Cyclo, a three-wheel bicycle rickshaw, has been an important part of transportation in Cambodia since the French colonial period. At one point, it even found its place in the country’s pop culture, when Yuos Olarang, a Cambodian rock singer considered a representative of the free spirit, released a famous song called Jis Cyclo (Riding Cyclo) in the 70s. However, cyclo drivers have been among the poorest among the urban poor. Most of them are homeless and despite getting assistance from the government, their lives have not improved much, writes Taing Rinith.
It’s noon and the sweltering heat is just overwhelming. At Phnom Sothearos Boulevard, Pom Moeun, a 56-year-old cyclo driver, is taking a break from his work to have lunch and to cool off under a tree in a spot near the Royal Palace. His lunch is some steamed white rice and a grilled fish, packed in plastic bags and bought from a small foot stall on the street nearby.
He paid 3,000 (75 cents) riels for the food, which is about a third of his earning this morning, but the food sellers gave him some free cold tea. The free cold tea might be a simple drink but for the old cyclo driver that’s the only thing that will keep him hydrated and cool for the rest of the day. Sitting in his blue cyclo, for which he will need to pay rent of 50,000 riels ($12.50) at the end of the month, Moeun is eating his meal while listening to his favourite song Jis Cyclo on his out-of-date Nokia phone.
“Riding cyclo to Psar Thmey, I see women in their loose shirts,” trumpeted Olarang, the singer. “…As long as I can ride cyclo and watch those women, I am satisfied.”
Upon finishing his meal and taking a short nap, Moeun takes off his shirt – one of only three he has – and goes to a nearby public restroom to wash it. He also takes the opportunity to douse himself with water before resuming his work paddling all over the heart of the city and looking for foreigners who would want to tour the city on his cyclo at a slow pace.
Moeun used to be a rice farmer from Prey Veng, but farming alone does not allow him to feed his wife and five children, more so now with the lingering drought. So he has come to Phnom Penh to work as a cyclo driver, and only goes back home when it is time to plant or harvest rice.
“I first came to Phnom Penh to work as a cyclo driver in 1994, when UNTAC (United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia) was in Cambodia to organise the [General] Election,” Moeun says. “I heard from those who had done it before me that they could earn a lot of money giving rides to UNTAC soldiers.”
“And I did earn a lot of money. Once I drove a drunk UN peacekeeper from Africa to a brothel in Tol Kork, and he paid me $200, a lot of money at that time and still worth a lot today.”
However, those “glorious” days, where motorcycles and cars were rare and cyclos were the main mode of transport are long over.
It’s the middle of the month and Moeun has yet to make a $100. He scratches his head and wonders how he’s going to survive through the month.
On a lucky day, the Cyclo Association, from which he rents his cyclo, will ask him to take a foreign tourist on a city tour in return for $5 to $10, plus tips.
“It has always been hard for us to make money, but it has been especially hard in the past several years,” Moeun says. “I used to rely on Western tourists and their tips but there are not as many of them as before, and some tour guides even ask them not to tip.”As dusk falls, Moeun gets tired and hungry. He goes to a place outside the gates of Ounalom pagoda. He just can’t afford to rent a room in the city so he spends his night here, sleeping in his cyclo. Usually, when he gets there, he is joined by other cyclo drivers. None of them seem to have a better life.
While some form small circles to drink cheap liquor and gamble, most of the cyclo drivers go to sleep immediately after dinner. The cyclos are small, only a bit bigger than armchairs, but they seem to sleep soundly in them despite the noise made by passing vehicles.
Nget Soy, who has been a cyclo driver for almost 40 years, says he has got used to sleeping here. Mosquito bites and the pungent smell wafting from piles of garbage nearby don’t seem to bother him.
“When it rains, we sleep under long eaves of people’s houses,” says the 66-year-old. “When I do not feel comfortable sleeping in my cyclo, I lock it and sleep on the ground.”
Kao Choy, another cyclo driver in his 50s has seven children, all of whom are married. They, however, hardly make ends meet to be able to support their father. Despite his bad health and weak legs, Choy still peddles 12 hours a day.
“Once, a fever almost killed me,” Choy says. “Fortunately, I have the Social Security card, gifted by Samdech Prime Minister, which allows me to be treated at a state-run hospital.”
The cyclo has been identified as an icon of Phnom Penh and a tourist attraction, and in recent years the government has been paying attention to their preservation. Last January, Prime Minister Hun Sen launched the Cyclo Foundation which provides 320 Cyclo drivers the same welfare protection as other informal workers by giving them access to free medical care at state-run hospitals.This initiative also gives each of the drivers an allowance of 7,000 riels per day or around $52 a month. But the drastic fall in their income is pushing many of them into giving up their jobs in the city and moving back to absolute poverty in the provinces.
“If things do not improve in the next few months, I will quit and return to work in the rice field,” Moeun, the cyclo driver, says. “It is a very hard job and I barely make money. I am getting older and I am worried that one day my body will seize up and I will no longer be able to work to feed myself.”
Im Sambath, the executive director of the Cyclo Conservation and Career Association (CCCA), says according to a survey conducted last year by his group there are around 350 cyclo drivers, a dramatic fall from 1,000 in 2007 and 500 in 2012. The survey also shows that 70 percent of the drivers are aged between 40 and 65.
“It is true that they (cyclo drivers) are making less, due to the influx of modern transportation such as auto rickshaws and public buses which are affordable with easy access,” Sambath says.
Sambath says CCCA has been working hard to train cyclo drivers in hospitality and find customers for them, but the tourist reason in Cambodia lasts only from October to March.
As dawn breaks, Moeun, Nget and Choy wake up, wash their faces at the public bathroom and get ready for work. They are working today only to live tomorrow.
“I did not go to school and don’t know what else I can do,” Choy says.
“Maybe it was my karma that I was born to be poor and have to work very hard, but at least I am proud of what I am doing.”