A group of tuk-tuk drivers are milling around outside a massage parlour near the Royal Palace, chatting, listening to music and hoping that a customer will respond to their hails for business or ask them for a ride.
But no one is biting. No one is asking for rides. The drivers of the traditional Khmer tuk-tuks are idle, relegated to the side of streets by the import of Indian auto rickshaws connected to the sophisticated PassApp ride-hailing service.
Phat Sros, 35, kicks some rubbish lying next to his tuk-tuk as he hangs his head, attempting to fathom why his compatriots have abandoned their heritage and hastily jumped onto the smartphone PassApp service.
“Since the import of the rickshaws from India, Cambodians have turned to use their services more than ours,” he says. “I think the main reason is because it is cheaper, and that’s not because we charge too much, it’s because the rickshaws use liquefied petroleum gas and our tuk-tuk motorcycles use gasoline, which is more expensive.”
Mr Sros, whose name ironically means always smiling in English, says he doesn’t have much to smile about these days as his daily income has nearly been halved since the arrival of the PassApp rickshaws, from about $12.50 to $20 per day to just $5 to $7.50.
“Every day, we watch the rickshaw drivers ferrying our passengers around the city,” he says, exerting a nervous laugh. “The rickshaws have affected our livelihoods; our incomes are used to support our families, to feed our kids and send them to school.”
Mr Sros, whose wife does not work and cares for their eight-year-old daughter, says not only are the tuk-tuk passengers disappearing, some drivers are sadly also selling off their tuk-tuks and switching to rickshaws to safeguard their jobs.
“I try to urge drivers and customers to support the heritage of the tuk-tuks, but it’s a losing battle,” he says, taking a long breath. “We should be supporting our culture and each other; the artisans who make repairs to our tuk-tuks and build them are also losing business.”
Unionist Vorn Pov, president of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association which represents about 2,000 tuk-tuk drivers, says those selling their tuk-tuks are so desperate for business they are selling them at reduced prices.
“I’ve started to notice that some tuk-tuk drivers earn almost nothing after the rickshaws came,” he says. “It has forced some to sell their tuk-tuks at cheap prices and then borrow some money to buy the Indian rickshaw and hook up to the PassApp service.”
Mr Pov says a traditional Khmer tuk-tuk costs at least $2,000 to get on the road with a cheap, trustworthy motorbike. The rickshaws go for about $3,000.
“The tuk-tuk drivers have been losing business, but people still prefer to use them if they are transporting large quantities of goods, or are travelling with a group of people,” he adds, noting a tuk-tuk can fit four people comfortably, whereas the rickshaws fit just two.
Mr Pov said the government should be stepping in to protect the heritage of the traditional tuk-tuk, noting that he would like to see a policy implemented that 50 percent of vehicles parked outside tourists hotspots must be tuk-tuks.
Mr Pov says the policy would complement the changing faces of tuk-tuk users; before the rickshaws arrived, Khmers used tuk-tuks more than foreigners, but now it’s mostly tourists using tuk-tuks for their novelty, he says.
Soth Eng, 45, says he just bought a rickshaw about three months ago and his business is booming, noting that most of his customers are technology-savvy Cambodian youths and also their parents who now have smartphones.
“Most of my passengers are students or office workers,” he says. “I used to ride around looking for customers, but now with the PassApp, I have so many customers that I almost cannot serve them all.”
Mr Eng says he earns from $12.50 to 17.50 per day since purchasing the rickshaw and connecting to the PassApp service.
“The people that use the rickshaws do not try and bargain for lower prices,” he says. “The price is known to me and them clearly, and it makes everything easier.”
Taing Vengheang, operations manager for PassApp, says the set price for the service is about $0.26 per kilometre, after an initial charge of $0.75 for the first kilometre.
Mr Vengheang won’t say how many drivers are registered with the app, but says that the effects of the app on tuk-tuk drivers has not gone unnoticed and that the company has taken steps to mitigate them.
“We have added the traditional Khmer tuk-tuk to our service to improve the livelihoods of drivers who do not have the rickshaw,” he says. “We took notice and want to help tuk-tuk drivers gain more passengers, too. They just have to sign up with the app.”
Chan Somary, 59, who sells goods from her shophouse in Phnom Penh, says she uses both tuk-tuks and the rickshaws, even though she does not yet have the PassApp installed on her phone.
“When I have to transport a lot of material and or many people, I always use the Khmer tuk-tuk because it is spacious, and easy to store goods in, even with passengers going along for the ride,” she says. “But if I need to travel with just two people, I use the rickshaw because it’s smaller.”
Ms Somary says she has often paid a similar price when using the rickshaw because she does not have the PassApp, meaning the driver and her negotiate the price just as she would with a tuk-tuk driver.
“But now I have a smartphone and I plan on getting the app,” she says.
Peng Sophea, who previously used tuk-tuks and motodops to travel from home to work, says he has switched to the PassApp rickshaws because they’re cheaper, with set prices, meaning he no longer has to haggle with his drivers.
Mr Sophea, 38, says he used to spend $6.25 on a tuk-tuk ride to work, or $5 for a motodop ride. With the rickshaw, he now pays just $3.75.
“I just use my phone to hail the rickshaw while inside my home,” he says. “I don’t have to go onto the street, find a tuk-tuk and then argue over the price. It’s easier.”
Mr Sophea adds that he also feels safer in the rickshaw, noting that PassApp drivers seem to obey traffic laws more than their tuk-tuk driving counterparts.
“When I use the rickshaw, I just feel better, calmer,” he says.
Mr Pov, the tuk-tuk union leader, acknowledges that a small number of tuk-tuk drivers have an unsuitable attitude, asking for higher pay from customers and not obeying some traffic laws, but notes it is a small portion of drivers.
“They should not ask for excessive prices, and most don’t,” he says. “As for the traffic laws, most obey them and those that don’t, they are not alone because some of the PassApp drivers also do not follow the traffic laws.”
“My association has always called on members to understand and obey traffic laws by holding education sessions every month,” he adds. “But violations still occur, and I think that it ultimately falls onto the traffic police to better enforce the laws.”
Back outside the massage parlour, Mr Sros has now been sitting in his tuk-tuk for nearly the entire morning, with no customers.
If he were to sign up with the PassApp service using his tuk-tuk, he would have to offer rides at the same set prices of the rickshaws, which would leave him with no profit due to the tuk-tuk being more expensive to operate, he says. “If my business continues this way, and customers keep turning to the app and rickshaws, I’m afraid tuk-tuk drivers will have no money to even feed themselves and their families,” he says.