Visiting the birthplace of Cambodia's urban chariots

Visiting the birthplace of Cambodia's urban chariots


Admit it – there’s a part of you that wants your own tuk-tuk. I’ve never coveted an expensive sports car or one of those enormous SUVs, but tuk-tuks are different. They are so quirky, so distinctively Cambodian, that I sometimes fantasise about taking one back to the US with me, about being at the forefront of some American vehicle revolution in which tuk-tuks become all the rage and I am touted as a visionary. It was these daydreams that landed me at the shop of Srei Pow.

Srei Pow and her husband Em Sras are the pre-eminent tuk-tuk experts of Siem Reap. Em Sras and his father began building cyclos almost three decades ago at the shop just west of Phsar Leu, and they gradually evolved with the times, becoming the first tuk-tuk manufacturers in town.

I decided the next best thing to ordering my own tuk-tuk would be to involve myself with the construction of one, and Srei Pow gamely agreed to let me watch their latest orders take shape.

When I arrived at the shop, the three objects parked in the front lot resembled wooden sleighs, looking more like they belonged on some snowy slope than the road. Srei Pow, however, assured me that within a week, they would appear more like the glossy, first-rate motor carriages in her photo album.

Because they are made to order, each is a little different. The variety that they sell to drivers in Phnom Penh tend to be a little heavier and roomier, but the current orders were of the type most popular in Siem Reap: streamlined two-seaters that can handle the trips to far-off temples. They retail for about $650.

I was ready to get my hands dirty. Metal sheeting had been hammered over the wooden frames, and Srei Pow’s employees were smoothing out the sharp edges with power sanders. Could I help? Everyone present looked a little horrified at the prospect, as though I had just offered to trim the metal filings with my teeth. This, they explained, was not work fit for a woman. Srei Pow dragged me inside before I could ask to weld together some of the roof frames.

Luckily, “women’s work” was not as prissy as I had feared. I was set up in front of a drill press with some unidentifiable metal pieces and told to make holes at pre-measured ink marks. Though I wasn’t yet sure what the purpose was, there was something satisfying about the grind of the machine, the delicate twists of metal spinning away from the bit, and the pleasing little release as the metal yielded. After some drilling, I took the pieces to a vice, and following the lead of a 15-year-old boy, punished them with a giant hammer into right-angled brackets.

Now I could see where we were headed – I had just made the pieces that would hold the supportive struts at the bottom of the tuk-tuk in place. I made a silent wish that some unsuspecting tourist would not crash through the floor due to my workwomanship.

Over the next week, I checked in periodically on the progress of what I had begun to consider my tuk-tuk. It was enormously satisfying to witness the incremental changes: the installation of a hand-carved wooden glove compartment; the completion of the skeletal roof frame; the mounting of the wheels; the addition of the shocks under the seats to ensure a smooth ride.

On my final visit, it was being prepped for painting. I was pleased to learn that the order had been placed for this tuk-tuk to be painted deep red, exactly the shade I would have chosen. They assured me that the future owner was local. From now on, every time I pass a red tuk-tuk, I’ll think, “That could be the one,” and enjoy a little vicarious thrill of ownership.


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