Cyclo driver Nheb Bun Thoeun is standing on the balcony of his third-floor apartment on Monireth Boulevard, waiting for the rain to stop so that he can get back to work.
“When I started driving a cyclo in 1993, I could earn approximately 50,000 riel a day. Now I have to make my living with about 10,000 to 20,000 riel,” he says.
Thoeun says he is lucky his family acquired the ownership rights for the flat when they moved to Phnom Penh after the end of the Pol Pot regime.
Today he is living there with his wife and five other people, trying to earn enough to support his family.
“Over the years, most cyclo drivers turned away to look for other jobs. Many of them became tuk-tuk drivers,” he said, adding that he would like to do the same.
From Kampong Cham, he lost his father, a taxi driver, during the Pol Pot regime, which marked an early end to his education. Instead of finishing primary school, after grade four Thoeun was forced to work on a farm.
“I have not enough education to work in a good job, but I hope I can buy a tuk-tuk in five or six years. As a cyclo driver it is too difficult to make a living now.”
Over the years, Thoeun spent most of the money he earned on the education of his children. He speaks proudly of the fact his 23-year-old daughter became an English teacher.
Thoeun’s customers are mainly Cambodian; tourists play only a small role in his day-to-day business, says Thoeun, who doesn’t speak English.
While Cambodia’s middle class is growing, cars are cloging the streets and the economy is growing rapidly, cyclo drivers like Nheb have become a relic, a symbol of the French colonial rule of the early 20th century.
“The city’s development is good for most, but not for me because costs are rising and my income declines,” Thoeun says.
Only about 300 cyclo drivers now ply the capital’s streets, struggling with the traffic and tighter budgets – a number that is in decline, according to Im Sambath, president of the Cyclo Conservation and Career Association.
The government has said it is preparing to preserve the capital’s disappearing cyclos, but the drivers haven’t yet seen any investment.
Drivers like Thoeun need safe parking, a higher income and better language skills.
“For sure, I would like to get support from the government, but I think they are still too poor,” Thoeun says.
So he continues to drive his cyclo from 8.30am to 8pm every day, hoping that he will not face higher expenses.
“I prefer not to think about what would happen if I were to become sick. The money I earn, I use to pay for my wife and my four children.”