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Gone the way of the cyclo? Khmer tuk-tuk not finished yet, say drivers

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A man drives his traditional Tuk-Tuk in Phnom Penh earlier this month. Heng Chivoan

Gone the way of the cyclo? Khmer tuk-tuk not finished yet, say drivers

‘Indian tuk-tuks”, which are smaller, easier to drive on narrow roads and cheaper to operate due to running on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), have rapidly gained popularity and look likely to overtake the traditional four-wheeled tuk-tuk, or Remorque, once known as the “Emperors of the Road”. There remain, however, drivers who are dedicated to the spaciousness, and tourism appeal, of the traditional vehicle.

From the mid-2000s until the mid-2010s, when Chhean Vanna produced Khmer tuk-tuks, supply was often not sufficient to meet demand.

However, the introduction of the “Indian tuk-tuk” models, coupled with the convenience of ride-hailing apps and low service prices, meant his orders steadily declined to almost nothing.

He once manufactured 20-30 tuk-tuk carriages per day, each worth around $3,000, but from 2015, orders began to fall.

Vanna, 45, told The Post: “I stopped producing Khmer tuk-tuks during the Covid-19 pandemic, because there was no more demand. I am now a labourer on a sewer project. It doesn’t mean I no longer want to build them, but demand is almost non-existent. The Indian tuk-tuks came in and the Khmer models are no longer needed.”

Vorn Pov, head of the Independent Democratic Association of Informal Economy (IDEA), said about 80,000 of the three-wheeled LPG tuk-tuks were connected to ride-hailing apps in Phnom Penh. He estimated that there were approximately 100,000 in use across the country currently.

He acknowledged that traditional tuk-tuks were almost gone, although a few remained on the outskirts of the capital, where they were used for goods transport and the occasional tourist.

“The disappearance of the traditional tuk-tuk is because of Indian tuk- tuks. Indian tuk-tuks connect to Apps and use LPG, so they are cheaper and more popular with passengers,” he said.

“However, tourists don’t like to ride in the smaller three wheelers, but prefer traditional tuk-tuks. In some provinces, traditional tuk-tuks are still available,” he added.

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‘Indian tuk-tuks” on Monivong Boulevard in Phnom Penh. Hong Menea

Likewise, a 72-year-old Cheang Chin, a carriage and trailer manufacturer in Kampot’s Angkor Chey district, said that there were not many customers, as they are no longer widely used. People were more likely to use the Indian models, known as ‘pass-apps’.

The old man – who passed on his carriage making skills to his son – added “maybe it’s because they find them cheap”.

The “red sofa” of the traditional Phnom Penh tuk-tuk used to welcome the young and old, men and women who would sit comfortably, but the leather sofas are no longer as familiar and comforting. This is often due to the residual smell of the goods that drivers are forced to carry while they await passengers who want to experience the cool breeze and great visibility of a traditional traditional tuk-tuk.

Seng Thun, a tuk-tuk driver of eight years, said he still uses his traditional tuk-tuk, and doesn’t want to follow his friends into the newer style vehicles. He has changed his focus by shifting from carrying regular passengers to transporting goods, and foreign tourists.

“Even though it was difficult during Covid-19, I now have Vietnamese passengers almost every day. They like to ride in my tuk-tuk because it is spacious, you get to see a lot more of the city, and they can easily carry any goods they buy as they explore Phnom Penh,” the 52-year-old told The Post.

He said he gets regular calls from travel and tourism companies to transport passengers. He is paid 80,000 riel per day, but some generous passengers tip him well, meaning he sometimes earns 100,000.

On Charles De Gaulle Street in Siem Reap, Men Nak was sitting in his tuk-tuk, patiently waiting his turn to take passengers from a hotel to the temples, markets and attractions of Siem Reap.

The 38-year-old man, who has been in the business of transporting passengers for almost a decade, admitted that Cambodian passengers prefer the Indian-style ‘pass-apps’, but foreign tourists still favour the traditional tuk-tuk.

“I am starting to see the return of foreign tourists, but there are still not many,” Nak told The Post.

Nak – who depends on tourism for his income – said that despite his regular spot in the queue of tuk-tuks at the hotel, it was sometimes a few days before it was his turn to take passengers.

“Before Covid-19, I had too many passengers and could not take them all. Now there is almost no income. There is no other job I can do, as I have no other skills, so I will continue to drive my tuk-tuk,” he said.

“When it’s my turn to pick up tourists, I mostly only transport them in the morning. The prices are not regular. If I take them to the nearby market, I might earn five or six dollars, but if I take them to visit the temples of the Angkor park, I could make up to $18,” he added.

Nak, a Takeo native, said the Khmer-style vehicle is better for tourists, because it can carry up to four people, and offers much better views, whether visiting natural and historical sites or just enjoying the often – to tourists – entertaining and colourful scenes along the streets.

“Chalky”, who has been driving a Khmer tuk-tuk for more than 20 years, agrees that Khmer tuk-tuks remain the popular choice for tourists, despite the invasion by their smaller Indian brethren.

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With a big black and white motorcycle dragging his tuk-tuk carriage, he said: “based on my experience of taking passengers for many years, in terms of comfort, they prefer the traditional model more. Most Indian tuk-tuks are used for short journeys.”

“Passengers, especially international tourists, prefer Khmer tuk-tuks because they are more spacious. The three-wheeled models have smaller seats and permanent rain covers, which make them look narrow and cramped. In a Khmer tuk-tuk, we only drop the rain covers when we have to. Khmer tuk-tuks are very comfortable and roomier, with a very comfortable breeze. Indian models are built like a small cage, low and narrow,” he added.

The late-50s driver – who prefers to be called ‘Chalky’ to make it easy for foreigners to pronounce his name – promotes his services on his Facebook page and is also registered on the popular travel website Tripadvisor.

“My services this month are fully pre-booked, by both national and international passengers. I will take them to the temples, resorts and other tourist attractions,” he said.

On his Facebook page, Chalky offers many tour options – including a short circuit of Angkor Archaeological Park which ends with sunset over Angkor Wat – which start at just $18.

He explained that he can pick passengers up from their hotel in the morning and take them to purchase their passes to the Angkor Archeological Park. From there, they can choose to visit any of the famous temples, from the crown jewel of the park, Angkor Wat, to Ta Prohm – a location used in the Hollywood hit Tomb Raider – or the former capital of the Angkor Empire, Angkor Thom. Other popular attractions include the Bayon temple and the Terrace of the Elephants.

Although Cambodia reopened its doors and began welcoming tourists in November last year, the number of foreign visitors remains miniscule when compared to the halcyon pre-Covid-19 days.

Meas Sopha, a tour guide who turned to work in the Siem Reap real estate sector, said that based on his observations, Siem Reap was still only receiving a small flow of tourists compared to the pre-2020 years.

“I haven’t seen a lot of foreign tourists yet. Some guides have begun gradually picking up business, and some hotels and restaurants have reopened, but the town is a long way from being as busy as it once was,” he said.

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