Though a fleet of electric bicycles introduced to the Angkor Wat World Heritage Site in late October has reduced the car and motorbike traffic, lessening air pollution among the well-trodden temples, Cambodian drivers contend that the bikes are bad for business, and discourage friendly relations between visitors and townspeople.
"It's good for Angkor Wat that the bikes don't pollute, but very bad that the tourists have stopped talking to the locals," said tuk-tuk driver Thuark Lem, who feels his business is threatened by the new bikes.
The Electric Bike Unit of the Apsara Authority consists of some 300 silver-painted pedal bikes equipped with an electric battery allowing for a top speed of 20 kilometers an hour. The bikes are also fitted with a wire basket and small glovebox above the seat. The model resembles the VeloSolex, which was once popular in Europe. The bikes are rented for $4 a day.
In comparison, a four-passenger tuk-tuk operated by a local driver, costs $12 a day. Drivers often serve as unofficial tour guides for visitors.
Lem, 23, drives his tuk-tuk in the protected Angkor zones, and he said he is concerned that the bikes discourage mixing between tourists and local Cambodians.
"When [tourists] use the bikes they don't talk to the Khmer people and we can't help them or explain about the sights," he said. "They just go straight to the bike station. Then they are on their own."
There are 14 Electric Bike Unit stations on the World Heritage site around the Angkor temples. Cham Pai, 19, has worked at one bike station outside the Preah Khan temple since it opened. She said more bikes were leased out every day, and added that many of the customers are Cambodian. Locals know their way around the site and appreciate the freedom and speed offered by the electric bikes, she said.
But Thuark Lem, along with three other tuk-tuk drivers the Post spoke to, said the bikes threatened his income. The drivers reported that several of their colleagues had been forced out of business. In addition, they raised safety questions about the Chinese-made bikes, arguing that the bikes did not hold up during the rainy season.
Lem also said that he saw a bike collapse under an overweight tourist.
Seng Sochea, deputy director of the Electric Bike Unit, said he had not heard of such an incident. He maintained that the bikes - which he said cost $250 each - were perfectly durable, even in the rainy season. But he acknowledged that his office had received many complaints from local tuk-tuk and motorbike drivers.
"There are many, many complaints from the drivers," Sochea said. "They say we compete with them and steal the customers. But they also know that the bikes are good for the environment," he said and added that the main objective for the Electric Bike Unit was to protect the environment, not the local drivers.
*Foreigners are not allowed to ride motorbikes within the Angkor World Heritage Site without a Cambodian driver unless they are permanent residents of Siem Reap or work for an NGO.