The year 2020 has been devastating on many fronts, but one of the starkest impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic has been on the livelihoods of Cambodian cyclo drivers, who have struggled to sustain their livelihoods over the past year.
Dating back to French Indochina, the three-wheeled bicycle taxi has been a mode of transportation in the Kingdom for the past 80 years. Once a utilitarian mode of transport, it was a means of getting around Phnom Penh, whereby the driver pedals behind the passenger who is comfortably seated in front in a slow-slung seat between two wheels. In the 70s, the cyclo was memorialised in the rock and roll pop culture by free-spirited rock singer Yuos Olarang in his song JisCyclo (Riding Cyclo).
Over the last two decades, however, the iconic cyclo has been on the verge of extinction, faced with the emergence of faster modes of transport like motorbikes and tuk-tuks, and the decline in ridership. These faster moving options coupled with the convenience of ride-sharing apps have largely shuttered the cyclo industry.
In 1999, there were more than 1,500 cyclos in Phnom Penh, according to the Cyclo Conservation and Careers Association (CCCA). The number has drastically dropped, with approximately 300 cyclos remaining active. Left to the status quo, the number of cyclo drivers and cyclos are expected to further decline due to the effects of the pandemic.
Within the Kingdom, two organisations are at the forefront of supporting the struggling cyclo industry. Founded in 2009, the CCCA seeks to support cyclo drivers by providing access to basic healthcare, education and housing at no cost. Today, the association supports 280 cyclo drivers between the ages of 32 and 82 in Phnom Penh.
Similarly, Prime Minister Hun Sen launched the Cyclo Foundation in 2018, providing cyclo drivers who register with the Foundation access to free medical treatment at public hospitals and a subsidy of $52.50 to cover rental fees and meals each month. Serving as the charity’s honourable chairman, the prime minister has committed to donating 120 million riel (about $30,000) annually.
Cambodia’s cyclo industry has arrived at an inflection point. Despite efforts to improve the livelihoods of its drivers through both organisations, the pandemic has exacerbated the challenges facing the cyclo industry. With the sharp decline in tourism, cyclo drivers earn roughly 10,000 to 20,000 riel per day. For perspective in pre-Covid times, tourism contributed to 70 per cent of Cambodian cyclo drivers’ incomes.
Today, cyclo drivers are among the poorest of the urban poor in the capital. With dwindling tourist numbers, their socio-economic status is likely to fall further.
A Millennial Approach
Hao Tang, a 20-year-old millennial from Phnom Penh, has kick-started a social media fundraising campaign which has thus far has raised close to 19 million riel from more than 350 individuals in support of the CCCA. Through technology, he has been able to raise awareness while raising funds towards supporting the cyclo drivers’ livelihoods.
With the majority of Cambodians using ride-hailing apps such as PassApp and Grab, he has recommended that these apps also include the option of hailing a cyclo instead. “GrabCyclo” has been coined to encourage Singapore-based technology company Grab to incorporate the transport service. Such an innovative modern solution could help connect cyclo drivers and riders on demand.
Through social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, these young millennials and influencers have taken a renewed interest in the preservation of the cyclo and the improvement in the drivers’ livelihood. Most of the donors supporting the social media fundraising campaign are younger millennials, using their tech-savvy skills and passions to bring about change in their community.
In addition to their charitable donations, these millennials have self-organised cyclo tours taking the seat once filled by a tourist. For Cambodia, the digital innovations and ideas brought by these millennials could change the landscape in saving the cyclo industry.
Even as the economy begins to recover and tourists return to the Kingdom, the government will need to address the underlying issues facing the cyclo industry and its drivers. Despite valiant efforts by both the CCCA and the Cyclo Foundation, the pandemic has further highlighted the vulnerabilities faced by the industry, and the need for a robust response by the public, private and non-government sectors in concerted efforts to save the cyclo from extinction.
The cyclo isn’t only part of Cambodia’s transport industry but is also part of the country’s cultural heritage. As part of the Kingdom’s modern history, the cyclo should actively be safeguarded by the ministries of Culture and Fine Arts and Tourism. The two ministries should develop a strategy to better preserve the cyclo for future generations, and ensure it is also part of the tourist experience visiting Phnom Penh.
In key tourist zones, near the Royal Palace, National Museum and Wat Phnom, cyclo drivers could be given priority and access to tourists through the creation of an all-access tourist pass with the cyclo being the main mode of transport to each of the destinations, and a “cyclo station” that would provide drivers with exclusive waiting or pick-up locations. It would elevate the cyclo as a vital part of the experience of visiting Phnom Penh.
Although cyclo drivers have access to basic healthcare and financial subsidies, they continue to earn less than other professions and industries. If the cyclo industry is to survive the next decade, the profession will have to be competitive and compelling for a younger generation to enter its ranks. Greater cooperation and collaboration between the public, private and non-governmental sector can likely turn the industry around for the better.
Once enjoyed by my grandparents, parents, and myself, my children and grandchildren may never get to experience the three-wheeled bicycle taxi that has been a defining experience throughout each generation. This unifying experience is something special that cannot be replaced by an automobile, motorbike or tuk-tuk.
The cyclo takes riders through the quick-shifting landscape of Cambodia’s rich history and heritage. They act as memory keepers of the flux we find ourselves in, and their presence is a conduit that connects the past to the present
We must ask ourselves: are we ready to let the cyclo disappear? Or, shall we collectively fight for its preservation? If our answer to the latter question is yes, we must act immediately.
Darren Touch is a Research Fellow with the Center for Inclusive Digital Economy (CIDE) at the Asian Vision Institute and a Schwarzman Scholar at Tsinghua University