Going Nowhere Fast: The Plight of Phnom Penh’s Traditional Transport Workers

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Going Nowhere Fast: The Plight of Phnom Penh’s Traditional Transport Workers

The struggle of cyclo drivers exemplify Cambodia’s deepening inequality.

Going Nowhere Fast: The Plight of Phnom Penh’s Traditional Transport Workers
Credit: Phnom Penh cyclo driver image via Indochina studio /

 Turn left, turn right, stop light
Hello! Hello! Miss! Where are you heading to?

These lyrics, taken from Jeas Cyclo [Cyclo Riding], one of the most enduring pop hits of Cambodia’s first period of independence from 1953-1975, attest to the supposedly unchanging nature of this uniquely Southeast Asian form of transport. As they were more than four decades ago, cyclo drivers remain a fixture of the streets of Phnom Penh, silently responding to the directions of their passengers when occupied and calling for business when vacant. Indeed, to the external observer, cyclo riding work appears to have altered little since Yol Aularong first set down his observations in song, in 1974.

This, however, is the great illusion of an industry that has come increasingly to depend upon nostalgic associations such as these. Recent research shows that in reality, although the cyclos, the passengers, and even the riders themselves in many cases, can trace their current endeavors to the pre-war era, the nature of the role is vastly different. What Yol Aularong described as a low paid but nevertheless vital element in the city’s transport system, ubiquitously used and seen, has become an anachronism employed by a diminishing circle of curious tourists and elderly conservatives. Customers are fewer, trips shorter, and daily income – at under $5 per day – even further below the capital’s median.

Such changes to an occupation might have been expected to attract an entirely different cohort of riders compared to the days when cyclo riding was a family trade, often passed from father to son. Yet the men operating the cyclos of today are amongst Cambodia’s longest serving migrants, having survived in a changing trade for almost 20 years on average. Most therefore began this work when the country’s long standing, demagogic leader Hun Sen was still “second prime minister” to Prince Rannaridh in the mid 1990s; and some when Lon Nol led Cambodia’s first independent democracy in the 1960s. Through war, occupation, peace, and almost unimaginable change, they have stubbornly pedaled the same streets, even as they sprouted tarmac, street lights, commerce, and wealth.

Through all this time, though, Phnom Penh’s cyclo riders have been engaged also on a longer and far more draining journey. The vast majority – around 94 percent – are circular migrants who retain a household in the countryside and travel to Phnom Penh only for a few days or weeks at a time. On average, riders switch the city for the fields every fortnight, meaning that each has made an average of 700 trips to the capital, some more than double this. This life of constant movement juxtaposes sharply with the immobility of cyclo riders’ livelihoods. They have been powerless to resist a gradual decline in the social status of their work and – most notably in a city of ostensibly booming opportunity – equally powerless to escape it.

In this respect, though their numbers are small, they constitute a microcosm of a far wider malady in Cambodia’s contemporary society. Namely, the expansion of Cambodia’s modern sector workforce does not, as is often supposed, constitute an abandonment of the hardships and inequalities of rural agriculture. Rather, urban workers remain intimately tied to their rural households, sending home almost half of their urban incomes to service the needs of family and farm.

Only in this context is the fast motion stasis of Phnom Penh’s cyclo riding community fully explicable. Like four-fifths of their counterparts in the urban workforce, they were farmers before migrating and remain farmers today. Parched fields and the rising cost of fertilizer and rural labor drains their urban earnings continually, trapping them in a Sisyphean cycle of meager harvests, agricultural debt, and 14 hour days traversing Phnom Penh’s traffic choked streets in search of meager fares. Most have cause to lament their incessant labors, as did one 70-year-old rider last year:

“I will continue for maybe a year and then stop, because now I’m getting older and older and weaker every day. After that, I will go home to my home village because my eyes are not good [any more] and I can’t see clearly…I dislike this work because it hurts my legs every day, but I have no other option, so I have to do it.”

Far from being an outlier, Long Viasna is entirely typical of migrant Cambodia. High prices and low wages in the capital, combined with the deepening struggles of smallholder agriculture in one of the world’s most climate vulnerable countries, mean that an increasing proportion of Cambodia’s migrant workforce – from garment workers to construction workers to garbage workers – are not saving for a better future, integrating into urban life, or rising in their living standards. Rather, like the former lynchpins of their transport system, they are simply cycling nowhere fast.

A researcher of Cambodian mobile livelihoods since 2008, Dr. Laurie Parsons is an affiliate researcher to King’s College London and has conducted large scale projects for Save the Children, CARE International, ActionAid, the IDRC and the Royal University of Phnom Penh amongst others. His work investigates the impact of mass labor migration and ecological change on the culture and social structures of Cambodia.