Cyclo drivers pose for a photo with tourists in
central Phnom Penh.
Through bustling traffic in the dusty and smoky town of Phnom Penh,
a group of cyclo drivers are taking tourists on a journey of discovery.
Sitting in the open front of the cyclo, with the driver at the back, I was
transported back in time, feeling like an elegant Chinese mandarin riding in
his rickshaw to collect his taxes from the peasants, as they did back in the
good old, bad old days.
Packed with all kinds of vehicles, Phnom Penh is rapidly becoming more and
more urbanized, with more and more people from rural areas moving into the
city looking for employment. Phnom Penh has a population of 1 million,
packed into an area of five square kilometers, out of the entire country’s
population of 14 million. The town’s economy has been thriving on the growth
of tourism for the last five years. With this fast pace of economic growth
and urbanization, it is inevitable that Phnom Penh is experiencing
“It’s very good, very exciting,” said a tourist from Canada. “Riding along
the Sihamouni Boulevard, I could see the locals staring at us - some smiling
and waving. Cyclos are a good idea to promote clean, non-polluting
transportation, thus protecting the environment, and providing tourists with
a fascinating travel experience. The government should definitely support
This is the opinion of one of the tourists from GAP Adventures, a company
based in Canada, which has been supporting the Cyclo Foundation in Cambodia
for the last five years. With many tourists embracing cyclos, their drivers,
all from the poorest class of society in the rural countryside of Cambodia,
compete for road-space with noisy and smoky vehicles ranging from old,
worn-out motorbikes, tuk-tuks to luxurious and expensive large cars.
At times, while riding in cyclos, I found myself sandwiched by motorbikes
and land cruisers, with horns being over-used by all the motor vehicle
drivers to intimidate our cyclo driver. “It’s noisy, dusty and smoky, and
it’s not an easy ride on the streets of Phnom Penh. You’ve got to be very
careful,” said Paula, 22, a polite young cyclo man from Kampong Thom
Province. “Constant blowing of horns can make you feel irritated, even
though everyone has the right of way and the streets belong to everyone.”
With no signs of worry on his face, Paula tries his best to ensure a safe
and fun ride for the tourists who visit this great capital city of Cambodia.
The cyclo drivers show no fear of the horns and the other vehicles trying to
force them to move faster or even run them off the street, and just keep
riding calmly. According to Paula, “The noisy horn is quite normal in Phnom
Penh, so I’m used to it, especially during the rush hour. But the most
annoying thing is the smoke emitted from all those old vehicles. I don’t
know about other countries, but here in Phnom Penh it really is bad.”
Paula is one amongst thousands of cyclo drivers who come from the rural
areas to look for better opportunities - but end up driving cyclos for
tourists as a living.
“Driving a cyclo is a start for us in Phnom Penh, as you don’t require any
educational background, paperwork, or complicated skills. You can do it as
long as you can pedal. Fortunately, I was lucky to be able to join the Cyclo
Foundation, which helped me find a cheap cyclo to rent and provided basic
training in English as well as helping to find customers.”
When asked how he found and joined the Cyclo Foundation, Paula gave credit
to friends and relatives who persuaded him to join this forward-looking,
not-for-profit organization set up to help cyclo drivers from rural areas.
According to Sambat, Cyclo Aid Project’s Coordinator, the foundation was set
up, not only to provide support to the cyclo drivers, but to help alleviate
poverty and reduce or solve the city’s environmental and social problems
through using cyclos.
“We came up with the idea of helping cyclo drivers because they are a group
of desperate men from the countryside who come to the big city to look for a
job,” says Sambat. “Yes, these people are desperate in terms of their lack
of education, qualifications, skills or money. They don’t have money to
invest in anything. They don’t have a place to stay in town - they sleep in
their cyclos. Imagine what it’s like when it rains! They come to the city
with friends, and they can’t find any other job because of their lack of
qualifications. This job is for those living below the poverty line - most
of the drivers are too poor to even live in poor communities, with many
still living in their vehicles on the streets of the city.”
The foundation provides cyclo drivers with a place where they can take a
shower, socialize, and get together for their regular meetings and training
sessions. Driving cyclos enables them to earn money from tourists with the
possibility of big tips if they please their passengers.
According to Sambat, “Basically, Phnom Penh has no public buses - the more
it grows the more motor vehicles are used because of their convenience, fast
pace, and better social status. Now, in the city, we have motorbike
gangsters who enjoy causing air and noise pollution. They think they are
better than others, just because of their irritating motorbikes.
“Through this project we can reflect on the social and environmental
situation and also run an anti-smoking campaign as it is related to the
environment. I am pretty sure that the cyclo drivers are not only proud of
their clean, carbon-free service to tourists, and also proud of their clean
life with no smoking puffing out of their mouths!”
The Cambodian government has invited the project’s organisers to run an
environmental campaign - Sambat considers that such a project would benefit
the entire Cambodian community. The Cyclo project currently supports over
1,000 drivers from poor, rural areas, who undergo a training and
rehabilitation programme when they join the foundation. Perhaps this is a
seriously fine idea for other large cities in South East Asia – Chiang Mai,
For more details, or to support the project, please visit www.cyclo.org.uk.
Kris Dhiradityakul is a freelance travel journalist. He can be reached at
Phnom Penh cyclo drivers find an ingenious way
to sleep with their vehicles.