From inside his tuk-tuk, Sao Ratha eyes the guesthouses lining Phnom Penh’s Street 178 hoping to find his first customer of the day. And in front of him are tuk-tuks parked back-to-back for half a block, each with a driver waiting for his own customer as well.
Three years ago, Mr Ratha earned almost $100 a week driving one of just three tuk-tuks on the block between Sothearos Boulevard and Street 13 on Street 178. Now there are between 10 and 12 tuk-tuks on his block all competing for the same customers, and his weekly earnings are cut down to between $40 and $50.
“Where I work, [tuk-tuks are] more than before…so it’s very hard to find customers…. My business is very low,” he said, adding that he financially supports his parents and his wife’s parents, along with his own family.
Though the total number of the ubiquitous tuk-tuks in Phnom Penh is undetermined as many are unregistered, municipal officials say that the actual number of tuk-tuks in the capital has increased significantly since mid-2000.
“It’s increasing and we have not yet set a plan to stop,” the proliferation of tuk-tuks, said Moeung Sophan, deputy director of the municipal public works and transport department.
The increase in registered tuk-tuks was inevitable since registration only began in recent years from a base number of zero, he said, adding it appears that the real number has jumped also.
Since registration for four-wheel tuk-tuks began in Sept 2009, 4,682 of those vehicles have been registered, he said.
The number of three-wheelers increased from 29 in 2006 to 1,514 as of August, according to Chea Bunthoeurn, director of the vehicle registration bureau at the municipal public works and transport department.
The number has grown, “because the tuk-tuk is popular with the domestic and international guests,” he said.
Vorn Pao, president of IDEA, an organization that represents Phnom Penh’s tuk-tuks, motodops and street vendors, estimated that the number has increased since 2007 from 2,000 to 5,000.
“Because of the economic crisis, those who lost their jobs became tuk-tuk drivers in order to find a way of earning money,” he said.
IDEA began recording its membership in 2007 and now the association represents 2,100 tuk-tuk drivers, he said.
Keo Lady, a 32-year-old tuk-tuk driver who usually finds customers on Street 278, is struggling to find a different career. When he started driving his tuk-tuk four years ago, there were between six to eight tuk-tuks on his block and he was able to drive five to six customers per day. His profits from that time supported his studies at the National Institute of Business. But now that there are around 20 tuk-tuk drivers on his block, he has no customers on some days and can no longer afford to finish his degree.
“Now I stop studying. I want to continue, but now no money…. I want to work with my skill. I don’t want to work as tuk-tuk [driver] for long time,” he said.
Mr Sophan of the municipal public works and transport department said that the municipality has not determined when it will limit tuk-tuks in the capital.
“We are now studying this case to find out how we can control it, but we are not sure when we have to stop the registration,” he said.