Tourist Spot

Have you taken the cycle route? Khmer tuk-tuk not finished yet, drivers say

“Indian tuk-tuks”, which are smaller, easier to drive on narrow roads and cheaper to operate due to running on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), have rapidly grown in popularity and look likely to overtake the traditional four-wheeled tuk-tuk, or Trailer, once called the “Road Emperors”. There are, however, drivers who are dedicated to the space and tourist appeal of the traditional vehicle.

From the mid-2000s to the mid-2010s, when Chhean Vanna produced Khmer tuk-tuks, there was often not enough supply to meet demand.

However, the introduction of “Indian tuk-tuk” models, coupled with the convenience of ride-sharing apps and low service prices, has seen its orders steadily drop to almost nothing.

It used to make 20-30 tuk-tuk cars a day, each worth around $3,000, but starting in 2015 orders started to drop.

Vanna, 45, told The Post: “I stopped producing Khmer tuk-tuks during the Covid-19 pandemic because there was no demand. I am now a laborer on a sewer project. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to build any more, but the demand is almost non-existent. Indian tuk-tuks have arrived and Khmer models are no longer needed.

Vorn Pov, head of the Independent Democratic Informal Economy Association (IDEA), said around 80,000 of the three-wheeled LPG tuk-tuks were connected to ride-sharing apps in Phnom Penh. He estimated that there were about 100,000 in use across the country today.

He acknowledged that traditional tuk-tuks had almost disappeared, although a few remained on the outskirts of the capital, where they were used for transporting goods and occasional tourism.

“The disappearance of the traditional tuk-tuk is due to the Indian tuk-tuks. Indian tuk-tuks connect to apps and use LPG, so they are cheaper and more popular with passengers,” he said.

“However, tourists don’t like to ride the smaller three-wheelers, but prefer traditional tuk-tuks. In some provinces, traditional tuk-tuks are still available,” he added.

Similarly, Cheang Chin, 72, a maker of carts and trailers in Kampot’s Angkor Chey district, said there weren’t many customers because they are no longer widely used. People were more likely to use Indian patterns, known as “pass-apps”.

The old man – who has passed down his coachbuilding skills to his son – added “maybe it’s because they find them cheap”.

The “red sofa” of Phnom Penh’s traditional tuk-tuk once accommodated young and old, men and women to sit comfortably, but leather sofas are no longer so familiar and comforting. This is often due to the residual smell of the goods that drivers are forced to carry while waiting for passengers who want to enjoy the cool breeze and high visibility of a traditional tuk-tuk.

Seng Thun, a tuk-tuk driver for eight years, said he still used his traditional tuk-tuk and did not want to follow his friends in the newer style vehicles. It changed direction from transporting regular passengers to transporting goods and foreign tourists.

“Even though it was difficult during Covid-19, I now have Vietnamese passengers almost every day. They like to ride in my tuk-tuk because it is spacious, you can see a lot more of the city and they can easily carry all the goods they buy while exploring Phnom Penh,” the 52-year-old told The Post.

He said he regularly receives calls from travel and tourism companies to transport passengers. He is paid 80,000 riels a day, but some generous passengers tip him well, which means he sometimes earns 100,000 riels.

On Rue Charles De Gaulle in Siem Reap, Men Nak sat in his tuk-tuk, patiently waiting his turn to take passengers from a hotel to Siem Reap’s temples, markets and attractions.

The 38-year-old, who has been transporting passengers for nearly a decade, admitted that Cambodian passengers prefer Indian-style “pass-apps” but foreign tourists still prefer the traditional tuk-tuk.

“I’m starting to see the return of foreign tourists, but there still aren’t many,” Nak told the Post.

Nak – who depends on tourism for his income – said that despite his usual place in the tuk-tuk queue at the hotel, it sometimes took a few days before it was his turn to pick up passengers.

“Before Covid-19, I had too many passengers and I couldn’t take them all. Now there is almost no income. There is no other job I can do as I have no other skills so I will continue to drive my tuk-tuk,” he said.

“When it’s my turn to pick up tourists, I only transport them in the morning. The prices are not regular. If I take them to the nearby market, I can earn five or six dollars, but if I take them to visit the temples in Angkor park, I can earn up to 18 dollars,” he added.

Nak, a native of Takeo, said the Khmer-style vehicle is better for tourists as it can carry up to four people and offers much better views whether visiting natural and historical sites. or simply to enjoy the often – for tourists – entertaining and colorful scenes along the streets.

“Chalky”, who has been driving a Khmer tuk-tuk for more than 20 years, agrees that Khmer tuk-tuks remain the popular choice for tourists, despite the invasion of their smaller Indian brethren.

With a big black and white motorbike dragging his tuk-tuk car, he said, “From my experience of carrying passengers for many years, in terms of comfort, they prefer the traditional model more. Most Indian tuk-tuks are used for short trips.

“Passengers, especially international tourists, prefer Khmer tuk-tuks because they are more spacious. Three-wheeled models have smaller seats and permanent rain covers, making them narrow and cramped. In a Khmer tuk-tuk, we only drop the rain covers when necessary. Khmer tuk-tuks are very comfortable and more spacious, with a very comfortable breeze. The Indian models are built like a small cage, low and narrow,” he added.

The 50-year-old driver – who prefers to be called “Chalky” to make it easier for foreigners to pronounce his name – promotes his services on his Facebook page and is also registered with popular travel site Tripadvisor.

“My services this month are fully pre-booked by both domestic and international passengers. I will take them to temples, resorts and other tourist attractions,” he said.

On his Facebook page, Chalky offers plenty of tour options — including a short Angkor Archaeological Park tour that ends with a sunset over Angkor Wat — that start at just $18.

He explained that he could pick up passengers from their hotel in the morning and take them to buy their passes for the Angkor Archaeological Park. From there, they can choose to visit one of the park’s famous crown jewel, Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm – a location used in the Hollywood hit Tomb Raider – or the ancient capital of the Empire. ‘Angkor, Angkor Thom. Other popular attractions include the Bayon Temple and the Terrace of the Elephants.

Although Cambodia reopened and started welcoming tourists in November last year, the number of foreign visitors remains minimal compared to the halcyon days before Covid-19.

Meas Sopha, a tour guide who has looked to Siem Reap’s real estate sector, said based on his observations, Siem Reap still receives only a small flow of tourists compared to pre-2020 years.

“I haven’t seen many foreign tourists yet. Some guides have started to gradually resume operations and some hotels and restaurants have reopened, but the city is nowhere near as bustling as it once was,” he said.