At the last cyclo repair shop in central Phnom Penh, six mechanics lie back in recliners. The post-lunch lull means fewer customers, fewer jobs to complete.
But the creaky arrival of a cyclo stirs the shop on Street 118 to life. Like a pit crew, the men jump into action, milling around the three-wheeled rickshaw to see what needs fixing, which turns out to be nothing more complicated than a punctured tyre.
The driver has a chat to the shop’s owner, Hou Sreng, and slips him some cash. Sreng waits for the next driver to pull up, and then the next. Business might be slower than ever, but all the drivers in the city know Sreng.
“In the 1990s, there were many cyclo spare parts and repair shops along this street,” he said. “Then it stopped. Some left to go abroad, some just quit and moved elsewhere. Now it is just me.”
Sreng started selling cyclo parts in 1980. The venture didn’t pan out so he tried driving a taxi, which was also short-lived. Other career paths led to other dead ends. In 1993, he returned to his roots and opened up a shop, mainly to be closer to his family.
For a while, business was decent. But the variety of transportation options soon pushed the cyclo trade, and shops like his, into near extinction. He had to diversify into moto repair to stay afloat, while renting out a fleet of 30 cyclos for 2,000 riel each per day, or about 50 cents.
“I used to get by just selling cyclo spare parts. I could sell 10 tyres a day, now it is more like two or three,” he said.
Cyclos were popularised in the 1930s, the French colonial era, but most of the cyclos on the streets today were manufactured in the 1950s and ’60s. In 1980, there were about 5,000 cyclos in the capital. The number dwindled to 1,000 in 2010.
Today, just 517 cyclos remain in the capital, according to research conducted by Cambodia’s Cyclo Conservation and Career Association (CCCA).
The fewer cyclos, the less need for cyclo shops, and the businesses that relied on repairs either packed it in or starting fixing other modes of transport.
Im Sambath, director of CCCA, said part of the decline can be blamed on wear and tear. Cyclos that are still in use are becoming more expensive to fix, and it’s increasingly difficult to find spare parts, according to Sambath. He pointed to Sreng’s shop as the final bastion.
“No new cyclos are made in Cambodia now, and the manufacturer that produces cyclo spare parts in Vietnam has recently cut production.”
Cyclo driver Hor Samon, a member of CCCA, which also helps drivers drum up business through several initiatives, said he was loaded with passengers before tuk-tuks took Phnom Penh over.
Samon said that he caters mostly to the elderly, who use his services after a day of shopping.
“But now I am very free. Some days, I fall asleep in my cyclo waiting for clients,” the 59-year-old veteran said.
Ly Heang, the chief mechanic at the cyclo shop, knows something about waiting for clients.
“I used to be busy all day long,” Heang said, “but now I have a lot of free time.”
In the good days, he would fix up to 30 in a shift. Now, moto repairs are much more common.
“The shop would be full with cyclo drivers,” said the 24-year mechanic, who learned his trade from fixing bicycles.
According to Heang, it costs around $300 in parts to assemble a cyclo – that’s if you can find the materials.
Sreng, the owner, stopped importing new parts more than three years ago, because some of them aren’t produced any more. When asked why he keeps up the trade, he adopts a going-down-with-the-ship attitude.
He’ll keep going, he said, until “there are no more cyclos”.