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A driver’s cyclo is his castle

Prum Dean (foreground) and Yann Sarin, cyclos at the ready. The pair sleep where they work, on their machines.
Prum Dean (foreground) and Yann Sarin, cyclos at the ready. The pair sleep where they work, on their machines. Moeun Nhean

A driver’s cyclo is his castle

Cyclos have always been a feature of Phnom Penh life. Locals love to use them to ferry their shopping home from the market. But for the drivers, their cyclos are more than just a source of income. Often, they’re the drivers’ homes, too.

This vintage mode of transportation made a comeback when Cambodia escaped from the grip of Pol Pot. Sadly, sightings of people employing this mode of transportation have become less and less frequent, and many cyclo drivers have added a new role to their beloved vehicle – a home for them to sleep at night.

Hen Moeurn, aged 59 years old, is a farmer from Kompong Trobek district, Prey Veng Province. He left his farm to pedal a cyclo taxi in Phnom Penh in order to find additional income for his family of 5 children, since he owns only a small plot of land of 0.50 hectares. Now, his home in the city is his cyclo.

He said that, like the majority of cyclo drivers, he came to Phnom Penh with only a small pack of belongings. “I had two outfits, one krama, and a budget of 30,000 riels.”

He added that, in Phnom Penh, “Most cyclo drivers spend about 3,000 riels per day on their cyclo rental fee.” As for daily income, “We can get between 10,000 and 30,000 riels for an average day. If we’re lucky we get 40,000 riels.” This compares to his daily expenses of between 12,000 and 16,000 riels.

Like his cyclo-driving confederates, Moeum works from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. driving customers around and trying to find more customers.

“At five in the morning, we wake up from a night’s sleep on our respective cyclos, and then we rush to the market or elsewhere to transport goods for our customers. For one customer we usually get about 2,000 riels to 3,000 riels, but still, it depends on the distance,” said Moeurn. He continued, “When the day is finally bright, we pedal the cyclo around to look for people in need of travelling within the city; and on days that we get a lot of customers, we fare better than normal days.”

Yann Sarin, aged 78, hails from Koh Thom district, Kandal province, and has spent the last 20 years as a cyclo taxi driver. He reminisced, “Our family spent about $1,000 to purchase a brand new cyclo back in 1990, and we have been in this line of work ever since then.” He continued, “Right now, my cyclo is old, and it wouldn’t even be possible for the city authority to provide me with a new one even if I wanted one.”

As Sarin gets older and older, he can only pedal very slowly to nearby places, “Every day, I only have about 10,000 riel to 20,000 riel after my food expenses.” Nevertheless, Sarin and his family have a small house near Steung Mean Chey, and he doesn’t have to rent his cyclo as others do.

Prum Dean, aged 71, from Svay Rieng, has also spent many years plying the roads of the city with his bicycle-taxi. He said, “Back in the day, I could peddle my cyclo to feed my wife and children. However, these days I can only get enough to provide for myself, because after deducting food expenses and the money for public toilets, I only have about 10,000 riels. It’s impossible to provide much for my family.

“That’s why I don’t see many young cyclo drivers like before, because the job barely provides enough to live on. I think this might be the end of an era for cyclo drivers,” said Dean.

Hen Moeurn waits near one of Phnom Penh’s markets for a customer.
Hen Moeurn waits near one of Phnom Penh’s markets for a customer. Moeun Nhean

Considering the many expenses that cyclo drivers have to bear, the three cyclo drivers implore the government to help, “We’d like the government to build public housing with low rental fees, and also we’d like more public toilets, as well as lower entrance fees for the ones there are now. 500 riels is a bit much.”

Em Sambath, the head of the Cyclo Conservation and Careers Association, said there are about 70 cyclos in his association and about 130 cyclo drivers. The Association provides cyclos for a rental fee of about 50,000 riel per month – half the market price. He continued, “One bonus for the members of the association is that they can get about three dollars per one or two hours for a tour of the city, and about seven dollars for four hours.” The Association administers these tours, and locals and tourists alike are often treated to the sight of a long convoy of cyclos touring the riverside area.

“However, there is only substantial foreign custom during the high season. That’s when our cyclo drivers can get about $150 dollars per month,” said Sambath. “Normally, cyclo drivers who come from the provinces use their cyclo as a home to sleep in at night, because they don’t have enough money to rent a place to live, and the Association lacks the budget to help find a suitable place. In short, we are unable to find land to build a residence for cyclo drivers and the government also can’t afford to help us.”

Hen Moeurn said the drivers group together for safety at night. “People who come from the provinces to drive a cyclo, like I did, usually set up their cyclo as a home to sleep at night. We usually choose a public space somewhere and sleep in groups of four to ten people. Some have cradles, and some sleep in their cyclo. On nights where there is rain, we build a makeshift roof out of plastic sheeting and rubber bands and sleep under that.”

Em Sambath added, “All across modern-day Phnom Penh, the number of cyclo drivers is dwindling fast, which is a cause for concern as it might point to a future without cyclos – a beloved mode of public-private transportation that was once the go-to way of travelling about the city. Don’t forget too that cyclos have zero emissions. That’s why we strive to create a community that can help them.”

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