As international giants Grab and Uber battle it out in Phnom Penh’s crowded ride-hailing industry, local apps have begun to expand their platforms by finally incorporating traditional Khmer tuk-tuks as options for rides. Some drivers, however, are seeing more liabilities than opportunities, with many fearing the apps will encroach on their livelihoods with lower rates and longer hours, while also feeling the pinch as their industry shifts beneath them.

The Post spoke to eight traditional tuk-tuk drivers in Phnom Penh, most of whom said their incomes had suffered since the rise of ride-hailing apps. They were sceptical about how much money they would be able to keep for themselves, though several expressed interest in using the apps in the future if their fears about profitability were allayed.

A common theme was confusion around how the services work, including misconceptions about having to be available at all hours and concerns about how to secure smartphones on motorbikes as they pulled their carriages.

Locally owned ride-hailing apps have built sizeable traction in recent months with cheap rides on three-wheeler autorickshaws, a smaller, metal-framed version of traditional Khmer tuk-tuks. Phnom Penh has seen a surge of the yellow autorickshaws take to the streets as leading apps PassApp and ExNet have risen in popularity.

There have been some obvious benefits to the apps. Rather than flagging down tuk-tuk drivers and motodops on street corners and haggling over fares, customers have their rides come to them with predetermined fares based on distance. And apart from consumer convenience, the system has also introduced flexibility for new drivers like Soriya Sor, a police officer who signed on to PassApp to supplement his income.

“I can start driving any time of day, and I have constant business,” he said. “It’s a very good job.”

He could not have worked as a tuk-tuk driver – unable to balance his police work with the full-time service of a tuk-tuk – but with PassApp he has made enough money to buy his own autorickshaw after initially renting one, he said.

However, the opportunity for flexible work has had little attraction for tuk-tuk drivers already working full-time.

Sarun Sok, waiting for business in his tuk-tuk on Sothearos Boulevard, said that even as PassApp and ExNet opened up their platforms for drivers like him, he had no interest in joining up.

Autorickshaw drivers would tell him that the long hours were difficult to manage, and that he – as a privileged member of the organised tuk-tuk crews working along bustling Sothearos Boulevard and at the Sorya Shopping Centre – had enough business to keep him profitable even while taking far fewer daily rides.

“I have regular customers, and I can make about $25 a day off of only five rides,” he said. “My friend who drives the autorickshaw, he’s tired. And every ride is so cheap.”

Autorickshaw fares on PassApp and ExNet are typically under $2. PassApp takes a cut of 13 percent, or about 500 riel per dollar, while ExNet takes $0.25 plus 10 percent.

Chay Khem, another tuk-tuk driver, said he also relied on his regulars, a routine he preferred over the idea of being called out to frequent and unfamiliar runs.

“I’m better off keeping my own customers,” he said.

Yaem Yary agreed that he couldn’t understand what was in it for him.

“I have no idea how this app works,” he said. “What’s the benefit?”

He acknowledged, nevertheless, that the business was changing and squeezing tuk-tuk drivers’ livelihoods.

“Profits for me and most tuk-tuk drivers have dropped by about 50 percent in the past three or four months,” he said.

A PassApp tuk-tuk driver helps a tourist with directions. Heng Chivoan

Keo Poeurn, spokesman for the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA), a union for informal workers including thousands of tuk-tuk drivers, said tuk-tuk drivers had been struggling since the rise of the apps, with the lower-paying rides cutting into their work.

“Still, many drivers are interested in joining these apps, because it will be easy for them to get customers,” he said.

The union was preparing to organise talks with the operators of local apps to encourage higher pay for their drivers, Poeurn said.

Ride-hailing operators have also encountered reluctance among tuk-tuk drivers to change their habits.

Hor Daluch, founder of ExNet, said he was the first of the local apps to begin recruiting traditional tuk-tuks, opening his platform to registration two months ago. However, he has run into unexpected obstacles, thus far signing up only 10 tuk-tuk drivers.

“I don’t understand why [tuk-tuk drivers] don’t like to get passengers,” he said, adding that he has held events and offered promotions to encourage drivers to sign up, with limited success. “Most drivers seem to prefer the traditional way of giving rides.”

The rate for customers ordering tuk-tuks on ExNet is 10 percent more expensive than for an autorickshaw, he said, because tuk-tuks can carry more people and often use more fuel. While offering even cheaper motorbike-hailing services is a possibility in the future, he said he would like to focus on recruiting more tuk-tuks first.

Top Nimol, founder of the highly popular PassApp, said he started with autorickshaws instead of tuk-tuks because the smaller carriages were both safer and faster than traditional tuk-tuks. But the price of autorickshaws has begun to creep higher, he said – originally priced around $2,000, they are now sold for nearly $3,000 and rented at $140 per month. Opening up the platform to tuk-tuks, which are generally cheaper to buy, was a way to let prospective drivers avoid the rising prices, he said.

After completing a one-week pilot in Phnom Penh last week, Nimol currently has 20 tuk-tuk drivers on the streets. His company inspects each bike and carriage and ensures all drivers have valid identification, he said.

As far as Nimol is concerned, tuk-tuk drivers need to join the new wave or disappear.

“I want my customers to have options, and I also want more options for traditional tuk-tuk drivers, because if we do not include them, they will soon be gone,” he said.

“I’ve actually been trying to launch tuk-tuk services for a while now, but drivers don’t always understand the meter, and sometimes prefer to negotiate with their customers to get higher prices,” Nimol added.

He defended his pricing as appropriate, particularly considering the competition.

He has been able to compete against Grab and Uber because their prices are much higher, he said. If they were to lower their prices he would not be able to keep undercutting them, he said.

“The current price is already low, but PassApp drivers are happy with it, and they make good profits,” he said. “If we lower the price to try to compete, the impact will be on the Cambodian drivers.”

What seems clear, regardless, is that the sector is only expanding.

PassApp anticipates taking its service to Siem Reap later this month, becoming the first local ride-hailing app to grow beyond Phnom Penh, mostly by recruiting tuk-tuk drivers. Nimol already has 50 registered to begin operations. He has plans to expand to Sihanoukville in the first quarter of the year as well.

The app has also been incorporating mobile banking service Wing into its operations, initially for drivers’ payments and soon for customers’ fares, Nimol added. Grab has also launched online payment options through Wing.

Tomas Pokorny, CEO of popular cashless payment app Pi Pay, said his company had also reached agreements with multiple local ride-hailing services, and intends to introduce payment options with them in the next few weeks.

“Pi Pay is very keen to partner with international ride-hailing applications [Uber and Grab] as well, and has been reaching out to them for the past several months,” he said, adding that negotiations with the two giants were still underway.

According to representatives from both Grab and Uber, there are no current plans to expand services beyond Phnom Penh, to partner directly with any popular local ride-hailing platforms or to include autorickshaw-, tuk-tuk- or motorbike-hailing services in the near future.

Sok, the tuk-tuk driver, mimed gestures of trying to navigate online maps with his thumb as he lamented the changes taking place in his industry.

“You have to have a smartphone,” he said, and pointed to his old-school Nokia. His income was still safe, but others weren’t doing so well, he said.

“I would never join these apps. I hate them.”

Additional reporting by Cheng Sokhorng