See you again in September
It is a common enough sight to see tuk-tuk drivers sound asleep with their bare feet sticking outside their vehicles, mostly rented for $100 a month more or less, when the sun is high.
Less frequently, a pedestrian may well spot drivers taking more than a short nap when it is dark.
There is a simple reason: Their tuk-tuks are also their home.
The drivers are essentially otherwise homeless when in Phnom Penh, but they likely have families in the provinces, where there isn’t enough work for them.
Shops, which usually hose off the sidewalks, often have outside water sources that the drivers can use without anyone seeming to mind. Trees next to construction fences tend to be favored for bladder relief. Drivers also can take advantage of buildings in which businesses supply unlocked exterior toilet facilities in out-of-the-way corners for their security guards and other employees.
Aside from basic needs that are available outside their tuk-tuks, the drivers carry their clothes under the seats. Hang small baskets and small bags overhead for daily necessities.
For Cambodians who operate the traditional tuk-tuks seen here, business is slumping. They languish around intersections or hotels for hours waiting for a fare worth only a few dollars. Like other cities, airport fares are treasured. The charge can be $10 for a ride that can take an hour or much more.
What is hurting the drivers is new apps, which are gaining in popularity. The apps operate like Uber (which Grab purchased in March, causing the name to disappear) and relatively sleek options from India.
You can summon a newly designed type of vehicle, taxi or tuk-tuk, pay significantly less than a traditional tuk-tuk and avoid having to negotiate a price, which the app determines. Passengers who do not speak Khmer can rely on the apps’ mapping feature, which directs the driver to the pick-up point and destination. Expats and tourists tend to favor them.
In addition, the modern tuk-tuks are pretty stylish, though their capacity is smaller than most of the older ones. The drivers who rent them are not happy with their income any more than when they drove the traditional models. Because the fares are lower and the expenses are higher, they may not make much money in the end.
They see joining the competition as preferable to fighting it. They don’t believe they have a choice.
Although the biggest tuk-tuks are convenient for merchandise and large passenger loads — sometimes more Cambodians squeezed literally on top of each other in quantities beyond counting as they go by — their days are numbered. They seem increasingly to be losing ground to the new ones, and it would not be surprising to see more of them being turned into “homes.”
Their saving grace is that the tuk-tuks face no competition from the manner of transport that garment and construction workers must endure. The vehicles the workers use provide nothing like comfort or dignity, and they frequently have proved to be dangerous with some frequency.
It almost always is sad to see tradition bow to progress, and progress can be especially cruel where opportunity is limited.