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Wi-fi, sub-woofers and a TV adorn Kong Channareth’s tuk-tuk.
Wi-fi, sub-woofers and a TV adorn Kong Channareth’s tuk-tuk. Kimberley McCosker

Pimp my tuk-tuk: Drivers get creative with their carriages

With drivers constantly hollering at tourists and locals as they clack along the city’s boulevards, choosing a tuk-tuk is often just an exercise in convenience. But some owners are seizing the initiative and by usingeye-catchingdesigns and add-ons in a bid to attract new customers

In a city where tuk-tuks roam like buffalo across the old American West, it’s easy for one to view Cambodia’s signature method of private transport as an army of clones.

But while all tuk-tuks were perhaps, at one point, created equal, a few drivers have attempted to stand out from the herd – and profit from it – by modifying their rides and providing unique transport experiences.

Viewing the classic wooden carriage and its protective nets as a canvas for creativity, they have sought to draw both customers and stares by dressing up their tuk-tuks with eye-catching decorations, technological enhancements, and sometimes both.

Heng Kosal’s ride, for instance, is an easily identifiable mobile, plastic forest. A tuk-tuk driver of three years from Kandal province, he decided to ue Angkorian imagery, plastic vines and stuffed monkeys on his tuk-tuk due to his love of his country and its natural environment.

“I attract more people, especially younger people, because they feel like they are in a zoo,” Heng said. “Especially foreigners – they really like the decorations.”

His fellow drivers, however, seem a bit less impressed by his tangled tuk-tuk.

“Not many people say anything [about my tuk-tuk], but some of my friends say I’m crazy, and that the decorations are too messy,” he said, laughing.

However, among the plastic vines that provide an unkempt nod to the natural world, a more modern, black vine also hangs from the front end of his tuk-tuk – a multi-pronged phone charger in case customers want a quick battery top-up for their mobile devices.

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Chy Sarath rents his tuk-tuk on a monthly basis from Liqui Moly. Kimberley McCosker

Potential passengers looking for fully fledged technological convenience, though, may opt for Kong Channareth’s vehicle. His business card lists him as a “Tuk-Tuk and Car Service,” but Channareth’s true draw is his tuk-tuk’s free wi-fi.

“The reason I set up the wi-fi is because there are many tuk-tuk drivers in Phnom Penh,” he said. “In order to attract more tourists and customers, I tried to find something new to set up.”

But it’s not just wireless internet that Channareth offers for passengers’ convenience.

After driving a tuk-tuk for five years, Channareth decided five months ago to deck out his vehicle with features usually reserved for episodes of MTV’s Pimp My Ride: his passenger carriage houses a stereo system – complete with an enormous sub-woofer and a flip-down television screen that plays karaoke videos (sadly, there is no microphone included).

He even keeps a cooler on the back of his seat to provide cold water for customers.

All in, the tuk-tuk cost him more than $2,000. But the add-ons themselves, he said, were only just over $200.

Despite all of his tuk-tuk’s obvious perks, and the fact that he blasts music to attract potential fares, Channareth says his tricked-out ride hasn’t translated into more business quite yet.

“My customer [base] hasn’t increased yet, but I feel like many tourists come to me to just take pictures and things like that,” he said.

Some operators in Phnom Penh have opted to forego self-customization in favor of flashier, ad-driven vehicles.

While the majority of classic tuk-tuks feature ads on the back of their carriages, these new models are literally corporate sponsorship-mobiles.

Chy Sarath drives an all-white, pleather-seated “Liqui Moly” tuk-tuk that he rents for $60 a month from the company.

He sold his old tuk-tuk in favour of this one because he believed it would be easier to lure riders in a sleeker, more modern-looking ride.

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A jungle-themed tuk-tuk styled by Heng Kosal. victoria mØrck madsen

“I rented this one because it’s more attractive, and many customers, especially foreigners, like to ride in this one,” he said.

Up in Siem Reap, Duong Vatana said his tuk-tuk, famous for being the town’s de facto Batmobile, has attracted droves of customers and photos alike.

The tuk-tuk is decked out with a huge Batman insignia and the phrase “Batman Fresh & Cool”.

Vatana said his work in the tourist hotspot experienced a major uptick when he added the superhero logo to his vehicle four years ago.

“Before, I could only get customers during high season,” he said. “But now, I receive bookings from four to five groups every day.”

His tuk-tuk has become an institution in its own right. He now has his own website, complete with photos of tourists posing in the tuk-tuk with the Angkor Wat complex in the background, and his popularity has even inspired some imitators looking to cash in on his superhuman concept.

“I see some tuk-tuks in Siem Reap adding unique decorations to attract tourists,” he said.

“Some [have] added Spider-Man decorations, and some have added Superman decorations.”

Vorn Pov, president of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA), an association that organises tuk-tuk operators, also hailed drivers that take the initiative to get noticed in an effort to increase their business.

“I think it is a creative concept by tuk-tuk drivers to find more customers [and to make them] feel more comfortable when they use the transportation,” he said.

Pov aired hope that tuk-tuk design choices could perhaps in the future even promote Cambodian artistic heritage.

“If there are more decorations on the tuk-tuk, it will show about the beauty of the tuk-tuks, as well as the country,” he said.

Additional reporting by Vandy Muong and Kaliyann Thik.

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