THE CYCLOS OF PHNOM PENH
Claude Marthaler meets the rickshaw riders of Cambodia’s capital city, who provide transport for tourist and locals on their characteristic cyclos, in which the passenger rides at the front. A new Cyclo Centre is offering new hope to a troubled industry…
PLUNGE into the jungle of Phnom Penh’s Monivong Boulevard or take a stroll along Street 136, near the Central Market, at any time of the day. Take one of the 1400-odd single-seat, slow and comfortable cyclos of the capital to feel its crazy pulse. You’re sitting comfortably, very close to the ground, propelled by a rider aged anything from 16 to over 70 years old. Your ride represents direct support for the city’s poorest and least-privileged citizens, and an environmentally-friendly way to discover the wonders of bustling and polluted Phnom Penh. Welcome to the land of the cyclo! Commissioned in 1936 by the colonial Mayor of Phnom Penh to replace the city’s hand-pulled rickshaws, the French engineer Maurice Coupeaud created a prototype of a unique pedal-powered conveyance. It was a sort of pushcycle, with the rider sitting behind the passenger – because the mayor thought that it would be improper for the rider, usually an indigenous male, to be placed between the legs of a colonial French woman. This original cyclo appeared across the Indo-China peninsula in different versions. In 1939, Coupeaud himself rode one of his machines from Phnom Penh to Saigon in just over seventeen hours. A year later, 200 of them were working in Hanoi, Vietnam. Though production of these original cyclos has long since ceased, restored ones are still in use today. Though the Cyclo is versatile, accessible and (dirt) cheap, its future is threatened by economic development. Just like the rickshaw riders of Lhasa, Tibet (see Issue 30), the cyclo riders are clinging onto a niche threatened by an increasing number of moto-dop (small motorbike-taxis), tuk-tuk (motorised trailer-taxis) and buses, which are perhaps even more comfortable and are definitively quicker. They’re also seen as more modern and aspirational, not least by the city authorities. Year by year, the numbers are decreasing. At the time of the post-Pol Pot regime (1979), there were about 10600 Cyclos in Phnom Penh. By 1989 there were still 9646 on the road, according to the city’s Department of Municipal Transport, but from then onwards no new registrations have been issued, in an attempt to reduce their number.
VELOVISION ISSUE 32 DECEMBER 2008 8 And for some time the cyclos were not allowed to work in the city centre, their only really profi table location. By 1999 the situation was brought into focus by a survey of pedicab drivers conducted by local NGO The Urban Resource Centre. This led to the establishment of the Cyclo Centre in the city, both to provide facilities for riders and to offer a focus for efforts to promote cyclos and their interests. Initial funding came from a sponsored cycle ride, organized by Cambodian and foreign volunteers, and thereafter a number of individuals and organizations have assisted in meeting running costs. Not least, it gives cyclo riders a unifi ed voice. “The only chance for this cultural Phnom Penh trademark to survive is tourism” says Ms Nouv Sarany, the Cambodianborn co-ordinator of the Cyclo Centre. She would like the Government to create more Cyclo Centres modelled on the ones in Hanoi, Vietnam, which provide one-stop-shops for both bookings by tourists and rider facilities. But she’s also convinced that the cyclos need to work on their own image,
too: “For cyclos to have a future in Phnom Penh, we need to change the perception of the cyclo driver. The public sees some cyclo drivers drinking wine and smoking or playing cards... so they think all cyclos are just lazy”. This perception may be because the riders, often hailing from rural areas, eke out a meagre living in the city, returning to their villages only at rice planting or harvesting time. Many have no home in the city and so spend both days and nights on the road. Most (around 80%) rent their vehicles rather than owning a cyclo themselves, with the payments further cutting into income. Most of the cyclos are old, restored and ungeared. And heavy. Empty, they can weigh 60 kg. The riders also face dealing with the often corrupt police force, who seem to consider cyclos as easy targets. Riders have been chased, robbed while sleeping in their vehicles, or even taken to the police-station and pressured for money. In the face of such diffi culties, the Cyclo Centre offers riders opportunities for information exchange, advice on human rights, access to social services, health services and emergency aid. It also provides English language lessons, social activities, a small library, vocational training and free hair cuts. Programmes are available on stopping smoking and for HIV/AIDS education. These services have attracted a high proportion of the city’s cyclo riders to register – it’s free. Nobody knows the precise total of cyclos in the city, but in 2008, 1335 cyclos were registered at the centre, and over 1400 used the facilities. Perhaps the Centre’s highest-profi le initiative to improve the image of cyclo riders came in March 2004, when 22 riders and a support group of 19 undertook a symbolic ride over the 340 km between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. At that time, many sections of the route were unsurfaced, and in late March temperatures would soar into the 40s C. The experience of a lifetime for the 41 determined riders who took part, and a positive story for the Phnom Penh public to hear about cyclos. Was it a turning point for the cyclos’ fortunes? Encouraging news has just come in from the Centre. They have forged links with local tour companies to provide a lucrative ‘Cyclo Tour’ for tourists visiting the city. Nouv Sarany, clearly delighted, says “The Tourist Booking Service is now one of the Centre’s main focuses, and will be a mainstay of our work in 2008 and beyond”.
KINGS OF THE ROAD
Kings of the Road, The Cyclos of Phnom Penh by Robert Joiner.
The lavishly illustrated, 100 page book from 2005 is a unique historical record of the cyclos, and a homage to the riders. It is available at the Centre and in other outlets in Phnom Penh, or direct from the author. It also explains the work of the Cyclo Centre in more detail. Profi ts from the sale of the book go to the Centre. Robert Joiner is a New-Zealand photo-journalist who lived and worked for three years in Phnom Penh as part of the New Zealand Volunteer Service Abroad scheme. Contact him by email to enquire about copies of the book: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Cyclo Centre Phnom Penh: House 9AEo, Street 158, Sangat Boung Raing, Khan Deun Penh, Phnom Penh, Kingdom of Cambodia. Fixed line telephone and fax: 023 991 178. Website: www.cyclo.org.uk
Claude Marthaler is the author of two books: a travelogue now in three languages: Le Chant des Roues (in French), Durchgedreht (in German) and Il canto delle ruote (in Italian). His picture book from his round-the-world ride: Dans la roue du monde (in French) was reviewed in Issue 16, and many other issues contain his articles. His new travelogue Entre Selle et Terre – 3 ans à vélo en Afrique et en Asie will come out in spring 2009, published by Olizane, Switzerland. Claude can be contacted on: email@example.com , or see www.yaksite.org
ISSUE 32 DECEMBER 2008 VELOVISION 9