While they may seem more at home in the heaving streets of Mumbai or Calcutta, three-wheel tuk tuks are making steady inroads in Cambodia thanks to one Indian company.
Touting its safety and fuel efficiency as selling points to both private owners and taxi companies wanting to adopt the three-wheelers, Indian based company Vipar Auto Cambodia hopes their new model is seen as a more comfortable, greener look to the classic mode of public transportation in busy Cambodian cities.
Although the tuk tuks are similar in appearance to their Indian cousins, Vipar Auto Cambodia manager Di Sokkheoun is quick to point out that their company, an offshoot of Indian giant Bajaj Vipar Auto, the world’s third-largest manufacturer of motorbikes, has made many modifications to the base model to make it right at home in its Cambodian environment.
“We have made a large number of modifications for Cambodia. It is not an Indian tuk tuk. In India, they use compressed natural gas. In Cambodia, CNG is not available, they have liquefied petrol gas [LPG],” he said.
LPG, a frequently-used fuel in the Kingdom, is more fuel efficient than regular petrol at just 1,600 riel per liter and releases far less CO2 emissions. Vipar Auto says their RE205 three-wheeler’s combination of LPG and its light weight means it releases fewer emissions than a Honda Prius.
“The vehicle is small, and the smaller it is, the lighter it is. The thing weighs 200kgs. It’s a motorcycle with three wheels. You could easily lift it up if you were a big guy,” Sokkheoun said with a chuckle.
Initially launching in Cambodia in 2012, the company originally bought their RE145D model, a petrol-based two passenger version, to test in the Cambodian waters. However they soon realized that modifications were needed to “Cambodianize” the model to make it more compatible with the local market.
Now their latest model, which has sold more than 500 units, features a 200cc four stroke engine, flashier colors, a bigger head light, lockable driver seats and a large back crash bumper, all features designed to appeal to Cambodian tastes. They are even attempting to involve the local garment industry to make seats.
But the tuk tuks, priced at $2,500, can be challenging to sell to local drivers, Sokkheoun says.
“The fact is it’s a 200cc engine. The local tuk tuks are 10-year-old 100cc engine. Ours are brand new, so we can’t price ourselves the same as a 10-year-old engine,” he said.
“What matters to them is: how cheap is it? Can it do the job?”
However for 34-year-old Chan Vaiyuk, who has been a tuk tuk driver for 10 years, the price was worth it for his own comfort and safety, and he has been driving his new model for the past two months.
“I decided to buy this new one because I am interested in it, it’s more safe, and comfortable and standardized,” he said.
Vaiyuk’s customers have also enjoyed the novelty and comfort of his new tuk tuk, but said they sometimes complained about its limited three seats compared to local models that can fit four or even six people at a squeeze.
“My customers also are interested in it too, but they complain to me that it cannot bring many people on board. In general this tuk tuk can bring only three people,” he said.
To that effect, the driver spent an extra $200 to modify his vehicle to be able to fit another two people. But this practice is not encouraged by Vipar Auto, as it voids the vehicle’s two-year warranty.
Sokkheoun says the money drivers save thanks to the three wheeler’s fuel efficiency makes up for the small passenger space.
“For tuk tuk drivers, their vehicle is their livelihood. They need to get their money’s worth,” he said.
To help make their model more affordable, Vipar Auto ships the three-wheelers over in parts from India and assembles them here in Cambodia.
“We assemble it here, it comes in parts, so that has already lowered the price,” he said.
This not only helps them save on shipping costs, but also employs 44 people at their assembly facility in Phnom Penh. They are also currently training over 60 mechanics across the country to repair the vehicles.
The standardized, safety oriented three-wheelers have also tempted local entrepreneurs to try the new tuk tuks out in the market, hoping customers will be drawn to the comfort and security of the new vehicles.
Sam Nimol, manager of Ez-Go taxi meter, uses Vipar Auto’s model and has been in operation for four months. His modest company employs 30 drivers and, thanks to the installed meter system on the vehicle’s dashboard, helps keep costs consistent.
“The price is 3,000 riel for the first kilometer, 1,200 riel for the second, third. It’s consistent,” he said.
The company pays its drivers $160 per month but offers extra payment for overtime and job rewards, and Nimol says the three-wheeler model provides greater comfort for both drivers and passengers.
“I chose this tuk tuk because it is bigger than a motor taxi and provides a large space for customers and it’s more comfortable,” he said.
While he said that business has been steady, he plans to expand his company by the end of the year and increase his fleet to 100 three-wheel tuk tuks.
If fears exist that these new tuk tuks will soon phase out the traditional homemade models, Vorn Pov, president of tuk tuk union Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association, is happy to cast those doubts aside, saying he welcomed the competition.
“It is good to have that business because it creates jobs for Khmer people so they can earn a living,” he said.
“It is globalization, so competition in service providers always happens. However, it is still good if they compete with ethics and morality.”
Sokkheoun says he relishes the challenge of the Cambodian market and looks forward to nudging their leaner, greener tuk tuks as a safe and reliable alternative that will be worth its price tag.
“It’s going to take time, slowly but surely. At the end of the day, we are going to be here for 15 years, we’re not in a hurry,” he said.
“Everything has an age and a time.”