Forget buses, taxis or mopeds, the only authentic way to travel in a city like Phnom Phen or Chauo Duc is by man-powered cyclo. Waiting outside most hotels or lounging on street corners, cyclo drivers (peddlers?) and their 3-wheeled bikes complete with a small cart or seat large enough for one person eagerly await to move people through the city, whether merging into the full-throttle flow of traffic bristling with cars, trucks, motors and SUVs (that look even larger in contrast to the smallness of most vehicles in Asia) or down the twisting arteries of alleys that branch of these main thoroughfares.
In the amazing sriverside city of Phnom Phen we had a group of 7 persons anxious to see the city and get to the central monument that marks Cambodia’s liberation. Our drivers were all dark-skinned men whose age was ambiguous. All were small, wiry, lithe with compact and super-strong muscles from years of peddling their cyclos through the city. One person per cart and suddenly you are off, dodging and weaving through the heavily traffic streets like a punch-drunk pugilist. What an amazing way to see the sights!
At street level, mixed in to the throngs of others on their way to somewhere, we rode along the city’s streets, heads moving left, right, then left again trying to take in all the sights and wonders available for the eyes. The seats are surprising comfortable as the rider can lean back against a tall backrest and extend her feet onto a another bar in front. Just above and behind the rider’s head, the cycle driver’s body bobs up and down as he peddles with all his might to navigate the flow of traffic.
Admittedly, it’s a little scary at first. You have placed your life into the hands of the cyclo man and banking on the fact that he’s done this for years, knows how to move about the hoards of drivers, to ebb and flow with the movement on the streets. It is still somewhat daunting to find yourself being peddled through a roundabout, surrounded by enormous Lexus SUVs that seem oblivious to anyone else on the road. The cyclo, being the smallest and slowest form of wheeled vehicles, must yield to all others. However, it would seem these larger cars, these faster modes of transport, would be considerate of the ancient cyclo, appreciate the beauty of the peddled bike, the hard-working driver, this method of travel that probably dates back to the rickshaw….not necessarily so. Bigger does prove to have more power, and in my cyclo I almost brushed my elbow up against several speeding cars and SUVs that either didn’t see our humble ride or ignored us, zooming past in a wave of diesel.
Taking a cyclo tour is the best way to see the city and support a unique form of traditional transport. To be eye-level on the street, to hear the labored but steady breathing of the man spending his energy to move you about the city, to be surrounded by buildings, each one more interesting than the last, is an amazing experience…so much fun it is hard to express in words. Siem Reap is a city that easily blends the old and new as sleek glass high-rises sit next to wooded structures that look like a strong breeze might topple them. The waterfront is a long strip of walkway where locals and tourist gather to stroll by the river front and play. Families enjoy picnics, kids chase each other, lovers meander hand in hand. Next to this wide sidewalk that abuts the bay, there are shops and restaurants and a hundreds of outdoor cafes, filled with people dining al fresco or sipping a cocktail. It is hard to believe that earlier that day I was in another city in Cambodia where people live in stilted houses with limited power and primitive bathrooms outside their homes. Such contrast.
My cyclo driver is kind, a tiny man who is all sinewy muscle. He smiles at me warmly, revealing his missing teeth. The light in his deep brown eyes dances. “Me Sun Doc,” he says, pointing to his thin chest. “I Cambodia.” I like his spirit and feel happy to be in his cyclo…I am also happy that I am a fairly light fair and won’t cause him to stress his aging muscles. With Sun Doc as my guide, I am peddled through the capital of Cambodia in search of temples, monuments, markets and another spicy meal. What a way to go! For about 4 US dollars you get both transportation and tour. A generous tip and a thank-you handshake assure my cyclo driver that his art is appreciated. I, for one, would never opt for a taxi or dare to drive a motorized vehicle through these jam-packed streets. For one, it would be terrifying as the rules of the road seem arbitrary but more importantly, by flying past everything so quickly you miss the real experience.
The cyclo is the quintessential way to tour, to support these men who have dedicated their lives to this form of transport and to ride in styles, in a brightly decorated 3-wheeled rig, complete with handmade hand brake. Frightening, exhilarating, fun and an eco-friendly option…Cyclos and their drivers rule.