Ngean Phalet nestled in his handmade one-of-a-kind car, the ëAngkorí. He says: ëMy plan is to make more.í
C ambodia has it first homemade car. Sized somewhere between a roller-skate and the ever-popular Tico, the tidy two-seater has been crowned with the nationalist moniker 'Angkor'. It was named, conceived, designed and built by 45-year-old carwash owner Ngean Phalet, and it's turning heads across Phnom Penh and beyond.
"So far, I have only made one car, and it took me four months to make it by hand," he says of his pride and joy.
And the motivation for this unusual quest? "I wanted to test my acumen because this is my passion," he says.
Phalet had no experience in car manufacturing and taught himself through a process of trial and error. He did not use a blueprint. Instead he "worked, thought, worked, then thought".
Using old car panels, he hand cut and beat the car body into shape. For the motor he used an old 100cc motorbike engine fitted at the rear of the car. The tiny wheels came from the schoolgirls' moto of choice, the Chaly.
Phalet also installed a four-speed gearbox-with a reverse gear-plus an automatic clutch. The moto headlights set in a cats-eye cutting in the panels are among the only new parts.
The Angkor has a top speed of 60 kilometers per hour, and its four-liter fuel tank will take you 100 kilometers. But Phalet cautions against the Khmer habit of overloading vehicles of all kinds.
"Only two people should ride in this car because if you have more than that the performance of the car decreases," he says.
His Angkor is not just small, it is cheap. It cost him just $900 to build this one-of-a-kind car, excluding labor. Phalet custom-built the two bucket seats himself, and even hand-cut the lettering 'Cambodia' on the rear.
He wanted his labor of love to be beautiful and practical. The convertible roof raises easily, and quickly velcroes into place in case of a sudden shower.
Phalet says he wanted a convertible that children would enjoy: "When they sit in this car and drive around Angkor Wat, they can put the top down and see all the beautiful temples and breathe the fresh air at the same time," he says.
On a drive down Phnom Penh's Sihanouk Boulevard, Phalet proudly draws attention to each working dial and the automatic pop-up radio aerial. To show off the well-adjusted steering balance, he takes his hands off the wheel and waves them in the air. The car's trajectory stays ramrod straight.
The drive also shows off the car's eye-catching ability. The passengers and drivers of other vehicles crane their necks to get a better look, shouting and waving in excitement. When he stops in Hun Sen Park-the location he insists is the best for taking photos of the Angkor-a crowd of amazed onlookers gathers rapidly.
Student Long Kan is impressed: "This car would be very good for a student. It's much better and safer than a moto and I think $1,200 is a good price."
But Phalet is in no mood to sell his pride and joy. He says he has had many offers, the highest so far being $1,600.
A more interesting offer came from a tourism company in Siem Reap:
"They asked me if they could buy ten or 20 cars. I can make them, but I can't contract to build them in time because each one is built by hand," he explains.
On the boot, the Cambodia Angkor livery.
B ack at his carwash, this budding Henry Ford is keen to manufacture many more of the pint-sized convertibles, and hopes to attract an interested investor.
"My plan is to make more. I want to start a joint venture. I want to make more small cars and I want to make big cars too," he says pointing to a Toyota LandCruiser getting a scrub. "Both the small car and the big car are popular in Cambodia."
Phalet believes the country can develop a car industry to be proud of, beginning with the Angkor. But he says its a struggle to convince people that Cambodia is capable of achieving that goal.
"I use my car every day, and people always ask me if I bought it from abroad. When I tell them it was made in Cambodia, they're very surprised and often don't believe me," he says.
"People are very interested because Cambodia doesn't have its own car. My car is the first and so I'm representing the Khmer people," he says. "People are proud when they see my car, especially the young people who want to buy it."