Some forms of transport are inextricably linked with a particular place. Think yellow school buses in the United States, or a London black cab. Introduced to Phnom Penh streets in 1936, three-wheeler cyclos are recognisably Cambodian. They are still the vehicle of choice for women returning from the market with piles of groceries and older people who prefer the slower pace. But facing stiff competition from motodops, tuk tuks and personal car ownership, numbers have dropped from 5,000 cyclos in 1999 to less than 1000, according to Im Sambath, the head of the Cyclo Conservation and Career Association. Which is why I would like to encourage you to take a ride in a cyclo in Phnom Penh, while you have the chance.
An iconic part of the Phnom Penh street scene, the Cambodian cyclo is usually painted green, with a bucket seat between two large bicycle wheels shaded by a collapsible canopy. The seat has a scooped footrest which the driver will tilt to help you get in and out — perfect for stacking up shopping, it also protects you from other vehicles. The driver perches behind on a high seat above the third wheel, overlooking the passenger and with good visibility of the road ahead. Cyclos are pedal powered and the brakes are operated by a hand-pulled lever behind the driver, but you’ll never be travelling very fast, anyway.
Cyclos are so much a part of the national identity, there are even pop songs written about them. This comedy ballad sums up the drivers’ problems of chubby passengers, potholes and policemen.
Something strange but beautiful happens when you travel by cyclo. The pace and the seating means you have time to really observe the streets you are travelling, looking up at the architecture, the balconies and the trees. It’s no coincidence that Khmer Architecture Tours use cyclos to show off the best of Vann Molyvann’s work. You’ll notice appreciative smiles from Khmers and feel a kinship with the old ladies and their baskets, or the young mother bringing her kids back from school. Of course it would be quicker to travel by tuk tuk, but there’s nothing like the romance of silently gliding along, cool and collected while the hectic activity of Phnom Penh whirls around you.
Two of my favourite destinations to arrive by cyclo are Wat Phnom and the National Museum (saa-ra moo-un dti in Khmer). The setting and the approach are enhanced by the gentle squeak of wheels and the anticipation as the building slowly reveals itself. Ignore the motorbikes and you can imagine yourself in another decade, with more elegance and less pollution.
Taking a cyclo is not without its challenges. Cyclo drivers tend to be older, often from the countryside, and generally don’t speak much English. It’s best if you learn the Khmer name of the place you want to go, or stick to pagodas and markets as useful landmarks. You’ll find cyclo drivers congregated at markets and the roads around riverside, or you can hail any empty cyclo as it rides around. If that’s a little too daunting, arrange a cyclo tour with the Cyclo Conservation and Career Association at a travel agency or through your hotel. You’ll be taken on a tour of the sights by a cycloist sporting a lime green shirt and straw hat, and usually a gap-toothed smile.
A word on pricing. Many guidebooks will tell you that cyclos are cheaper than taking a motorbike taxi. For Cambodians, this is likely true. However, considering that you are a healthy-sized foreigner being transported by someone else’s muscles and sweat, we’d suggest this isn’t the most appropriate time to start arguing over the last 500 riel. A very short journey will set you back 2,000 riel, but otherwise expect to pay US$1 upwards. It’ll be worth every cent.
By Abigail Gilbert
Last updated on 9th March, 2013.