Sitting on his cyclo – bicycle powered rickshaws with a passenger seat in front of the driver – and wearing a white plastic rain parka, Chheng Sam Ol was guessing that once it started raining there’d be no more customers for him to drive that day.
This meant that for the whole of Sunday, July 10 he had earned a total of just 6,000 riel from two clients.
“Today I only got 6,000 riel after I served only two customers from morning until evening. Every day there are some customers going to and from the market but I haven’t made much money recently,” said Sam Ol, 70.
From transporting tourists every day to all of them disappearing due to the pandemic and the resulting near-total shutdown of international travel, Sam Ol saw his income drop to zero and he was only able to get by through charitable donations.
Even though restrictions on travellers were lifted in Cambodia quite some time ago, tourism has not yet fully rebounded and Sam Ol still finds himself spending more time waiting for customers than actually driving them.
“I have been a cyclo driver for 20 years. Since Covid-19 began I have had more and more difficulties. Before the outbreak of Covid, there were foreign tourists who came and rode in my cyclo. Now, I get only a few customers, sometimes it has been just one or two clients in an entire month.
“I used to earn money every day of the week and sometimes the travellers would give me good tips,” he said.
Sam Ol, who is originally from Svay Rieng, said that 6,000 riel is not enough for his daily expenses but sometimes he gets donations of food from philanthropists.
Sam Ol lives in his cyclo, parking at night or when resting in the lot in front of Wat Ounalom and using the public toilets at Veal Preah Meru as his bathroom.
“Some days, I can earn over 10,000 riel in a day, but sometimes I get nothing – not even one hundred riel. Few cyclo drivers are lucky enough now to encounter travellers on any given day. I rarely have money left to send home. If I can, I try to send 70,000-80,000 riel per month to my wife,” Sam Ol told The Post, adding that most of his family works at a factory in Bavet City of Svay Rieng province.
Im Sambath, president of the Cyclo and Career Conservation Association (CCCA), said that Covid-19 has impacted cyclo drivers severely and the number of cyclo drivers has declined slightly after some of them opted to go find work in construction.
“Before the Covid-19 pandemic, there were about 300 of them with numbers trending downwards. There are 280 drivers today, but not all of them are currently in Phnom Penh. There is a fixed number in Phnom Penh of 220, while the others switch back and forth between their hometown and working in Phnom Penh because they also work in the rice fields,” Sambath said.
Ok Mao, 53, originally from Kampong Trabek district in Prey Veng province, has been driving a cyclo since 1987, claiming that back then he was paid in coins worth one, two or five riel and that he made a lot of money due to his popularity.
After being freed from working in the rice fields once the seedlings were planted, he’d leave his pets with his grandmother and come to Phnom Penh to drive a cyclo until he returned home at harvest time in October or November.
Mao now finds himself in the same situation as Sam Ol – earning only 5,000 riel a day on average.
“When the harvest is over, I will return to Phnom Penh. But now I cannot even earn 100,000 riel per month to send to my grandmother,” he said.
Another cyclo driver with gray hair who parked in the same area near the Wat as Mao and Sam Ol agreed with their assessments.
“Of course, before Covid-19, our business was good because we transported tourists every day and sometimes we gave long tours two or three times per day. Now there are fewer visitors, maybe one every one or two months,” he said.
The youth-run food drive initiative Local4Local was launched in April 2021 during the darkest days of the pandemic for cyclo drivers and homeless people due to the city-wide lockdowns. They made it their mission to provide food to the city’s most vulnerable and impoverished residents.
Sambath said that since the lockdown days in Phnom Penh, the Local4Local project has helped not only cyclo drivers but also many other people dwelling on the streets, especially scavengers and beggars. The project made donations of food and other supplies to those living on the streets.
“When we donate, we distribute not only to cyclo drivers, but also to street dwellers, motorbike taxi drivers, homeless beggars. Local4Local was active from April 2021 until the beginning of 2022 and we helped a lot of people. We distributed 300 bags of rice and food every day,” he said.
Distribution of the food parcels was reduced to 100 packages per day until June 2022, when Local4Local changed its focus to become the Cyclo Community Pantry with the not-entirely unfamiliar slogan around these parts of “take what you need, give what you can”.
The Cyclo Community Pantries continue to be distributed at 10 locations such as Boeung Keng Kang, Toul Tompong Market, Depot Market, Central Market, Kdan 2 Roundabout and Chroy Changvar, but they have been reduced from twice a day to once in the evening between 4pm and 5pm.
Sambath said that the Cyclo community pantries were continually stocked with noodles, canned fish, clean drinking water and face masks, with all of the items donated by philanthropists. Without donations, Local4Local can only cover the purchase of noodles and drinking water on a regular basis.
“We do not receive many donations now. Sometimes we receive donations from philanthropists of small numbers of items. Originally, Taing Huang Hao from Local4Local was the buyer and he was also the one raising the donations, while I was one handling distribution for the project,” Sambath said.
The president of the CCCA said that – if the tourism sector recovers – he thinks that the number of cyclo drivers could remain stable or maybe just decrease slightly.
He thinks that by the end of 2022 the drivers will have more passengers, but it also depends on the Covid-19-related circumstances.
“Nowadays, sometimes every week, there are a few tourists riding the cyclo – which is very different from the pre-Covid-19 era, more or less, when they would transport tourists every day,” Sambath said.
Of the 280 people still driving cyclos, 75 to 80 per cent rely on tourism rather than providing regular day-to-day transport to Cambodians, he said.
“Most of them are between 50 and 70 years old and have no choice but to continue to drive cyclos having done it for so long now, while the younger and stronger ones can switch jobs and be construction workers,” he said.
When incomes fall, they are generally left without money to buy food and rely on philanthropists heavily.
Sam Ol said he worries constantly about what he will do if he is left without resources and without anywhere to turn for help. The question marks multiply in his head as the 70-year-old can only sit on his high cyclo seat and hope the travellers of decades past return soon.
Despite his old age and the popularity of the Indian-style motorised rickshaws, he said he will still drive his cyclo as long as there are customers as he cannot afford to buy the three-wheeled motorised carts now popular with ride-hailing services.
“There is no possibility for me to buy the Indian tuk-tuk. I have no money,” said Sam Ol as he rode past Kandal market.
Local4Local founder Taing Huang Hao, who is studying abroad at St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minnesota, said he hoped his project would continue to help cyclo drivers and the underprivileged people of Phnom Penh while he is away.
“Cyclo Community Pantry is still in the process of distributing materials every day. We have been helping cyclo drivers to find tourist customers with the support of the Local4Local volunteer team, who are moving forward with new ideas,” Hao said.