It was a late arrival at the small Phnom Penh airport on the outskirts of the atmospheric city, ever bustling with street-food, motorbikes and people busy under the dim street-lighting and the warm, humid, night sky. We got into our 1980s Jaguar, began discussing with the driver about Sinn Sissamouth, Ros Serey Sothea and the other great singers and musicians of pre-war Cambodia. It felt good to be back in a country I’ve been to many times since my first visit in 2004.
But this time there was something different about the streets. And it was only a year since our previous visit. My first thought was that we’d boarded the wrong flight and ended up in Delhi. Of course ignoring the Khmer language and the drivers on the right-side of the road.
In each direction there were Indian autorickshaws. Literally everywhere. I was starting to seriously wonder where we were. Not long after, I saw one, a Khmer style tuk-tuk. The Khmer tuk-tuks – locally called remorque from the French verb remorquer – to tow, are very distinctive, and unique to Cambodia. They are essentially two-wheel carriages, featuring beautifully carved wood, and towed by a regular motorbike, hence the name.
This aspect makes them very different to most regular autorickshaws, or tuk-tuks as they are often called, seen in Thailand and other countries that are complete engine driven three wheeled passenger carrying vehicles.
So I leaned over to the front and asked our driver what was going on. He told me that the Indian autorickshaws has started appearing on the streets of Phnom Penh in the previous few months and the drivers are mainly working through apps such as ‘Grab’. Interesting, I thought, as I sat back down, watching motorbikes speed past us, and street-vendors grilling meats to the sound of jovial groups perched on tiny plastic stools at the side of the road.
Waking up early, stepping out onto the balcony of the French-era villa we were lucky enough to stay in, overlooking the lush green coconut-palm filled courtyard, the green contrasting with the turquoise swimming pool as the hot sun streamed down from the deep blue sky, and the chanting of the monks coming from the nearby temple soothed the mind. I picked up some news reports of issues facing the drivers of traditional Khmer remorques. It became clear that many of the drivers of traditional remorques are losing business to the new Indian autorickshaws.
As the Indian autorickshaws take bookings mainly through an app, the fare is regulated, and it is also cheaper. The lower fares are directly because autorickshaws run on more cost-efficient LPG. The Khmer remorques run on petrol, and fares are determined by haggling with the driver. If you have a stubborn driver or don’t know what is a fair fare, you may also end up overpaying.
Any visitor to Phnom Penh will know that there appears to be a surplus of remorque drivers on the roads. It seems like everywhere you go, a driver will ask you if you need a ride. Some of the streets near the river in central Phnom Penh, especially around Sisowath Quay are absolutely teeming with remorques awaiting fares. So business for these drivers has always been tough and competitive. But now with the introduction of a technology driven competitor, things have become even harder.
Reports suggest that some drivers have seen a 50% reduction in their earnings.
So as we left our accommodation, I had it in my mind that we should avoid taking the invasive species of autorickshaw, instead supporting the traditional Khmer remorque.
As with many guesthouses and hotels in Phnom Penh, the drivers wait outside for fares, knowing among themselves which driver is due to take the next passengers. As we walked out onto the street, we were immediately asked if we needed a ride, we replied that we did, and were directed to an Indian autorickshaw. At that point I admit to not fully understanding that there the drivers were operating on a queue system so I said to the driver that we would prefer to go in a traditional style remorque, gesturing over to another driver. He looked visibly annoyed, and when he explained they were operating on a queue basis, I had really lost the argument.
After apologising for not realising they were in a queue, he asked me why I prefered to take the traditional remorque. I explained that I heard about the struggles of the traditional remorque drivers, and that I wanted to support them. He seemed understanding, but then went on to tell me that he had invested thousands of dollars in an Indian autorickshaw which he was very happy with. He said that it is safer than the old style, and a much better drive.
So getting off at the impressive 1920s art-deco Central Market, we were left with a dilemma, to continue taking only the traditional style remorques, or to give all drivers equal business, whatever vehicle they are driving. Given the financial investment drivers have clearly made, the latter seemed the fairest option. But I had decided to stick to old fashioned hailing a ride, and haggling for the price, rather than using an app. In any case, I was not using a mobile phone in Cambodia outside of accommodation wifi.
Almost all drivers that asked us if we needed a ride, or seemed available to take passengers were driving the traditional remorques. So as it happened, as we didn’t download the app, that one journey was the only one we took in an Indian style tuk-tuk.
It is not clear whether traditional style remorques will be joining an app, but for many travellers who don’t use a smartphone outside of wifi,or at all, preferring to be offline when they travel, the traditional style remorque is the choice.
As another driver of a traditional remorque told me, with a proud smile on his face, the Indian autorickshaws will never completely take-over the Khmer remorques simply because of capacity; they can pretty much only take two adults. Contrast this with the Khmer remorques which can take at least four or five adults, plus a whole load of luggage.
Looking around on the streets of the city, at all the Khmer remorques full with extended families and vast amounts of shopping, furniture and every article you can think of, I think he is right, Khmer remorques may be up against a challenge, but it’s a challenge they are likely to win.