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Wheels spin slower for cyclo barons

Wheels spin slower for cyclo barons


It is not hard to guess at the difficult life Phnom Penh's cyclo-drivers lead as

they pedal the city's potholed streets. But if the future looks bad for them,

the outlook is just as bleak for the cyclo barons - the men and women who rent

out their fleets to aspiring drivers.

Kert Phan, 68, with one of his unhired cyclos and a glum future.

Kert Phan is one, though he would

blanche at the term 'baron'. He is a veteran in the cyclo renting game and

wastes no time grumbling about the future.

"I don't think I will manage

to survive much longer as the owner of a cyclo fleet," he says, taking a break

from repairing one of his battered bikes.

If you ask him he will of

course tell you that things were better when he started 20 years ago. Cyclos

were the last word in Phnom Penh transportation, the preferred way to get

around. The motodup scourge had not yet arrived, and anyone with a family or

weighed down with bags of shopping would hail a cyclo as a matter of

course.

Phan and his first wife, Ou Son, did well. Not any more, she

chimes - since 1990, business has steadily worsened.

"Some of the cyclo

drivers who used to rent from us have now sold their land to get the money to

buy a motodup," she complains. "They have abandoned us. Life has got harder - it

is difficult even to find the money to send our kids to school."

Phan and

his two wives own 27 cyclos between them: 17 are Son's, the remaining ten came

with wife number two. They share the unplastered ground floor flat, each wife to

her own area.

Several cyclos are parked out front, testament to the slow

demand which Phan in part blames on the commune elections - some of the drivers

have returned to the provinces to vote. Other hard times include the rice

harvesting season: research from a local NGO shows that around half of the

city's cyclo drivers work only six months of the year in the city.

Nov Ran, 27, from Prey Veng province watches motodups with fare-paying passengers pass him by at Boeung Keng Kang Market in Phnom Penh. Business is so bad he says he won't make it home to vote.

The

good times, says Phan, can be measured in weeks. Khmer New Year and the Water

Festival are both busy, and then there are the various special ceremonies and

holidays. But the bad times last longer - some weeks his family makes no money

whatsoever.

A survey released early 2000 by the Urban Resource Center

(URC) showed that three-quarters of the city's cyclo drivers rent their bikes.

Returns are marginal: rental costs 2,000 riel a day, and the average cyclo

driver makes between 3,000 and 5,000 riel. It is no surprise that many are

trading in their cyclos for other jobs.

Phan's complaints about fewer

numbers are borne out by the survey: the number of cyclo drivers in the city has

shrunk from 10,500 in 1992 to around 3,000.

While Phan contemplates his

future, others have seen the writing on the wall. So Seak is another

disillusioned cyclo baron whose wealth has shrunk significantly. At one time he

owned 20 cyclos; now he has only seven and is looking to get rid of

those.

Like his former clients, Seak is leaving the world of pedal power

for the more lucrative motodup trade. Three years ago he bought a motodup; other

drivers have gone into construction.

"I started in 1993 and owned around

20 cyclos. Business was very good then, but now it is poor," says Seak. "I was

forced to buy a motodup just to make a living."

"Now I want to sell the

remaining cyclos because it is too hard to find drivers who want to rent them,"

he says. "The money I earn only covers the cost of repairs."

The URC

report thought the future of cyclos in Phnom Penh looked bleak.

"It is

clear the population [of cyclo drivers] has been significantly reduced," it

states. "Ultimately many feel that cyclos will be reduced to a role of providing

only for tourists on the riverfront."

URC felt that could happen as soon

as 2005. Seak agrees, aware that the fates of the cyclo barons and cyclo drivers

are intricately entwined. He remembers the fate of the two-wheeled bicycle taxis

that were popular in the 1980s.

"I think cyclos will go the same way as

the kongdup in Phnom Penh," he says. "I don't know if it will be sooner or if it

will be later, but one day there will be none left."

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