Chheng Dani’s six-year-old son is growing restless in the passenger seat of her taxi as she snakes through traffic on Phnom Penh’s Preah Suramarit Boulevard in a race against the clock to deliver passengers to their destinations.
The younger Chheng climbs on top of the headrest and plays peek-a-boo with the passengers in the backseat, as his mother’s iPhone plays cartoons for him on YouTube.
“I need to use my phone now,” she tells him as she briefly switches apps back to Waze so she can decide what the best route for the trip is.
The lapse in entertainment encourages the boy to leap onto the centre console and make-believe that he can shoot webs from his hands like Spiderman.
It’s an unusual sight in a taxi, and a world away from how Dani grew up.
“I remember my dad used to put me inside a giant cooking pot when the floodwaters would come into my house. I loved it, I would float around in the kitchen with the ducks and play with them,” the 28-year-old recalls.
“I’d only learn during school hours, then I’d come home and tend to the cows and ducks for most of the afternoon before finally coming home for dinner after the sun had set.”
Dani didn’t write her final exams because she was arranged to be married when she was just 18-years-old.
“I loved studying mathematics, but I got married before I could write my final exams in my last year in high school. After I got married, we moved from Kampot to Oddar Meanchey province because my husband’s sister lived there and started selling gasoline on the side of the road.”
Six months after moving the Oudom Meanchey Dani fell pregnant. But while the business was thriving, marital problems began to arise, leading to a divorce.
“We sold everything, including the house we had just built and had $600 between us. I took $300 and my boy and we left for Phnom Penh,” she says.
Stumbled across ridesharing
She initially found work in a garment factory, renting a small room in their dormitory. What followed was a succession of odd-jobs before she stumbled across the ridesharing industry through a friend.
“I heard from my friend while we were working at Metfone that there was money to be made driving tuk-tuks, so I thought I would give it a shot,” she says.
She took out a $3,000 micro-finance loan to buy the tuk-tuk, and set up shop with a slew of ride hailing apps at her disposal.
Her son would often accompany her after he had finished school, completing his English homework in the back seat of the tuk-tuk next to passengers, taking naps in the cargo area used to stow luggage.
“I would wake up in the morning, make my son and I some breakfast before dropping him off to school and start picking up passengers,” she says.
Earning roughly $20-30 dollars a day through her selection of apps, in seven short months she paid off the loan and was able to upgrade to her current vehicle.
Now the proud owner of a 2002 creme brulee mica-coloured Toyota Camry LE – complete with leather seats and wood-trim – Dani owes a lot to the cherry-red Indian-style Bajaj RE tuk-tuk that got her started.
‘No women driving tuk-tuks’
The Post previously reported that the Kingdom’s Indian-style tuk-tuks will grow to more than 35,000 this year, as the ridesharing app market balloons in Cambodia, as well as worldwide.
But despite this, driving taxis and tuk-tuks – as well as the wider ridesharing industry – remains an almost exclusively male domain.
There have been attempts to address the disparity globally. Most notable is ridesharing app Safr, which launched in the American city of Boston in 2017, allowing drivers and riders to choose the preferred gender of the person they will be sharing the vehicle with.
But inclusive initiatives such as these remain a distant prospect in the Kingdom. In fact, Dani says she is yet to see another woman behind the wheels of a tuk-tuk.
“In all this time, I haven’t seen any other women driving tuk-tuks. People come would come up to me and take pictures with me or they would insist on taking my card . . . people feel much safer being driven by a woman, especially if it’s other women.”
Dani said she hasn’t had a single bad experience from a passenger, although she’s cautious about the neighbourhoods she services and heads home promptly around 10pm.
“It isn’t unsafe driving tuk-tuk’s as a women, in fact I think it’s a good idea for women to give it a try . .. maybe if there were more female d rivers the roads would be safer. We take care and respect traffic, men think that they’re strong, that nothing can touch them and they can go anywhere,” says Dani.
But being a lone woman in a man’s field inevitably took some adjustment.
“Most of my customers come to me through either WeGo, Pass or Grab, but sometimes I sit there and call people over just like the guys. I remember being really shy when I first started calling customers like the men, but that didn’t last long.”
Set an example for others
Truthfully, as a single mother she couldn’t afford to let her shyness get in the way of providing for her son.
Dani admits that sometimes she misses her family farm back in Takao village in Kampot province – where as a girl she would wake up early in the morning to sell Num Kor and Num Tnot (traditonal Cambodian pastries) with her mother before beginning her primary school classes.
But she says that working in the ridesharing industry has provided her with opportunities to provide for herself and be independent.
She hopes to set an example for other Cambodian women.
“Working as a tuk-tuk driver appealed to me because I don’t want to work for anyone else, and it gives me the freedom to choose which hours I work . . . more women should consider giving it a try,” she says.
“But of course, in real life it’s not about being a man or a women – our first action must be to respect everyone,” she says, swiping to let the app know that we have arrived.