Cambodia's iconic cyclo – a pedal-powered taxi – is on the decline. The cyclo's pedigree stretches back 70 years to a time when Cambodia was part of French Indochina.
75 year old Oum Sok has been a cyclo driver since he was just 18
The cyclo is a three-wheeled bicycle taxi. The driver pedals away on a seat placed above the rear wheel, while the passengers sit in front of him in a cushioned bucket seat slung between the two front wheels.
Before motorbikes and then four-wheel drives took over the streets of Phnom Penh, the cyclo was the way to get around. But not any more.
Im Sambath heads the Cyclo Conservation and Career Association, a membership body set up to help Phnom Penh's cyclo drivers by providing some health education, as well as a place for them to wash up each day.
Most people use motorbikes and cars in Phnom Penh
Not in love with the cyclo any more
Ten years ago there were 9,000 cyclo drivers. Now, he says, there are just 1,300 and he expects that number will halve in five years.
He says the citizens of Phnom Penh have fallen out of love with the cyclo. These days people who don't have their own vehicle prefer the speed of motorbike taxis or the motorized rickshaw – known as the tuktuk – over the cyclo's plodding pace.
You might think from that gloomy assessment that the cyclo's days are numbered. And they might be, but Im Sambath says the spark of renaissance could rest with Cambodia's visitors: after all, the country gets two million tourists a year.
"The tourists like new things, strange things," he says. "Like the cyclo – in foreign countries, they don't have it. So when they visit Cambodia they want to see what is strange, what is new."
Little money, expensive life
The cyclo association works with hotels and travel agents to arrange day-tours of Phnom Penh for around ten dollars a head. Most of that money goes to the cyclo drivers, one of whom is 75-year-old Oum Sok.
A cyclo driver pedals one of the shrinking number of Cambodians who use this traditional form of getting around Phnom Penh
He has worked as a cyclo driver since he was 18. Times have changed, he says. For one thing, Phnom Penh has become much more expensive.
Do big-tipping tourists make up for that? Not really, he says – the biggest tip he ever received was five dollars. Mostly they tip a dollar or two.
"But sometimes the tourists tip me just 50 cents, whereas local customers might tip me two dollars because I am old," says Oum Sok.
It won't make Oum Sok rich, but it is a living. Last Friday Oum Sok was one of more than 60 cyclo drivers pedalling an equal number of tourists around the city’s sights – from the Royal Palace to the National Museum and beyond. Margie Edmonds from Australia was one of those tourists.
"I just thought it was the most amazing way to do it. Their understanding of the traffic, and their kindness," she said. "It was one of the best experiences I've had in Asia. Great fun, very safe and very comfortable vehicles too."
Im Sambath is hopeful that tourists such as Margie Edmonds will spread the word. Tourism may not save the cyclo in the long run, but for now it is providing some drivers with their best chance.
Author: Robert Carmichael (Phnom Penh)
Editor: Thomas Baerthlein