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