LOOKING at Phnom Penh today, it seems hard to believe that the main form of taxi
transport used to be two-wheeled bicycles known as kongdups.
Nowadays the more modern motodups cruise the streets, along with the ubiquitous
cyclo drivers, but only 20 years ago the main way to get around the capital was to
flag down a passing bicycle-taxi, throw yourself and your luggage on the back, and
ask him to pedal on.
Not any more.
Kongdups wait for business in the main street of the Highway #1 ferry crossing town of Neak Leung.
... Or not in Phnom Penh or most other places in country. In fact just about the
only pocket of kongdups left is in the small ferry crossing town of Neak Leung, 60
kilometers southeast of the capital. There kongdup drivers still outnumber their
Sitting on his bicycle on the west bank of the Mekong River, Sek Pha is waiting for
business. Pha is a veteran having pedaled his way around the town for some 22 years.
His earnings sustain his extended family.
"It is a hard job," he agrees with a laugh. "But it helps us to earn
some money to support ourselves. After all, it is better than becoming a beggar."
At first glance there seems little difference between Pha's bike and any other clonky
20-year-old bicycle. A closer look, though, shows a rectangular cushioned plank running
across the rear wheel. Any one of the drivers will tell you that their bikes are
resilient enough to carry weights of up to 500 kilograms.
The decline in bicycle taxis began with the burgeoning trade in second hand motorbikes
from neighboring countries. They are now rarely seen in the main cities and provinces.
For some reason, though, Neak Leung has remained in its transportation time warp.
That, says Pha, is due to the town's inhabitants, who seem to favor pedal power over
Neak Leung's citizens, he says, are far more likely to take a bicycle trip for
their brief 500 meter hops around town. The bikes are cheaper - a ride will set you
back between 200 and 500 riel - and noise-free. Kongdup drivers are not going to
make a fortune, but Pha says he is able to bring in around a dollar for a day's work.
Meach Mon is another hard pedaler, waiting for the taxi from Phnom Penh to turn up.
He says he is 18, but if so he is small for his age.
"When we see the taxis arrive," he says with a smile, "we know we
will have pork soup for dinner, because we know they are our best clients."
A bicycle built for...
True enough, as soon as the taxi pulls in, all the bicycle drivers rush over and
mob the disembarking passengers. There are never enough fares, and Mon returns to
his post along with the other unlucky kongdups. There will be no pork soup for him
Mon says he never went to school. His parents were too poor to send him, and as the
eldest son it fell to him to earn the family's income. At 16 he became a bicycle
taxi driver, but life was still difficult - many potential clients felt he was
too young and too small to get them around town.
It took him a while, but Mon persevered and eventually was earning enough to send
money to his parents. That allowed them to pay off the debt incurred in buying the
bicycle, which cost around 200,000 Riels.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the business of bicycle taxis, given their
disappearance around the rest of Cambodia, is just how many Neak Leung youngsters
have decided on kongdup as a career. Most of the drivers seem no older than their
One typical example is 19-year-old Suon Than, who is waiting for the early morning
ferry on the east bank of the Mekong. Than cycles around five kilometers every morning
to get to work. He found it impossible both to work and study, and like many had
little choice but to quit school. He made it as far as Grade 4.
"My family is very poor," he says, "and I needed to help them."
Horm Savan is even younger and works on the east bank with Than. Unlike him, Savan
prefers to concentrate on his studies, only working in his spare time.
"I only work as a kongdup driver after I have finished school, just like I am
doing now," he says watching the sunset. The part-time work may not earn him
much money - perhaps 1,600 Riels a day - but it is enough to buy school materials,
pay his fees and even give some to his mother for rice.
"My mother wanted me to quit school, but I told her I don't want to be kongdup
driver all my life," he says. His fellow drivers greet his statement with much
nodding and murmured encouragement.
Among the rival motodup drivers, the Post noticed some mutterings about earnings.
It seems kongdups can earn more in a day than their motorized brethren. One who knows
for certain is 28-year-old Him Lay. Two years ago he sold his bicycle-taxi and some
land to buy a motodup, thinking that was where the better money was to be found.
"Motorbikes need petrol," complains Lay. "You know, some days I have
actually lost money with my motodup, but a bicycle - well that requires only
the energy of the rider. If I had the chance I would sell my motorbike and buy a
The wiser, older Pha chips in. He has never thought about following Lay's example
of switching to these new-fangled motodups. His bicycle taxi has done him just fine.
"I will do this job until I can no longer walk or work," says Pha. "It
has helped me and my family survive for more than 20 years." And as long as
the good citizens of Neak Leung continue to support their kongdup drivers - and
Pha's legs hold out - he will keep on doing so for the next 20.