“Times change and we change with them” Latin Proverb
PHOTOS OF THE WEEK
Last Sunday my four-year old son and I participated in the Amazingly Silly Tuk Tuk Race in Phnom Penh, sponsored by the British Chamber of Commerce at Gasolina Restaurant. Think of the popular American TV show the “Amazing Race” only this time the scavenger hunt consisted of contestants racing through the streets of Phnom Penh in a tuk tuk frantically searching for clues, solving riddles, and taking silly pictures in a tiger mask. The game was a fun way for us to discover the city in one of the most efficient and safer of transportation in Cambodia today.
A tuk-tuk is a three-wheeled carriage-like vehicle attached to a motodop (motor bikes). The vehicle is popular among tourists and locals alike. It is so prevealent throughout the country that tuk tuks could now be part of the cultural icons of Cambodia along with Angkor Wat, amok, and monks. Yet, I couldn’t help but wonder what life was like in Cambodia before tuk tuks? What happened to the cyclos I remember seeing in 2004 that peddled us around the city?
It seems as though the tuk tuk has essentially replaced the traditional cyclos. Once commonly seen in Phnom Penh throughout the city, now only a handful of cyclo drivers remain, mostly behind the Royal Palace waiting for tourists. They are working under the umbrella of the Cyclo Conservation Association, an organization that is working to preserve the cultural heritage of the cyclo in Cambodia. But that is the only place you can find a mass of them. On the other hand, rows of tuk tuks line up in front of restaurants, schools, hotels, and stores across the city.
Ny, a distinguished 55-year old man from Prey Veng province, who is one of the cyclo drivers waiting at the Royal Palace, spoke about a time when business was better in the 80’s and 90’s even as the country was recovering from war and finding it’s slow path to development.
“In 1993 I worked as a cyclo driver during UNTAC’s visit. Business was better then because there were many foreigners visiting. Also at that time there weren’t many motodups (taxi motos) and no tuk tuks. I would make $10.00 a day back then on average. Now there is so much competition, especially from tuk tuks that I only make $2.00 a day, $4.00 on a good day ($60-$100/month). We can’t compete with the tuk tuks because they are safer, faster, and can carry more things.”
He hopes to buy a tuk tuk someday but the cost is out of his range ($1500-$1700) for someone who makes $2.00 a day. He struggles every day to buy enough food to eat, send money back home to his family in Prey Veng, and sleeps outside in front Wat Kho, the waiting station for the cyclo drivers.
Cyclo drivers seem to be from a different generation, a time gone by when life and development in Cambodia seemed to be moving at a slower pace. While cyclos are a great tourist attraction for visitors seeking to take a leisurely ride through Phnom Penh, in this day and age of fast paced commerce in Cambodia, cyclos are an inefficient mode of transportation for those that have places to be.
Development in Cambodia is happening at an accelerated pace. Everywhere you go there’s large infrastructure projects and new businesses popping up. If you don’t have a car, are afraid to ride on the back of a motodup (like me), and can’t find a regular taxi (exists but hard to find/hail in the streets) a tuk tuk is your best bet to get you from A to B quickly and safely.
Tuk tuk drivers tend to be younger men usually in their 20s-40s. Our tuk tuk driver for the Amazing Tuk Tuk Race, Sopha, is a shy 29 year old from Pursat Province. The oldest of six children in 2007 his mother took out a loan from Acleda Bank to buy a tuk tuk and moto for $1300, and since then he began driving tuk tuks to pay the loan back, and support his mother and siblings. He says “on average I make only $200-$300 a month, but I have to pay for gas, buy food to eat, and support my family back home.”
He is uncertain about his future as a tuk tuk driver as the Phnom Penh Municipality in recent years has started to crackdown on tuk tuks in the city. In 2009 there were a series of bans and fines on tuk tuks prohibiting them from using Norodom Boulevard (ban still in place today), confiscating and fining tuk tuks for parking and sleeping on main tourist thoroughfares such as Wat Phnom, Sisowath Quay, Sotheros and Norodom Boulevard.
He predicts “I think the government will ban the use of tuk tuks in the future. They think we cause traffic jams. In five or ten years time I don’t think there will be anymore tuk tuks.”
It is a story of changing times. As an outsider looking in, Cambodia seems to be going through major transitions, entering a new phase of accelerated development. The challenge will be to find a balance between efficiency and equality while at the same time preserving historical icons like the cylcos and tuk tuks that have been part of the charm and character of Cambodia’s cultural identity.
It’s hard to believe there would ever come a time when Cambodia wouldn't have an abundance of tuk tuks filling every street corner, that at some point in the future there would be a Tuk Tuk Conservation Association. But 20 years ago, perhaps no one ever thought there would be a Conservation Association for Cyclos either. I hope in 10 years time, there will still be an Amazing Tuk Tuk race, not Amazing taxi race. It just wouldn’t be the same nostalgic experience.
What do you think? Will tuk tuks go away in the next 5 to 10 years?