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Tourism key to future of Phnom Penh cyclos

Amidt a general slump in demand for cyclos, tourism is becoming

increasingly more important in providing essential income for drivers

Cyclo Centre offers leisurely tours around the city. Tracey Shelton

The life of the capital’s cyclo drivers is not an easy one. Tracey Shelton

Once a common way to get around Phnom Penh, cyclos in the capital has seen a significant drop in numbers over the past few years. Though the battle against the tuk-tuk may be lost, tourism is proving the traditional vehicle's saving grace.

"According to statistics from 1996, there used to be around 10,000 cyclo drivers in Phnom Penh in the mid-'90s," said Nouv Sarany, coordinator at Cyclo Centre, an NGO that provides support and facilities to the capital's cyclo drivers. "Today, however, it's more like 3,000."

A survey conducted by NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut on behalf of the centre in 2008 confirms this. The research attributes the decline in cyclos to increased popularity of the tuk-tuk as a means of transportation, as well as increased use of private cars and motorcycles.

A hard life

Sok Vireak, 36, is from Svay Rieng province and has been working as a cyclo driver in the capital for about 10 years. He spends the dry season looking for customers mainly around Phnom Penh's markets, and returns to his homeland during the rainy season to work in the rice paddies.

The best thing about them is that they are slow; it gives people time to see the scenery around them.

"Before, there were a lot of clients for us cyclo drivers, but now people prefer to use tuk-tuks," he said. "I would like to upgrade to a tuk-tuk, too, but I have no money."

Like almost 80 percent of his colleagues, Sok Vireak rents his cyclo for around 2,000 riels per day.

Nouv Sarany says some drivers prefer renting cyclos so they can return home on a regular basis without worrying about where to leave their vehicles. Another reason for renting, however, is the lack of capital. A second-hand cyclo costs around US$50, while a new one can be as expensive as $150.

"On a good day, I can earn 10,000 riels," Sok Vireak said. As the price of a decent meal has risen to 3,000 riels, he says, this is not enough.

The feeling is echoed by 58-year-old Oum Pouy. Originally from Kandal province, he has spent the last 19 years taking customers around the capital on his cyclo.  He currenltly struggles to support his wife and three children in his home province.

He is luckier than Sok Vireak, however, as he - unlike his colleague, who sleeps outside Kandal market - has convinced a shop owner to let him sleep on the premises.

Nevertheless, Oum Pouy describes his life as full of ordeals, mostly relating to lack of money.

"I had a very good relationship with the rental shop owner, but then I helped a friend to rent a cyclo," he said. "My friend then sold the cyclo and ran away. Now the shop owner doesn't trust me anymore."

Other common issues facing the men include health problems, lack of education and alcohol abuse.

Cyclo Centre's Nouv Sarany said drinking is a recurring and widespread problem among cyclo drivers. The 2008 survey cites two cyclo drivers as having died of liver cirrhosis. Both Sok Vireak and Oum Pouy sheepishly admit to enjoying their fair share of rice wine.

Green tourism

Amid a general slump in demand for cyclos, tourism is becoming increasingly lucrative and providing essential income for the drivers.

Through Phnom Penh's Cyclo Centre, travel agencies can hire cyclos to conduct sightseeing tours around the city. This leisurely way of exploring the capital has proven popular among foreigners, and calls for tours come in on a regular basis.

"It's a nonpolluting, green way to get around," said Nouv Sarany. Individuals can also book cyclos through the centre for rates starting at US$2.50 per hour and $10 for a day.

Stefanie Irmer, director of Khmer Architectural Tours, which employs cyclos for some of their tours, thinks they are the ideal means of transportation in Phnom Penh.

"The best thing about them is that they are slow; it gives people time to see the scenery around them," she said.

She acknowledges cyclos are a dying species but hopes tourism will give a second life to this unique way of traversing the urban jungle.

"Our cyclo tours are always fully booked," she said. 

To organise your own cyclo tour or book a driver, contact the Cyclo Centre on 023 991 178, or email cyclocenter@camintel.com

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