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A road to nowhere

Cyclos are part of Cambodian culture. It’s the symbol of the people

Eated in the carriage of a parked cyclo outside Orussey Market in Phnom Penh, Chey Poch has forgotten the exact date of his birth but knows he is about 70 years old. 

“I remember I was born on a Sunday,” he adds while holding a small piece of dark tobacco wrapped in a bright green leaf. Originally from Kampong Speu province, Chey Poch says he began working as a cyclo driver when he was 15. It is the only job he has ever known.

“I like it. It’s simple and I have freedom,” he says. “No one comes to control me and I have done this for so long that it comes naturally.”

Earning about 200,000 riel [$50] a month, Chey Poch says his income has stayed roughly the same for over half a century and, nowadays, is only enough to survive. Removing a folded piece of paper from his left breast pocket, Chey Poch describes it as a safety precaution because the other vehicles on the road have become larger, faster and more frequent.

“This paper has my name, the phone number for the cyclo’s owner, the names of my family and where I am from,” he says while following the neatly written list of Khmer letters with his fingertip. Other than the clothes he wears and a cap to block the sun, Chey Poch says the paper is one of his few possessions.

“[Cyclo drivers] may be poor but we are healthy and we have power,” he states, standing up to offer a demonstration of his talent at wielding the heavy tricycle. “Cyclos are part of Cambodian culture. It’s the symbol of Cambodian people,” he says, doubting that they will ever disappear from the landscape of Phnom Penh.

After a brief midday ride to the place where he rents the cyclo, a ravine of sweat is revealed on Chey Poch’s back as it seeps through his grey shirt.

“I will pedal until I have no more energy to pedal,” he says, adding that he knows of Cambodians in their 80s and 90s who still cycle for a living.

Over a dozen cyclo stations are tucked into the back alleys and side streets of the city. These hubs serve as the last outposts for men to rent cyclos in Phnom Penh.

“For $1.00 per day they can rent a cyclo from me,” explains In Sophara, 54, the owner of the cyclo depot who says that the fee includes shelter and water for the drivers he refers to as “soldiers”.

I will pedal until I have no more energy to pedal

“Everyone comes here to sleep but I have a 10:00pm curfew,” he adds. “Those who come after I lock the door must sleep outside. I am strict about that.”

Ten years in the business, In Sophara says it began as a way to help cyclo drivers because he views them as less fortunate. “Most of the drivers are poor and from rural areas. If they could get a job in their village I don’t think they would come to the city. There are not many opportunities in rural areas other than rice paddies,” he states. “I would see them sleeping on the [city] streets waiting for a cyclo to rent from other people. Seeing this situation I ordered a few cyclos for the drivers [to rent] because I felt pity for them.

“Only my cyclos have a telephone number on the back,” he states. “If someone needs a cyclo or if there is an accident, people can call the number. It’s my phone.”

Revealing more about the men who rent up to 30 cyclos from him per day, In Sophara says the average age is 40 and most are married. His observations chime with those of other depots and surveys taken in the city.

“All of my drivers are married and have children,” explains Eng Veng, 63, who rents nine cyclos for 3000 riel a day on Street 508. He also offers a place for cyclo drivers to sleep. “If I don’t provide them with shelter, who will?” he asks.

Operating the business as an aside to his main enterprise – used stereo equipment and speakers – Eng Veng says there is no profit in cyclos but he does what he can to help out, asking: “If I sell my cyclos how will they make a living?”

The two businessmen, who do not know one another, are in agreement that the vast majority of those who rent cyclos are migrant workers.

“Some will go visit their families in the village for two or three days each month,” In Sophara says. Among the regular group of drivers that frequent his business, In Sophara says about half of them have returned to their villages for the rainy season in order to tend their rice fields and adds that a few might not return.

“Some have saved their money and bought motorbikes,” he offers as the most common reason for losing a cyclo driver. As the pace of Phnom Penh speeds up, cyclos are falling to the wayside as streets become increasingly populated with motorbikes, tuk tuks and other motorised vehicles.

Pulling her hair back while standing close to the sidewalk on Street 161, Keo Chantha, 48, says that she has been burned a few times by cyclo drivers since she started in the rental business eight years ago.

“I had no experience with renting cyclos,” confesses Keo Chantha, who bought a few from drivers who once frequented her previous business, a wine bar. “Regular customers suggested that I buy cyclos because they had no money and wanted me to rent to them,” she recalls. “But some of them sold my cyclos after they rented from me.”

Stating that the business is still “messy”, she does not offer drivers shelter and no longer rents to people unless they are referred by others. “They must be trustworthy,” she says, pointing to the number 74 that is painted in white on the back of a cyclo carriage – one of 100 she now owns – as a means of tracking her inventory.

Offering other explanations for the dwindling number of cyclo drivers, In Sophara says that parts are becoming more expensive.

“Repairs are costly and the cyclo owners [who usually pay for repairs] are making less and less money,” he says. Wearing only blue sandals and three-quarter-length pyjama pants festooned with cartoon kittens, In Sophara digs through a box of spare pieces in his depot and explains that he fixes the tricycles himself.

Tires are the most common problem and last no more than two years, according to cyclo owners who say that little remains of the original models. “Over time all of the parts have been replaced except for the axles,” In Sophara says. “The axles are original and have been used for a very long time since the French era. I think they will last forever. Their quality is the best.”

Estimates for the number of cyclos in Phnom Penh are sparse, though according to the Cyclo Centre Phnom Penh (CCPP), an NGO established in 1999, over 1300 cyclo drivers were registered members of the organisation before it closed last year in April.

“The closure was caused by budget and administrative problems,” explains Im Sambath, 35, executive director of the Cyclo Conservation and Careers Association (CCCA), an organisation that has continued in place of the CCPP on Street 158.

“The 2009 financial crisis had a harsh effect on our funding from international donors, including the USA,” he explains, adding that the new office is still in the process of securing funding.

As a volunteer with the CCPP since 2004, Im Sambath says he intends to continue offering crucial services to cyclo drivers, including language training, basic medical coverage and safety equipment. As a testament to the impact of CCPP, the NGO won an award in 2004 from the World Health Organisation for its ‘Smoke-Free Cyclo’ program.

However, only one year after CCCA was established, Im Sambath says the number of members is much lower than before, with only 224 cyclo drivers having registered. This could partly be due to another new obstacle faced by cyclo owners and drivers: “In 2005 one cyclo was $40 but now the price has more than doubled,” Im Sambath explains.

Outside the CCCA office, about 10 cyclo drivers, all dressed in green shirts, rent the cyclos for a fee of 1000 riel a day and work with tourism operators by providing foreign visitors with a novel form of transportation. It is in stark contrast to the other cyclos that depend on Cambodian customers, but also an indication of the way the tricycles are going.

“The amount of work we receive depends on the company,” explains Mao Cheon, 44, a cyclo driver and member of the association. “Sometimes we get hired for a full-day or half-day. Other times we get only one hour,” he continues, adding that tourists are charged $3 per hour. Drivers say they get half of the money but there is no accommodation.

“We sleep everywhere,” says Mao Cheon. “But ideally we find a place without mosquitoes.”



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