PHNOM PENH — Perched on a plastic chair under the shade of his warehouse at Heng Ly market, Shiek Chhai watches as the first shipping container of the day arrives packed with used bicycles — its open mouth gaping at the dirt courtyard already scattered with hundreds of unloaded bikes. A team of five young men carry the bicycles off one at a time, while another small team works to repair a portion of them in the corner, with another pile left “raw” for wholesale buyers to fix themselves or use for parts.
Behind Shiek Chhai is the empire he’s been building since the late 1980s, although he says his 15,000-strong supply, separated over three warehouses, moves too often to let anything sit still long. During a visit to Phnom Penh in 1989, he saw other vendors selling used bicycles from Thailand, and he joined the four or five vendors in Orussey market. Two decades later, he moved to his new location in Heng Ly, where today he imports solely from Japan. A humorless negotiator, he cracks his first smile when asked what about his negotiating strategy.
“If they want to buy the cheap one I tell them it’s not good,” he says. “I tell them that the expensive bike is still new and good quality."
Cambodia’s used bicycle market has grown considerably since the late 1980s. Shohei Oikawa, the owner of Renuu Base, a recycled Japanese goods store, estimates that about half of Cambodia’s second-hand bikes come from Japan (others are imported from Taiwan, China, and Thailand). Nearly all 7 million of Japan’s yearly bicycle exports are used and earmarked for export to developing countries, destined to end up in markets resembling Heng Ly.
While Cambodia’s Ministry of Commerce reported a nearly 20% decrease in demand during 2020, vendors chalk the loss up to reduced need for transportation amid the pandemic, and report a recent increase in cycling interest of late, for safe transit and recreation.
Last year, some $8.38 million worth of used bikes were imported to Cambodia overall, with $5.89 million worth coming from Japan. That was down from 2019, when Cambodia received $7.5 million in bikes from Japan (or about 400,000 units), making it the third highest recipient behind Myanmar and Ghana.
Oikawa says that about 60% to 70% of Japan’s used bicycle exports come from those sold to secondhand and recycling shops, who then sell to companies specializing in vehicle exports. Others are abandoned on the streets of Japan’s bicycle-heavy cities or picked up by police and officials for parking infractions. Unable to sell them on the domestic market, entrepreneurs turned their gaze to secondhand goods buyers like Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and Cambodia in the early 1990s.
“Almost all secondhand bicycles, nobody knows where they come from, where they’re bought and who is selling to who,” Oikawa said of Cambodia’s market, where the unique “lump sum” trade policy allows for shipping containers to be brought in without accounting for the origin and cost of each individual bike.
As Orussey, famous for its bicycle market, has shifted toward newer, unused models, Heng Ly — with the countless piles visible from the streets surrounding it — retains its reputation as the used supercenter of Cambodia. Some of Heng Ly’s imports end up being transported further inland to markets competing for size, such as Poipet or the Rong Kluea Market just across the border in Thailand.
“There is a big second hand bicycle market and all Khmer people, they say it’s Heng Ly, it’s the older market,” Oikawa said.
Diamonds in the rough
Cambodia’s unique trade policy with Japan has provided it with a vast array of bikes, all with their own unknowable back stories. Tucked into mountains of cheap city bikes at Heng Ly’s nearly identical shop fronts, which give way to cavernous warehouses, are the more rare finds. Sitting in front of Shiek Chhai’s own shop is a cherry red Japanese postal bike, used to deliver mail in the country until being replaced by motorized scooters — yours for only $400, he says stonefaced.
In another warehouse, a steel bike branded “Cove,” with the more jarring title “Hand Job” written sleekly above, might escape notice of all but the most educated buyer. This handmade Canadian steel frame is a rare find from a company whose production remains extremely limited, and is unsurprisingly in the same family as models “STD,” and “Stiffee.” Propped up next to it is the more G-rated Santa Cruz Chameleon, whose niche and sought-after 15-year-old frame alone would cost one upwards of $600.
Sellers learn quickly from customers and the internet which brands are worth what, and often buyers will entrust shops to find them specific bikes and avoid counterfeits. Chhun Ra, who has worked at Heng Ly for five years, says he learned most of what he knows from his mother, who has sold new and used bikes at Orussey for the last 30 years. He says his operation has grown significantly since his first trip to Japan, when he was starting his solo importing career — rather than buying off the local shipping containers.
“It's easy. There is an existing business. I know everything,” he explained. "I go there to see the bicycle and I know how much I can sell in Cambodia. I can estimate. I see the brand of bicycle, quality, and then I total tax and it’s clear and everything. In general, if I can compete on price with other competitors I bring it."
Chhun Ra sells mostly wholesale to NGOs these days, but once in a while makes a sale of up to $1,000 for a racing or mountain bike. But many end up in Southeast Asia because they’ve been damaged. As teams of mechanics and cleaners swarm the frames to polish the wares for purchase, Chhun Ra notes the most common ways they meet their “expiration date”: broken spokes, cracked rims, or damage to the frame. Beyond that, anything salvageable is repurposed for its parts, and frames made of valuable metals are bought by industrial waste companies.
While piles of mismatched pedals, decapitated seats, and discarded tires reveal a hodgepodge of quality, the process after delivery is mechanical in its execution. Upon arrival, bicycles are separated into three tiers, ranked by their quality. While some shops specialize in the cheap city bike, others have adopted a specialty-only approach, lining their entrance with racing and mountain bikes, juxtaposed against chickens and dust: Louis Gardeau, Cannondale, Trek. One specialty seller says her most expensive bikes are around $6,000.
Market prices have been driven down as more and more vendors and importers try to carve out their place in the industry, and as increasingly savvy importers like Chhun Ra form their own relationships with Japan’s exporters. Oikawa says he’s watched Cambodia’s used bicycle market become increasingly saturated with each passing year, a sentiment echoed by Heng Ly’s vendors and importers.
About six years ago, importer Em Savin joined the market after hearing about the profitable business of bicycle imports. After finding a business partner in Japan who could purchase the bikes at one of the many Tokyo-based companies exporting two-wheelers, he works with a shipping company to deliver his partner’s finds to the provinces as well as a smaller bicycle market in Orussey.
Em Savin looks on as his crew hauls the 400 bikes out of a shipping container, pairing detached seats with their frame before being sat in the middle of the market. From here, he says, he’ll sell to the shops in the market. These “wholesale” bikes are individually bought by his partner in Japan, then snatched up by local vendors, individual customers, and NGOs at about $20 for a children’s bike, $30 for a city bike, and anywhere from $70 to $100 for a mountain bike.
He normally brings in about three to four shipping containers a month, but among the dozens of importers up to three shipping containers arrive every day at Heng Ly. Em Savin says it’s a buyers market.
“We do not make much profit because the market is competitive, not just us,” he said. " It’s not only us that have used bicycles, there are new bikes, so there are many options, so people have many choices. So if we sell for too much profit, they will not buy from us."
Business shows no signs of slowing, as vendors and importers note a significant interest in cycling these days, especially as the country begins to return to a post-pandemic normal. Many believe it’s the result of less congested roadways during the pandemic, while others chalk it up to the greater affordability and safety bicycles provide as Cambodia’s road conditions improve.
“I want our people to be interested in cycling,” Em Savin said. “It's good for the environment and affordable for people to buy and it's good for health."