Saturday, June 19, 2010

The demise of Cambodia's cyclo drivers

Fri, 18 Jun 2010 06:57:00 +0700

Ten years ago nine thousand cyclo drivers made a living pedalling people and their possessions around the streets of Phnom Penh. It was the Cambodian capital's long standing foot powered taxi. But today there are just thirteen hundred cyclo drivers left.

Presenter: Robert Carmichael
Speakers: Im Sambath, Head, Cyclo Conservation and Career Association; Oum Sok, cyclo driver; Margie Edmonds, Australian tourist

And that's just the kind of endorsement Im Sambath hopes will guarantee the cyclo's survival in Phnom Penh for another 70 years.


ROBERT CARMICHAEL: Over the past 70 years the three-wheeled bicycle taxi known as the cyclo has been a classic Phnom Penh sight, with its bucket seat between the two front wheels for the passengers, and the driver perched high up behind them above the rear wheel, pedalling away.

The cyclo was brought here by the French from neighbouring Vietnam back when the nations were, along with Laos, known as French Indochine.

Travelling by cyclo has long echoed the Mekong river that slips past Phnom Penh. This is an unhurried way to get around what was once a sleepy capital city.

But Phnom Penh is no longer sleepy. And as the roads get busier with motorbikes and four-wheel drive vehicles, there is less room for cyclos. There is also less demand for them from the city's residents.

So says Im Sambath, the head of the Cyclo Conservation and Career Association, a non-governmental membership body for the capital's dwindling stock of cyclo drivers.

Im Sambath says cyclo numbers have dropped precipitously - from 9,000 a decade ago to 1,300 now. Within five years he predicts just 500 will be left.

Why is that? Firstly, getting spare parts is a problem. But he says the biggest problem is that local people prefer faster ways of getting around - such as motorbike taxis or auto-rickshaws known as tuktuks.

The solution is to turn away from the shrinking local market and tap into the growing tourism market.

IM SAMBATH: The tourists like what is the new thing, the strange thing. Like cyclo - the foreign countries they don't have the cyclo. So when they visit Cambodia they want to see what's strange, what's new. So that they can see the cyclo - oh, very strange for them. Sometimes they say relaxing on the cyclo along the riverside. So it is a good thing for them, yes.

ROBERT CARMICHAEL: For ten dollars a head, the association's members pedal tourists on a day-trip around the capital.

Phnom Penh is a flat city, which helps. And since the tourist sites are located within a three-mile radius, the fact that this is a slow way of getting around is hardly a problem.

Seventy-five year old Oum Sok has pedalled these flat streets since he was just 18. As the oldest member of the cyclo association, he now ferries tourists. Waiting for his fare outside the city's National Museum, Oum Sok says that in the old days there were few tourists but plenty of local demand.

So what else has changed?

OUM SOK: When I was young I could earn a lot, but now everything is expensive. Another thing is that the customers don't want to take a cyclo with an old man like me driving.

ROBERT CARMICHAEL: The two dozen other men who are pedalling tourists around the capital today are all younger than Oum Sok.

Like him, most are from the rural provinces of Cambodia where work opportunities are few.

In Phnom Penh their living costs are low - at night they congregate on the pavements with their cyclos and sleep in the bucket seats. That way they can send more money home to their families in the provinces.

Im Sambath says that for a day's work they will earn around ten dollars for taking visitors to the key tourist sites.

IM SAMBATH: The place that you are going to see? You would like to see the landmarks of the city, like Wat Phnom, Royal Palace, National Museum, Independence Museum. If they have the time, the Central Market or the railway station.

ROBERT CARMICHAEL: The cyclo crocodile is becoming a more common sight here. And the tourists seem to like the unhurried way of seeing the city.

Margie Edmonds is an Australian tourist from Melbourne. Her group of 52 stopped off in Phnom Penh on their way by luxury slow boat from Ho Chi Minh City in southern Vietnam to the temples of Angkor Wat in northwest Cambodia.

She says the cyclo journey ranks among the best experiences she has had in Asia.

ROBERT CARMICHAEL: You'd recommend it?

MARGIE EDMONDS: Absolutely. It's the only way to go. Been right around the city - I'd get on another one in a minute, but I've got to get back to the boat.
(source from ABC radio Australia) 

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