Cambodia: As rickshaws get cycled out, some look back

In Cambodia a decade ago, some 10,000 cyclo drivers – as rickshaws are called here – wheeled along Phnom Penh streets. Today there are fewer than 1,500.

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    Cyclo driver Porn Eab stands by his machine.
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A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

For six years, Porn Eab has pedaled his rusting rickshaw along Phnom Penh’s narrow lanes and wide avenues. The work leaves him exhausted at the end of the day, when the wiry man parks his rickshaw in an alleyway and beds down for the night on its bucket seat.

“It’s a hard job. It makes my legs tired,” says Mr. Porn while he waits for customers, one hand resting on his cyclo, as the vehicles are known here.

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But the cyclo, once an iconic fixture in this bustling Asian city, has seen better days. Some 10,000 cyclo drivers wheeled along Phnom Penh streets a decade ago. Today there are fewer than 1,500 cyclos here, according to a local advocacy group that helps the often-impoverished cyclo drivers.

“People take pity on the cyclo drivers,” says Im Sambath, a project officer with the Cyclo Center. “They think the work is too hard for the drivers, so they are reluctant to take them.”

It’s also a sign of changing times. Although Cambodia remains one of the poorest countries in the region, its economy has pushed forward over the past decade. The city’s once placid streets have become thick with traffic. “Cambodians want to be modern,” says Mr. Im. “The economy is developing. People want to use faster vehicles because they think the cyclo is slow.”

Indeed, wheeling down Monivong Boulevard, a main thoroughfare that bisects the city, a cyclo is passed by a swarm of motorcycles, trucks, and flashy new cars. Huffing and puffing in the curb lane, traffic whizzing by just inches away, the man pedaling the cyclo is quickly left behind.

And although he would rather be doing anything but this, Roeun Rom, a part-time driver and farmer, says it’s the only way to make money for his children back home in the provinces when the rice isn’t ready to be harvested. “I have no choice,” Mr. Roeun says. “I need to keep driving cyclos.”

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