THE CYCLOS OF PHNOM PENH
Claude Marthaler meets the rickshaw riders of Cambodia’s capital city, who provide transport for tourist and locals on their characteristic cyclos, in which the passenger rides at the front. A new Cyclo Centre is offering new hope to a troubled industry…
PLUNGE into the jungle of Phnom Penh’s Monivong Boulevard or take a stroll along Street 136, near the Central Market, at any time of the day. Take one of the 1400-odd single-seat, slow and comfortable cyclos of the capital to feel its crazy pulse. You’re sitting comfortably, very close to the ground, propelled by a rider aged anything from 16 to over 70 years old. Your ride represents direct support for the city’s poorest and least-privileged citizens, and an environmentally-friendly way to discover the wonders of bustling and polluted Phnom Penh. Welcome to the land of the cyclo! Commissioned in 1936 by the colonial Mayor of Phnom Penh to replace the city’s hand-pulled rickshaws, the French engineer Maurice Coupeaud created a prototype of a unique pedal-powered conveyance. It was a sort of pushcycle, with the rider sitting behind the passenger – because the mayor thought that it would be improper for the rider, usually an indigenous male, to be placed between the legs of a colonial French woman. This original cyclo appeared across the Indo-China peninsula in different versions. In 1939, Coupeaud himself rode one of his machines from Phnom Penh to Saigon in just over seventeen hours. A year later, 200 of them were working in Hanoi, Vietnam. Though production of these original cyclos has long since ceased, restored ones are still in use today. Though the Cyclo is versatile, accessible and (dirt) cheap, its future is threatened by economic development. Just like the rickshaw riders of Lhasa, Tibet (see Issue 30), the cyclo riders are clinging onto a niche threatened by an increasing number of moto-dop (small motorbike-taxis), tuk-tuk (motorised trailer-taxis) and buses, which are perhaps even more comfortable and are definitively quicker. They’re also seen as more modern and aspirational, not least by the city authorities. Year by year, the numbers are decreasing. At the time of the post-Pol Pot regime (1979), there were about 10600 Cyclos in Phnom Penh. By 1989 there were still 9646 on the road, according to the city’s Department of Municipal Transport, but from then onwards no new registrations have been issued, in an attempt to reduce their number.
VELOVISION ISSUE 32 DECEMBER 2008 8