In response, a group of drivers in January formed the Cyclo Conservation and Career Association, and last month about 200 seasoned pedallers met for the organisation’s first annual gathering, which took the form of a meal and festive get-together rather than a formal meeting.
Im Sambath, the executive director of the association, said the organisation was founded, as the name suggests, to “conserve cyclos as a traditional form of transportation in Cambodian society”.
“We are cooperating with the Ministry of Tourism and Phnom Penh Municipal Hall to promote cyclo services and reduce restrictions by traffic police,” he said.
“We are also working to establish contacts with tourism services to attract foreigners, and to spread the word to convince more locals to use cyclos as well.”
Im Sambath said drivers must pay a fee of 1,000 riel to join the association, but that they get benefits for doing so.
“We help them connect with foreign customers and also provide places to wash up, HIV/AIDS education, smoking prevention, training courses to raise their awareness of traffic laws, and training courses to teach skills like cooking to help them make more money,” he said.
Im Sambath said the number of cyclos in Cambodia has decreased significantly since 1999. “In 1999 there were about 9,000 cyclos. This dropped to about 3,500 in 2003 and 2,000 in 2008. Now there are only about 1,300 cyclos in Cambodia,” he said.
He said nearly all cyclo drivers are from poor families in the provinces, and moved to Phnom Penh to find jobs.
Among them is Pao Phearum, 33, who left his home in Kampong Cham in 2007 to become a cyclo driver in the city.
“I think that within 20 years cyclos will completely disappear. There are fewer and fewer, and profits are dropping,” he said. Pao Phearum said the challenges of being a cyclo driver include fatigue, competing with more modern forms of transportation like motorbike taxis and tuk-tuks, and having to pay money to security personnel or police to pick up customers.
Cyclo driver Sun Sokum, 59, from Kampong Speu said he’s worried about his future because he has no other means of making a living.
“It’s normal for people to use modern, faster transportation,” he said. “Before, I could find 10 to 15 customers a day and make about 15,000 to 20,000 riels a day, but now I earn less than 10,000 riels a day.”
However, he said that since joining the association he has had help finding more foreign customers, who sometimes give him tips of US$1-$3.