When Chheang Vanna established his remorque assembly workshop in 2006, his main concern was meeting his customers’ deadlines to supply the metal-and-wood carriages amid feverish demand. Cambodia’s tourism sector was taking off, and orders for moto-remorques – the Kingdom’s unique take on cheap motorised passenger transport – were booming.
But now, as his business enters its 11th year, Vanna is facing a formidable challenge. Orders for Cambodian moto-remorques, the decorated motorcycle-drawn carriages affectionately known as “tuk-tuks”, are drying up as drivers switch to its more nimble and fuel-efficient Indian cousin, a three-wheeled vehicle that shares its name.
Speaking at his small workshop in the capital’s Meanchey district, Vanna recalls how he produced and sold an average of 30 moto-remorque carriages a month during his first decade of operation. In 2015 the number fell to 20, and since last year he has been lucky to sell 10 carriages a month.
“In the past, customers had to book with us at least one month in advance in order to get the moto-drawn carriages on time,” he said.
“Now, customers don’t have to wait to get our product. Instead we have to wait for them to come and buy one.”
The slump has not only affected Vanna, but also dampened business at the other estimated 33 moto-remorque assembly workshops in Phnom Penh, as well as eight more in Siem Reap.
The owner of one of these workshops in Phnom Penh, who only gave his first name as Phirum, confirmed that orders had also slowed significantly since three-wheeled Indian tuk-tuks began flooding the market two years ago. He said his sales dropped off by 50 percent last year, and he currently assembles just 10 carriages a month.
There is no official data on the number of Cambodian-made tuk-tuks in operation, but the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA), the largest association for Cambodia’s tuk-tuk drivers, claims over 6,000 members in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
Phirum blamed the decline on both the influx of Indian tuk-tuks and an oversaturation of Cambodian moto-remorques.
“There are already many drivers in this career and most of them cannot earn a good profit like before so they’ve turned to doing other jobs instead,” he said.
“The arrival of imported tuk-tuks also caused our sales to decline because drivers are buying them instead [of moto-remorques] as they consume less petrol.”
The locally made carriages, fashioned from wood, metal and fabric, typically run about $900. A motorcycle to pull them costs an additional $2,000, or about $1,000 if purchased second-hand.
By comparison, an imported Bajaj tuk-tuk from India costs only $2,500 new – and running leanly on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), it will cost just a fraction to operate. More than 1,000 of these vehicles now cruise Phnom Penh’s streets, poaching customers from the city’s traditional moto-remorques on cheaper, often fixed, fares.
Top Nimol, owner of EZ Go, which operates a fleet of 60 metered Bajaj tuk-tuks, said their manoeuvrability and fuel efficiency makes them ideal for navigating the capital’s increasingly congested streets. Despite their more cramped confines, which limits the amount of passengers or cargo they can carry, they are proving popular with drivers and passengers alike.
“The use of Bajaj tuk-tuks is increasing as they are popular among new drivers because the operating cost is lower than our Cambodian-made tuk-tuks,” he said. “And even if drivers of Cambodian-made tuk-tuks set a suitable fixed price, passengers will still prefer to use our vehicles.”
Vanna acknowledges the new order, and says he will adjust to the changing times by retooling his small workshop to keep the business afloat. He said Bajaj tuk-tuks may be cornering the market on passenger transport, but there is still a market for locally made cargo conveyances.
“We no longer depend on assembling carriages for moto-remorques,” he said.
“Now we are assembling other items, such as mobile food carts and flatbed motoremorque trailers.”