Conservation and Careers Association (CCCA). “People that used to drive cyclos are selling them and buying motos or tuk tuks instead, because they think they can make more money.”

But the establishment of the CCCA, a licensed group in the process of becoming an official NGO, has served to buoy the survival of this very special form of transportation.

The Cyclo Centre Phnom Penh, which was established in 1999 as part of the Urban Resource Center, was phased out in April of last year to become the CCCA. The CCCA aims to improve the working conditions of cyclo drivers and increase their use by passengers in Phnom Penh, particularly by foreign tourists.

Operating like an informal labor union, the CCCA acts as liaison between cyclo drivers and the tour agencies that bring in hundreds of tourists a day by coach or the increasingly popular Mekong River cruises, said Ouk Vanak, a manager for CCCA, who was on hand to organize operations at the group’s sidewalk depot on Street 240.

“We organize cyclos depending on what tour companies need. We have as many as 100 tourists a day. It’s growing,” Mr Vanak said.

Of the estimated 1,000 cyclo drivers in Phnom Penh, 476 are members of CCCA, paying 1,000 riel per month for access to the organization’s facilities, which include bathrooms, English classes, and cyclo rental. Mr Vanak estimates that half the members drive their own cyclos while the other 200 rent from the CCCA.

Mr Sambath said members of the organization earn $85 a month on average, at a rate of 25,000 to 30,000 riel per day of work. And with fewer local people using cyclos for regular transport, he is doing everything he can to promote them to foreigners.

“Fewer and fewer local people [use cyclos], we are very concerned,” Mr Sambath said, adding that beyond promoting the use of cyclos among tour groups, CCCA wants to build a “cyclo station” in the city center, although his efforts have so far been shut down by the municipal government.

And that’s a pity, as the cyclo is the perfect way to show off the city to visitors, says Stefanie Irmer, director of Khmer Architecture Tours, who believes that the slow speed of a cyclo is perfect for viewing the city’s historically important buildings.

“A lot of tour operators want to use a tuk tuk instead, or a car, but we say ‘no, this tour is designed to be done with cyclos,'” Ms Irmer said. “We have some buildings [on the tour that] we don’t stop at, we don’t go inside, but on the cyclo they have time to look at it.”

Khmer Architecture Tours have been running for four years, and Ms Irmer said that cyclo-powered sightseeing is increasing in popularity.

The company works with tour operators, particularly for their biweekly architecture tours that can accommodate up to 14 tourists, but also serve individuals and smaller groups. Ms Irmer said she tries to use the same drivers from the cyclo association for each tour, running between 100 and 150 cyclos a month in the high season.

Belonging to the association means a level of financial stability many drivers said they had struggled to achieve independently.

“Before I joined [CCCA], I did construction work some days,” said Chuon Veng, 40, who had worked as an independent cyclo driver from 1999 until he joined CCCA in 2009. Previously he earned about 10,000 riel per day from customers he picked up at the city’s markets. He earns more now, but even the CCCA can’t guarantee work everyday.

“Some days, I don’t have customers and I still have to find other work to support myself.”

Khek Thoeun, 38, said he once belonged to a cyclo association but found he made more money and worked more regularly as an independent driver. Although he said he could earn $30 to $70 a month as a member of the association, Mr Thoeun said he makes the same amount in only 20 days looking for customers at the market.

And while the advantages of joining the cyclo association are debatable, most drivers agreed that the greatest threat to their continued existence is the city’s other form of three-wheeled transport: the tuk tuk.

“It’s very hard to find customers, because people at the market prefer a tuk tuk,” Mr Thoeun said. “I have regular customers, but it’s hard. And it’s getting harder.”

But if Jean and John Strutt, tourists who were on holiday from England, are any indication of the future, the cyclo-eye view of Phnom Penh has a permanent place in the city.

“We did a lot of research,” Mrs Strutt said, as she and Mr Strutt climbed into two of the cyclos waiting to leisurely pedal them to some of Phnom Penh’s grandest landmarks.”[The cyclo tour] was part of the package, but I think we would have chosen it anyway.”

But even as tourists flock to cyclo tours by the busload, hopefully slowing the cyclo’s decline, Mr Sambath still worries that their business won’t be enough.

“The younger generation doesn’t like to work as cyclo drivers,” he said. “They think they cannot make money, so they find a job in a factory, or as a construction worker, or buy a new motorcycle.”

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