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200cc and a 21st century stagecoach

We use them every day. We grumble over fares and brood over missed turns, but our acquaintance rarely extends beyond mispronounced directions in Pidgin Khmer and irate demands to know why attempts to cram nine people in the carriage for the voyage up to Rue Pasteur have been met with an equally irate refusal. With an olive branch in hand, Dagmarah Mackos asked three tuk-tuk drivers about the ups and downs of life on the road. Photography: Alexander Crook

Mr. Bunthoeun aka Mickey, Street 278

As drivers, we’re stationed in front of the hotel and we work in a team. An outsider can’t come to take over our spot. After seven years driving people around on a motorbike I’ve upgraded to a tuk-tuk.

It’s getting more and more difficult—there are 12 drivers around here and we rely on the hotel for the customers. The people can pick whoever they like but we don’t fight over them. The first one who spots a tourist gets the ride.

We have occasional disagreements but only within our team—if a driver loses the respect of the others, we’ll simply refuse to talk to him.

The number of rides per day differs. Sometimes you get lucky, other times you don’t move from the spot.

We have all kinds of clients—I like Australians, the British, Americans and Canadians. But people aren’t always polite and I don’t like the way they talk to me. It also annoys me when the passenger wants me to make a round, pick up their friends along the way and doesn’t want to pay the right price for it. In that event I just kick them out. But there’s not much we can do about money so I usually try to agree on my fare before I set off.

Most of my customers are just tourists on short visits—foreigners who reside in Phnom Penh usually have their favorite drivers or a private car.

Sometimes they don’t know the way to their destination but I don’t cheat them by choosing a longer way there.

Often tuk-tuks have deals with restaurants and hotels and get a commission if they bring new clients. For our part, if we go into such an agreement, we like to make sure the restaurant or hotel is clean and offers good service.

There are days when there are no customers at all—that’s when I can call my job boring. But in general I like it, even though nowadays there are too many tuk-tuks in the city. If I had a choice, I’d look for other employment.

Mey Vireak, Street 29

Before I got my tuk-tuk I worked as a freelance translator but the salary was too low and I can earn better money as a driver. It’s been three years now.

My group always stands in front of the hotel serving its customers but we don’t have any financial agreement.

To avoid disputes we take turns and never argue—it cuts out a lot of problems. This way we can be friends and the time passes in a better atmosphere. While waiting for the next ride, we play chess together, share food which we get at a local market, or nap.

At night we often drive drunk people but we’re used to it. Even when drunk they don’t fall out of tuk-tuks. But they’re very loud dancing and singing while aboard. I think it’s disturbing for other people. There are cases when someone doesn’t want to pay for the service but what can we do? We have no choice. There are drawbacks but I like being a driver. It’s a job like any other.

Sok Oeurn, Street 29

I’ve got experience as a motorbike taxi driver and three years on a tuk-tuk. I quit the army in 1993 because driving around Phnom Penh is a better source of income than a soldier’s salary. I have to sustain my family back in Takmao.

My day starts at 7am and after 10 hours on the streets I make my way back home. Most of my friends are also tuk-tuk drivers and we enjoy each other’s company. We gather here to eat together every day. I guess I like my job… because I don’t have any other job. Most of us aren’t educated enough to even think about it. As long as I make enough money for my family, I don’t complain.

It’s a little bit of a fight because we’re always on the lookout for potential clients. When the hotel isn’t busy we have to take our chances driving around the city. The only problem I ever encounter on the job is when people don’t want to pay and there’s nothing I can do about it.

And the other way round—people get furious when you take them on a ride not knowing the way and get lost. A customer can get seriously angry about it.

If we’re to stick to the regulations, a maximum of four passengers are allowed on a tuk-tuk. But in reality, a tuk-tuk can accommodate between six and seven people, depending on the size of a person.

To contact the reporter on this story: Dagmarah Mackos at ppp.lifestyle@gmail.com

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