New Futuristic Tuk-Tuks Arrive on the Streets of Phnom Penh

Most tuk-tuk drivers have to continuously vie with each other to attract tourists’ attention, but Oung Hour gets it without even trying.

As he stands on the sidewalk near the riverside, groups of tourists point at his bright mustard-yellow tuk-tuk, its smooth fiberglass body shaped like a jellybean—a slick, sci-fi-like model that’s a far cry from the traditional wooden kind.

One of Bruno Brunner's futuristic tuk-tuks transports a passenger down Sisowath Quay in Phnom Penh on Tuesday. (Siv Channa)
One of Bruno Brunner’s futuristic tuk-tuks transports a passenger down Sisowath Quay in Phnom Penh on Tuesday. (Siv Channa)

The rounded tuk-tuks arrived in Phnom Penh in November via Bruno Brunner, a Swiss national who runs a motorcycle rental business.

“The tuk-tuks are modern and fit for 2014,” Mr. Brunner said. “And the passengers love this tuk-tuk.”

The new look is the most recent change for the ubiquitous Phnom Penh tuk-tuk, of which there are now more than 6,000 in the city, according to the Independence Democratic of Informal Economic Association (IDEA), a union that represents tuk-tuk drivers among other members.

Initially influenced by Chinese rickshaws, the carts first came to Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge era, said Samnang Pok, president of the Cambodia Tourist Guide Association. In 1980, the carts returned as trailers, five meters long and able to shuttle 20 to 30 people as well as their goods.

The long trailers were difficult to integrate into crowded city streets, however, said Heng Samon, secretary-general of IDEA.

“The trailers caused traffic jams in the city, then the traffic laws did not allow trailers to go in the city,” Mr. Samon said.

The solution to clogged streets came around 2000. With an influx of tourists, Cambodians in Siem Reap, influenced by Thailand’s tuk-tuks, built the modern, shorter motorcycle-pulled rickshaws with cushioned seats.

“They brought tourists around Siem Reap and the Angkor area,” Mr. Pok said. “They saw more and more people were interested, and then people began using them more and more.”

They are now an integral part of Phnom Penh—no tourists, or residents, can stroll through the city without hearing cries of “tuk-tuk”—much to the consternation of many pedestrians.

The word itself is still up for debate, however.

“We call it motor tricycles,” said Prak Vuthy, chief of marketing to Asean countries at the Ministry of Tourism, noting that the word ‘tuk-tuk’ comes from Thailand.

Mr. Pok of the tourist association said his name of choice was “remorque,” a French word that was at one point widely used to refer to tuk-tuks.

Yet others defend the word ‘tuk-tuk,’ saying that it is onomatopoeic and mimics the sounds a tuk-tuk makes as it travels.

Mr. Brunner has no problem calling his creation a tuk-tuk. He’s protective of his business as well —despite interested buyers, he is only renting out the tuk-tuks at $80 a month, $30 if they have advertisements on them.

Pheap Phop, who has been driving around his new bean-shaped carriage for more than three months, has not seen any substantial profit compared to his old wooden tuk-tuk, which he bought for $800. But his purple tuk-tuk covered in ads for Ezecom costs him a dollar a day to rent, so he is satisfied to embrace the contemporary look.

“I did not have to spend a lot,” Mr. Phop said. “This tuk-tuk gets more attention from the tourists.”

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that there are more than 600,000 tuk-tuks in Phnom Penh, according to the Independence Democratic of Informal Economic Association (IDEA), a union that represents tuk-tuk drivers among other members. It should have stated that there are more than 6,000.

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