Cyclo men usually work from dawn till dusk, taking a two-hour break
from the midday heat.
EM SON , 63, is one of an estimated 2,000 cyclo drivers plying the streets of Phnom
Originally from Takeo, Son has been driving cyclos in the capital since 1968. He
said in those days car drivers and motorbike riders used the correct lanes and obeyed
traffic laws, making a cycloman's work a lot safer.
And with less competition for the pool of passengers then, it was easier to make
a reasonable living.
In his early years as a cyclo man Son's average daily earnings were the equivalent
of 20,000 riel. On a good day he would earn 40,000 riel.
"I didn't meet any difficulties then," he says. "Driving a cyclo was
just a part-time job. I had a rice field and vegetable garden back in my village."
After a break from the job, Son started driving again in 1988.
"Now traffic is confused and often causes crashes," said Son. "Some
days I earn 13,000 riel. Some days I only make as little as 3,000 riel."
Son thinks he only has enough energy for another two years of pedaling.
Every day he drives from dawn till dusk, taking a two-hour break during the midday
heat. During one of these naps he had 30,000 riel stolen.
He rents his cyclo and at night he sleeps at its owner's house.
From his meager wage he tries to support his wife and three children, but it is barely
enough for their survival.
Son said every once in awhile he has a generous passenger who pays him a little extra
for the ride. "For that I feel most grateful."
Since July last year there is a place where cyclo men like Son can turn to for help.
Phnom Penh's Cyclo Center was established by a Cambodian NGO, the Urban Resources
The Cyclo Center's Coordinator, Meas Kim Seng, said the Center tries to assist cyclo
drivers with their health and hygiene, as well as provide some vocational training
and English classes so drivers can tap into the growing tourist market.
At the Center - located on Street 410 - drivers can consult doctors twice a week
and obtain medicine free of charge. English classes are held every day from one to
two o'clock in the afternoon and foreign volunteer teachers are always welcome, said
Drivers can have their hair cut twice a month and they can use toilets and have baths
at the Center free.
The Center also runs a money saving and safekeeping program. Drivers who open an
account there are rewarded with 5,000 riel for every month they save some money.
Kim Seng said most drivers can bank about 50,000 riel a month.
Also, cyclo spare parts are available at prices somewhat cheaper than in the market
and tools are available so drivers can make repairs themselves.
At present, nearly 400 cyclo drivers take advantage of the opportunities found at
Kim Seng said most drivers are homeless and live on their cyclos. He estimates that
60 to 70 percent sleep on streets, while the rest find shelter at the homes of the
people from whom they rent their cyclos.
He said about 90 percent of Phnom Penh's cyclo drivers come from the provinces. The
drivers typically spend six to nine months driving in the city before they return
"Most people don't want to be a cyclo driver forever," Kim Seng "They
intend to better themselves."
"Some have become motodops after they saved enough money. Some are very interested
in vocational training because they expect to be able to earn more money in better
jobs," said Kim Seng.
"But some of the older men are discouraged and they think they can never improve.
They think they will be cyclo drivers forever."
And if life wasn't hard enough, the cyclomen also have to contend with crooked cops.
Taking a customer along Sisowat Quay
Kim Seng said policemen guarding markets often cause trouble for the drivers, confiscating
cyclo cushions till fines are paid for some imaginary traffic violation.
Mom Hon, 42, from Prey Veng, has been a cyclo man since 1988 and is now a regular
visitor to the Center.
He said that it's difficult to make money because there are not many customers. He
earns about 7,000 to 10,000 riel a day.
"Driving cyclos is very tiring. Home is wherever I stop at night," he said.
He is no longer concerned about having money stolen while he sleeps since he has
been able to deposit it at the Center.
Though life is a struggle for the cyclo men, sometimes they experience a little luck.
"I once found 380,000 riel on my cyclo," said Hon. "The money was
left behind by two lovers who were cuddling each other on only a 3,000 riel ride."
Hon said he likes being his own boss and driving a cyclo gives him more freedom and
is less strenuous than being a construction laborer.
Another client of the Center, Khat Chin, 32, has been a cyclo man since 1996.
"I am happy driving cyclos," he said. "I have no knowledge and it
is an honest business. But I am studying hard to change my future and I want to learn
Chin has to support his wife and a child in Prey Veng. He said he can send between
30,000 to 40,000 Riel home every two weeks. "The money is not enough for my
family and I do not have any extra for unexpected problems. If something happens
then I must borrow from others and drive just to pay them back."