Located on the banks of the mighty Mekong, Phomn Penh is fast paced, modern, charming.
Motorbikes whizz through the streets without a thought for pedestrians, street vendors push hand carts and glass-walled boxes stuffed with fruit, snails, bugs and beetles and large four-wheel-drive vehicles over-ride all, blasting on the horn and storming ahead. The cyclos - a Phnom Penh institution since it's introduction in 1936 - do not seem to belong to this frantic, frenetic world; and indeed this iconic form of transport is under threat; numbers have dwindled from 9,000 in 1999 to around 1,300 on the streets of the city today.
Our cyclo driver tilted the bucket seat forwards and, climbing up onto the high bicycle saddle, pushed me out into the on-coming bedlam. We skirted traffic, and keeping up a steady rhythm, slow and sure, my cyclo driver told me about his life on the streets of the city. He said his name was Paul. He is one of the four drivers working for the CCCA ( Cyclo Conservation & Careers Association) who can explain something about the city landmarks in English. Paul's English went much further than this. He had taken English lessons for eighteen months
- 'because I want a better job'. He earns very little money, but a desire for education, and a thirst to improve his life means he will spend his hard-earned cash on such a luxury when he can afford it. Unfortunately his last English lesson was eighteen months ago. The daily income of a cyclo driver is around $1.25 a day. Competition for business is fierce. Less and less people feel inclined to take a cyclo in this modern day and age - they are too slow, drivers are often illiterate and cannot read a map, a visitor card, and often don't know where they are going. It's common to find yourself on a road to nowhere. Booking a tour through the CCCA eliminates this problem.
Paul has worked for the CCCA - formerly the CCPP (Cyclo Centre Phnom Penh) - for four years. Drivers registered with the association take it in turns taking tours, and are then paid twice a month. They receive 70/80% of the tour fee - the remainder goes on admin. fees accrued by the association. For the rest of the time they're on their own, trying to survive on the streets of Phnom Penh.
The work is very hard. Paul works from 5am until 11pm. His life is dictated by the rhythm of the street - dealers, traffic, circumstance - since he sleeps in his cyclo. He has no shelter, no protection. Sometimes he's robbed, rained on, threatened. 'I don't like Phnom Penh - it's a good place if you have money' he told me - 'everything costs here'. And he's talking about basics like laundry, a shower, food. The CCCA set up to help cyclo drivers, provides washing facilities, medical care, and offers the opportunity to learn a variety of skills - English, money management etc. Paul rents his cyclo. (Average rent fee is approx. $0.50 a day - or $1.00 if drivers sleep inside their place of rental). Paul would like to buy his own cyclo but the $100 this would cost is way beyond his means.
In spite of the chaos it was a relaxing, almost gentle way to see something of the city - for me. Paul had to contend with the heat, the potholes, - me! He smiled throughout. Our tour lasted three hours and we paid $7. So little for so much. When travelling I meet the
most amazing people, people with drive, determination, ambition; circumstances conspire against them. I often think 'there but for the grace of god...' The CCCA is a non profit organisation set up to help cyclo drivers and their families. It runs entirely on private funding. Independant travellers very seldom book a tour. To contact the CCCA: firstname.lastname@example.org Main contact: Im Sambath. Tel: 0977009762 or 012518762
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