Wednesday, 14 February 2007

Kings of the Road

"Kings of the Road", that's what Robert an aid worker from New Zealand calls the cyclo drivers from Phnom Penh. They're somewhat of an icon, he says, and have been around for a long time - as a matter of fact since 1936. Most of the cyclos you see around town are originals - though rebuilt many times of course. Over the years though, life has become much harder. Competition for public transport is greater and prices lower - especially with the rise of tuktuks. The ever growing traffic makes work on the streets more difficult. Robert, who's written a book about Phnom Penh's cyclo drivers, says people treat them as bottom of the heap - they don't get much respect from anyone.

Around two to three thousand cyclo drivers try to make a living here in Phnom Penh - at least in the dry season. Almost all of them are farmers from the provinces. In the wet season they return to farm their land. But from November to May they're pedaling through the capital trying to earn a bit of money to send back home. And it's hard earned money. Most earn around 5,000 to 6,000 riels a day (the equivalent of $1,5) , sleep on the streets and worry about being mugged every single night as crime is on the rise.

The cyclo centre is a hole in the wall NGO, where the drivers can come to discuss their problems, have a shower, consult a doctor or learn English in the free daily classes. Today, I was invited to teach five or so cyclo drivers. I asked a lot of questions about their lives, and they asked me about mine. How is life in Germany different from Cambodia? Good question, where do I start? It's much colder over there right now... we have no cyclos... and people are a lot less friendly back home...

Robert has his doubts about how much longer cyclos will be around in Phnom Penh that's why he's determined to turn the cyclo center into a sustainable business. His plan is to select 100 or so cyclo drivers who will be taught in tourism skills such as map reading and knowing their way around the city (my experience is this skill is ALWAYS lacking - how many times have I said "I want to go to street 152 - do you know where it is?" "Yes, yes" - and ended up at the other end of town).

Robert is currenlty drawing up a business plan, getting in touch with tour operators and looking for donors for the project's pilot phase. And I've definitely changed my mind about cyclos. If you're not pressed for time, it's a wonderful way to get around in the city: it's quiet, it's serene - and while you're doing it, you're giving an income to Phnom Penh's poorest.

What does it feel like to cross a six lane avenue on a cyclo? Check out my video!


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