A tuk-tuk is not a tuk-tuk is not a tuk-tuk, as the saying might go. And that certainly is the case in Phnom Penh.
When you see those brightly colored tuk-tuks nestled together like rolling hedgehogs in front of the FCC, it’s easy to think that such a scene is the most natural thing in the world. But tuk-tuks have not always been.
While there is no expert on Khmer tuk-tuks at the local university (yet), there are some generally agreed upon facts (sort of).
Tuk-tuks started appearing around Phnom Penh in late 2003, after debuting in Siem Reap some years earlier.
Fortunately, they did not mimic the Thai version that belches and stutters and lists from side to side like an unstable 3-wheel disaster waiting to unfold. In a Thai-style tuk-tuk you can’t see a bloody thing either, because the roofs extend down much too far.
Not so with the Cambodian three-wheeler, or kong by, which literally means “three wheels.”
Most Cambodian trikes are built like a covered carriage and afford views in every direction. In fact, the kong-by is modeled on the ageless Cambodian remorque, or horse-draw flatbed trailer. They are safer than motodops and more comfortable, and even can haul stuff too.
The men — it’s always a man — who commandeer these 3-wheel carts have stories as varied as the colorful, custom-painted carriages they drive. For Lo, a 38-year-old native of Takeo, driving a tuk-tuk was natural evolution.
“I was a cyclo driver for many years,” he says. “I saved and bought a moto because you can make more money.”
“Then I saw a moto with a cart on the back, and I wanted one. I borrowed money from my family and had one made,” Lo says.
It’s a good deal for the tuk-tuk driver because the cart simply attaches to an existing moto, usually a Daliem Citi model. The tuk-tuk driver can charge double or more what he would have charged as a moto driver before.
“Tourists prefer the tuk-tuk because it is nicer and safer. But local people like it too — they can carry many things. I painted mine green to make tourists happy to use my tuk-tuk,” Lo says.
Perhaps the only down side to the tuk-tuk is that they take up a fair amount of space on the road and help clog the already congested arteries of Phnom Penh. But rather these beasts than the massive Lexus SUVs and humongous Hummers. Welcome to the Darwinian hierarchy of the road, I say. Fight for your space.
As part of the tuk-tuk’s evolution, drivers are now discovering the value of customizing their rig. The more distinctive and eye-catching they make their machines the more likely they will attract the attention of customers.
While Cambodian tuk-tuks have yet to reach the level of ornate decoration and cultural expression seen in the world famous Filipino Jeepneys or large Indian busses, they are evolving. They are evolving in their own unique Khmer aesthetic, and that can only add to the delight of the visual landscape of the capital of the Kingdom.
The author, Bradford Edwards, is an artist and writer living in Phnom Penh.