Mr. Coupeaud was annoyed, as his letter of January 6th, 1939 to the Resident Superior
made clear. Why had he become the first manufacturer of cyclos to be licensed in
Cambodia by the French colonial administration if now anyone was allowed to build
and sell cyclos provided only that they meet some minimal safety standards? Had he
not always produced cyclos of superior quality, way above these Vietnamese imitations
with names like "Hiep-Loi", "An-Phat", "Kim-Seng",
"Hoa-Hiep" or "Kemarac Leang Heng"? And was he not after all
a Frenchman, who deserved some protection from his fellow countrymen in the administration?
When would the agents of the Public Works department finally do their duty and bar
all cyclos other than his from the streets of Phnom Penh in the name of public safety?
Coupeaud's letter included registration numbers of cyclos that he had spotted on
Phnom Penh's streets which, in his view, did not come up to current safety regulations.
Asked to reply to these complaints, the head engineer of Public Works summoned all
the cyclos on Coupeaud's list for testing. Everything was measured, including the
visibility from the saddle - a remarkable feat seeing that the engineer who climbed
up into the saddles himself was only 1.65 meters tall. The inspection found that
all the cyclos were in perfect condition and in full accordance with the law. Coupeaud's
complaint, motivated by reasons other than his concern for public safety, was flatly
dismissed. A few months later, Coupeaud took justice into his own hands and began
dragging other manufacturers' cyclos, with their drivers, to the Public Works department
to have them tested and banned, again with little effect apart from a series of lawsuits
filed against him by the mistreated cyclo-drivers.
Coupeaud was right to complain, however, in the sense that there were strict cyclo
laws. These laws resulted from a whole tradition of mostly futile efforts to get
the growing public traffic problem under control. In addition, official registration
also allowed for the collection of some extra tax revenue.
The first attempts to regulate Phnom Penh's traffic began in 1906 when the mayor
of Phnom Penh, Collard, introduced the laws that Saigon had designed for its own
pousse-pousse community ten years before. The pousse-pousse was the precursor of
today's cyclos and moto-dups, a cart pulled by a coolie on foot and circulating in
Phnom Penh on fixed routes for fixed tariffs. The regulations adopted in 1906 stated,
among other things, that the drivers had to be in good health, have the physical
strength to do this hard work, and most importantly had always to be neatly dressed.
When a coolie felt tired, he was only permitted to rest in one of four places in
Phnom Penh: the central market, on the square in front of the Royal Palace, next
to the Royal Hotel and at the Great Bridge over the channel separating the Chinese
and the French quarters, today the great boulevard leading from the Tonle Sap to
the train station. Even at these official stations coolies had to observe the natural
order of things: they could only park after the cars, after the horse carts and malabars
and after any other vehicles.
In the following two decades, the pousse-pousse, perceived to be unhealthy and slow,
was gradually replaced by the cyclo. With the advent of cars in Cambodia, the regulation
of cyclos became urgent. Cars drove faster than the traffic which Cambodians were
accustomed to, so the cyclos and the remaining pousse-pousses got more and more in
the way. The numbers of accidents grew as cars became more powerful so, aware of
this, the administration wanted all drivers to respect some basic rules. The victory,
however, of cars over cyclos, of right hand driving, rearview mirrors and turn signals
over Cambodia's previous traffic anarchy was a slow process. In Kampong Chhnang in
1922 there were only three cars registered in the entire province. Two of them belonged
to the Protectorate's administration, a "Lorraine Dietrich" and a "Penhard",
both with four cylinders and 12 horse-power. A 20-horsepower Ford was owned by the
governor of Babaur province. These three vehicles were engulfed by an army of 2,833
buffalo carts, 4,974 ox carts and countless bicycles. No wonder that the Resident
of Kampong Chhnang supported a 1935 arrêté which would finally bring
the growing number of cyclos under control.
The arrêté was the strictest ever to be proposed: owners of cyclos would
also have to go through an elaborate process of registration, as would the drivers
themselves. This included the presentation of a birth certificate and an affidavit,
which alone excluded large numbers of men from ever earning money by driving a cyclo.
Drivers would have to pass an exam which not only tested their eyesight, hearing
ability and physical strength, but also probed their knowledge of traffic law. A
minimum age for drivers of 18 was established and technical checks of the cyclo were
prescribed every three months. This new law was resisted in some provinces. The Resident
of Takeo acted as the spokesman of those who thought that more regulation would simply
inflate the administration and complicate people's lifes while having little effect
on traffic safety. He wrote: "I find [the new regulation] much too strict for
the kind of family business to which it would be applied, a business which provides
a source of living for countless Cambodians. Experience has shown that the use of
this means of transport suits the population very well and is to be encouraged, not
hindered. The administration should not neglect the interests of those who cannot
ride around in automobiles... All in all, I am strongly against the newly planned
regulation which as a whole represents a real hassle for the population and will
put them off in a big way."
Most Residents favored the law, however. It was smoothly ratified and implemented
in 1935, and had an immediate effect. The following year Phnom Penh's traffic regulation
bureau almost drowned in requests for license plates, registration forms and all
kinds of certificates. Paperwork in the provinces multiplied, just as Battambang's
Resident had prophesised in 1935: "In practice, the cyclo drivers, at least
in Battambang, are rarely specialists of their profession; it does not happen often
that a cyclo driver does this job for a prolonged period. Those who do this job are
generally coolies who need to earn a little extra money, often to pay their taxes.
They go to see one of the owner of cyclos and the latter lends them the amount they
wish, under the condition that they work for him during a determined period of time,
usually something like 15 days and rarely more than a month. As a result we see a
never-ending change of cyclo drivers. In Battambang we have around 900 cyclos. Assuming
that every cyclo driver works for a month that would add up to more than 10,000 licenses
to be handed out in a year, which will produce a rather serious workload for the
police agent assigned the task of examining them summarily in order to verify if
they know the principal paragraphs of public traffic law."
Two years later the advocates of law and order surrendered to the facts. The previous
decree was simplified and the revised measures were quickly and discreetly adopted.
In the following year, World War II shifted priorities towards other areas. Discouragement
must have been total as no trace can be found in the archives concerning any further
colonial legislation regarding cyclos. The anarchy on Cambodia's roads and streets
eventually triumphed over bureaucracy. The cyclos - ever rusty, ever squeaky, ever
rolling with painful slowness - will live on as Cambodia's invincible rebels against
- Information for this article was taken from National Archives of Cambodia,
files #4441, 10523, 12948 and 13274. The National Archives is open Monday - Friday,
8.00-11.00 and 2.00-4.30. It is located behind the National Library alongside the
Hotel Royal. All are welcome to come and browse through this vast resource and discover
for themselves an intriguing moment in Cambodia's past.