Loitering on Street 21 in Phnom Penh’s Tonle Bassac commune, 35-year-old Yim said he’s scheming up a new plan to attract tourists and expats to his tuk tuk.
He plans to start working later into the night, picking up the packs of sodden foreigners trickling away from Bassac Lane or the clubs and girly bars on Street 51. And if they ask for his phone number at the end of the ride, he thinks he’ll be set to start making money again.
The market for tuk tuk drivers is growing more crowded, forcing the rural residents who could previously support themselves on a simple taxi service to step up their service or find a new job.
“Before I had 3 to 4 [regular customers],” Yim said, leaning against a friend’s tuk tuk in a collared, short-sleeve shirt and ball cap. “Now I have none.”
He said he manages to find a few customers each day, saying he had just one by 1:30 p.m. on a Thursday.
“I haven’t had any today,” said Dara, another driver lounging across from Yim in the tuk tuk.
Street 21 used to deliver dozens of dollars to the tuk tuk driving community through its population of expats and wealthy Khmer families, the main target base for tuk tuk drivers. The trendy bars of Bassac Lane, right around the corner, pull in expats and some savvy tourists, which tuk tuk drivers can court for a ride.
But Yim and Dara have spent more time waiting that driving in the past few months. Car hailing apps, already ubiquitous in cities from Chiang Rai to Jakarta, are being used more often in Phnom Penh. U.S. ride hailing company Uber launched last month in Phnom Penh, with Singapore-based Grab to enter the city soon. Many residents have already converted to PassApp, Exnet Taxi or EZGo to call a tuk tuk.
Many expats or well-traveled Cambodians are already familiar with the process, but most people start using the system because it’s cheaper than a tuk tuk ride and requires no haggling.
But this constructs a wall for low income tuk tuk drivers, who don’t have enough money to buy into the tuk tuk app system.
The problem is not the app system, but the style of tuk tuk used. The three-wheeled, bulbous tuk tuks are a product of India, using LPG, or liquefied petroleum gas, which costs a few thousand riel fewer per liter than traditional petrol. So the drivers still make a profit from delivering rides at 3,000 riel in the first kilometer and 1,200 riel for each km further.
The LPG-guzzling tuk tuks are lauded for their reduced CO2 emissions, but the initial purchase of those vehicles is often impossible for provincial tuk tuk drivers. The tuk tuks, sourced in India and manufactured in Phnom Penh, cost $2,500 last year, according to the Khmer Times. Many drivers already have to pull out a loan to handle the $650 it takes to buy a traditional chariot-style tuk tuk that fits on the back of motorbikes.
“If the customers want a ride now, they call the tuk tuks from India,” Yim said. “It’s cheaper than my tuk tuk.”
Most of the customers Yim and Dara can snatch in a day are Cambodians, who can haggle a price down to the razor-thin cost of a $1 or 6,000 riel.
“Today I had one customer and got $1,” Yim complained, losing the laidback demeanor to frustration. “It’s stupid.”
Yim never had to take out a loan to purchase his livelihood, but he’s starting to consider different jobs: he hears security guards earn a decent wage. But he also likes working with foreigners: they’re easier to hustle than locals, he says through a laugh.
“I don’t know what I can do now, because I didn’t have any life, I only was a tuk tuk driver. Maybe go back to the province to help my parents,” he says with some concern, but Yim quickly laughs it off. “Maybe I’ll be a farmer.”