On a recent afternoon, Chdou Kosey, a third-year student at the National University of Management, sat on his cyclo reading a book of conversational English. He peddled his cyclo, he said, to support his studies.
"If I used my family's money for my studies here, it would be too much for them," the 22-year-old said. "Therefore, I decided to peddle a cyclo in my free time."
Unlike other cyclo drivers, who are typically of an older generation, Chdou Kosey said he merely wished to explore the life of cyclo peddlers. Besides, he said, there are stories of many successful people who started off as cyclo drivers.
"In fact, I heard from my teacher that some excellencies also peddled the cyclo," he said. "The cyclo is just my temporary job."
The cyclo has been a ubiquitous vehicle since it was brought by the French under colonization. An estimated 2,000 can still be found, mainly in Phnom Penh, but the numbers are dwindling.
The cyclo has been a traditional job provider for many provincial poor. A typical cyclo driver often has no place to sleep but the street, or in pagodas, and they are often hustled away by police. Some people say the cyclo, though pollution free, may be on its last leg, as demand for them decreases.
Still, cyclo drivers persist. Pich Moeung, 66, who was waiting one day for a passenger outside the National Museum, said he had been peddling since Sangkum Reastr Niyum; his father had pulled a rickshaw for the French.
Now, he has a cyclo purchased on loan from a local organization. He pays about 1,000 riel per day from his 15,000 riel daily earnings, he said, "and the rest is used for buying food and for savings."
Keo Chantha, who sells cyclos from a shop in Phnom Penh, blamed the decrease in demand on the increased purchases of tuk-tuks and other passenger vehicles.
"There are many three-wheeled motorbikes, so I sold out [most of] my cyclos because there are fewer peddlers," she said. "I may stop doing this business in a year. Now there are about 10 cyclo shops left in Phnom Penh because there is no space for parking and no peddlers. I think it will disappear in the next four or five years."
With prices of food and other goods increasing nationwide, cyclo drivers say they have not seen an increase in their own fares. Faced with penny-pinching dilemmas, cyclo passengers seem lothe to part with increased fares.
"The riders are former customers, no new customers," said Chdou Kosey, the student. "Some dare to buy motorbikes, so they do not mind spending money for the high fuel. The price for cyclo remains the same."