Thursday, July 08, 2010

Tuk Tuk Politics

I dislike many of Cambodia's tuk tuk drivers. I once read in a forum some guy defending them as "mostly decent guys trying to earn a living." In my experience most of them are crooks.

I say this having personally taken many tuk tuks (those hired by other people), negotiated on behalf of visiting friends, even employed wives of tuk tuk drivers (no more). I have encountered dozens of them in my 4 years in Cambodia and have grown to dislike them.

Today I learnt I am not alone, which is what prompted this blog post. Wandering Mama had this to say about Cambodia's tuk tuk drivers:

"In a word: Obnoxious. The smarmy guys outside our hotel in Phnom Penh gave us sob-stories while plying us with business cards and trying to exhort promises that we would call only them....The thing is if you tell them to go scratch or get pissy they love it. They want you to get mad. Then they lay it on thick and talk shit to their buddies about you in Khmer, laughing about getting the foreigner riled. And riled you get. Following one such exchange with a driver today, WPapa and I got into one of those classic on-the-street yelling matches (Why the F are we here, this was your idea…”) We were sweating, dragging kids along a busy street without a sidewalk, headed nowhere, all keyed up by the damn drivers."

This was in Phnom Penh and I've been told the tuk tuks there are much more aggressive than in Siem Reap. Oh the stories I have heard.

This one, by a French expat friend. It was late, after midnight, when she tried to get a tuk tuk to take her home, a distance that was literally 200 metres away (yes, I would have walked too - but it was late). The guy wanted US$3, for a trip that would cost US$1 at most. Ok, it was late, so she offered US$2. But he wouldn't budge. Fed up, she decided to call a taxi, which would have been cheaper (meter starts at $1 and the 200 m would amount to less than US$2 for an air-conditioned, smooth ride).

The tuk tuk driver started swearing at her and yelling "fucking Chinese taxi company". My friend was perplexed, as we all are - this guy who was sleeping in his tuk tuk would rather continue sleeping than earn an easy US$2. So why even bother to get up to talk to my friend?

Those of you living in the US or Singapore or some other rich country may be thinking, "Come on, it's only an extra buck." It is. But for many of us expats, it's become a matter of principle.

My American friend, a woman, tells me she would rather walk a mile to find another tuk tuk than to use the one that pissed her off by trying to gouge her from the words "tuk tuk madam".

It's like what my partner Alan says: We are happy to be generous, but don't anticipate our generosity.

(Perhaps you think it is a matter of principle for the tuk tuk driver too - "US$3 or nothing for me to wake up from my sleep and drive 200m". Fair enough, but then don't get pissy if the potential customer choses otherwise).

This is why I only use and recommend tuk tuk drivers who are known to me - Phoen in Siem Reap and Sophal in Phnom Penh. These 2 men I have known for 3 years. And the reason I continued to hire Phoen and Sophal after the first chance meeting with them is because they were honest and decent. Cambodia is like Bali to me in this regard - so many crooks that when you meet a decent person, you just want to reward him for his honesty. Completely screwed up I know, but this is how I often think and act - giving an extra tip for "honesty".

Anyway, this post is about tuk tuk driver politics.

I just learned this about Siem Reap - when a guesthouse sends a tuk tuk driver to pick you up at the airport, the guesthouse DOES NOT PAY the tuk tuk driver. The drivers do it for free, because they hope you will then employ them for your 3 day tour to Angkor Wat.

I think this is dishonest and disgusting - come on, guesthouse owners, your customer is paying you for the guesthouse (in my friend's case, 7 nights!), why can't you pay your tuk tuk driver a couple of bucks for providing this service to your customer? (If any guesthouse owner pays his/her tuk tuk drivers for this service instead of asking them to suck it up, let me know - I will recommend your establishment to my friends).

It makes me mad because customers are deceived and limits their choice of tuk tuk (if they know the truth and are decent people).

Let me explain.

My friends, a couple, who were staying at a Singapore-owned guesthouse had this happen to them. They had no idea the tuk tuk driver who got them at the airport was not paid, so they only gave him a US$1 tip. Meanwhile, because the guy had gone to get them for free, he was mightily displeased to learn from the couple that they may be going with Phoen to Angkor Wat.

Of course, he did not dare say anything to me. What happened was Kagna's friend, another tuk tuk driver, had dropped by the Bloom shop in the hopes of the couple using his tuk tuk (Kagna had mentioned to them I had friends visiting). That started the dispute. Tuk tuk 1 told tuk tuk 2 off, saying "hands off - since I picked them up at the airport, they are my customers".

When my friends and I found out tuk tuk 1 was not paid by the guesthouse, of course we felt bad for him. My friends decided they could either pay him for the airport trip ($5) or use his tuk tuk to go to Angkor (he wanted US$15 even though it is just $10-$12 nowadays because it is low season). They decided to go to Angkor with him for just one day.

It was easy money for him, as we spent a lot of time at the temples taking photos, so only did the main three. If you ride a motorbike in Cambodia, you will know the petrol costs less than a litre for this distance, so about a dollar (the tuk tuk is basically a carriage pulled by a motorbike). If he owns his tuk tuk as this guy did, U$$14 was profit (ok, maybe $12 or $13 if you minus maintenance costs).

This is why there are so many motodops and tuk tuk drivers in Cambodia - it is very profitable business. Chhun Hy used to bug me all the time to lend him money to buy a motorbike because he wanted to be a motodop in his free time because he knew how much money he could earn.

So don't pay any attention to the drivers when tell you the price of petrol has gone up, they have to pay for petrol for your 200-meter, $2, ride etc etc. In fact the price of petrol has come down from a high of almost $1.25 a litre (I think it was 2008?).

Still, not the end of the politicking.

The couple was staying for a week and during Angkor Wat day, tuk tuk 1 kept bugging my friends about their itinerary because he wanted them to continue to employ him for the rest of their stay. Apart from not guarding our things, resulting in the loss of a reflector (for photography), tuk tuk 1 lied to tuk tuk 2 (Kagna's friend) and said the couple had gone home the next day, warding off competition in this way.

Finally, on the last day, I had arranged for Phoen to go to the guesthouse at 5:30am to pick up the couple, as they wanted to watch sunrise on the way to the airport (you can see a very beautiful, striking, large and low orange ball on the horizon).

When Phoen arrived, the security guard at the guesthouse (it was so early that only the guard was around) told him the couple had already left. Phoen was calling me - at 5:30am!! - in a panic. I was really grumpy, since I had gone to bed at 2am. I told him to just wait for my friends. My friends and I don't lie, I told Pheon. If we say we will do something, we will do it.

My friends did appear, of course. Later, Phoen told me he was angry with the "niak eeum" ("night watchman") for lying to him. He says it is because the niak eeum and tuk tuk 1 (the designated guesthouse tuk tuk) are friends, so in cahoots.

Because there are more and more tuk tuk drivers in Siem Reap (I can't find any information on the numbers), it is very competitive. It is low season to boot, so many of the tuk tuks are struggling. Kagna's friend for instance, has a newborn. To save money, he has sent his wife and child to his hometown in the countryside where his family can look after them, while he continues to work in Siem Reap.

I would like to help Kagna's friend, but I can't help everyone. In this case, helping him would be at Phoen's expense. I'll try to spilt customers between them. This is why I often think of a tuk tuk cooperative. All customers go through a single point of contact and the business is divided between the drivers and the profits are shared. Of course there will be some who will prefer being independent, but that's fine. It's to help those who can't make it on their own, like Phoen, cos he doesn't speak English.


Anonymous said...

Ahh Diana! This post brings up so many emotions from when I was living in Phnom Penh. I still haven't figured out how to negotiate all the tuk-tuk/motodup politics. They were a big source of stress (especially once my language skills got better and I could understand what they were saying to one another). I agree that once you find someone you like, it helps to keep using them. It is also more rewarding to develop a relationship with people when you're living somewhere long term. Of course I want tuk-tuk drivers to get paid for their work, but I don't like the tuk-tuk drivers that get paid a commission from a hotel to bring them guests (that is a whole different scam). When I would visit Siem Reap, I would stay at Two Dragons Guesthouse which had a good tuk-tuk policy. They would provide a free pick-up from the bus, but you would then book your tuk-tuk through the hotel and they would determine amongst themselves which driver was available to take you around. For example, my parents had one driver pick them up from the bus, but a different one for the temples (as the first driver was busy). It seems like a fair system.

Diana Saw said...

Hey Alison, thanks for that. Yes I disagree with the commission method too, for the same reason - it limits the customer's choice (in this case, of a guesthouse).

But where a room had been booked via the Internet and free pickup was promised, I had assumed the guesthouse actually paid for the pickup, and not expect the driver to pick up the cost. The guesthouses do this cos they know the drivers are desperate. To me, it's a form of exploitation.

I am with you on the stresses of tuk tuks. This is why we walk everywhere in Siem Reap. I just don't want to have to have anything to do with the tuk tuks. I have to say most of the motodops at the Old Market are pretty decent. Most are very kind to me. :)

When are you back in Siem Reap? Would love to see you and your parents again!

Anonymous said...

Not soon enough unfortunately. Maybe in January if I have the money! I'll definitely let you know :)

imp said...

you're absolutely right on the comparison between Cambodia and Bali when it comes to drivers. these politics annoy me to the point where i'll just close my eyes and pay the hotel many money to get me a driver for the week that i'm in phnom penh. that has worked out much better than fighting with the tuttuk drivers. after work, i just have no more energy to do this every lunch and every night.

Grace Eleora Loo said...

When I was in Cambodia last year for a month, I didn't and still don't quite know how much to pay for each tuktuk or motor ride. In Singapore, all I had to do was flash the EZ-Link card or ask the bus driver how much do I have to pay. No worries at all. In Cambodia, I worry about paying too much or too little.

Because I travel alone most of the time or with friends who have lived there long enough, motor seems to be a better choice. It's much faster, cheaper and of course I enjoy the thrill of it.

I agree that it's better to have the same driver when you take public transport in PP, especially when there are times you need to travel late or to places you're not familiar with. Even though I was in PP for only 5 weeks, my friends were kind enough to introduce their drivers to me.. which meant a lot to me, save me a lot of trouble and bargaining. I have recommend them to Singaporeans friends when they went over, they were all happy with their service.. and of course I don't have to worry for their safety.

Coming to think of it, traveling in Cambodia is expensive..

Saboeun-Cambodia said...

Hi All, I am Cambodian, and I live in Phnom Penh. I don't know how long this comments have been posted but I am agree how bad of some Tuk Tuk in Phnom Penh. Most of the Tuk Tuk drivers are uneducated and they don't know how to do long term business. I have a nephew who used to live in orphanage ( Sunrise Children Village) and now he is 18 and have to leave. He is undertaking his BA in Finance and Banking, his parents does not have enough money to support his living and uni. So I have to get him a Tuk Tuk hopefully he can earn enough to support his living cost and uni fee at the end of the year. I warn him again and again near cheat and charge fair price as I want him to earn the money today and everyday. But with the experience that the Tuk Tuk driver has been giving to the foreigners so far it doesn't make all the tuk tuk look good.
I don't think my nephew will like Others tuk tuk..
All the best,

Unknown said...

Yes, all of this happens and I don't disagree with the points you all have made but I think you've lost sight of the fact that you are talking about differences in wealth & power & people's livelihood. Here's how I manage to feel like I'm not loosing my humanity while getting around the Penh:
- I like to remind myself that if I can afford to ride in a tuk tuk, then I am fortunate.
- I am always polite to tuk tuk drivers who are trying to get my business, I say "No thank you in Khmer" and often get a smile back, which makes my day more pleasant despite the little extra time it takes.
- I ring my usual driver for big trips, night transport & situations where I may have questions & could use some local advice.
- If I use a new driver, I research the distance first by asking around at restaurants etc & negotiate a price that seems fair before I get in.
- I joke when I negotiate.

I've only been in Cambodia a month but I manage to have some street cred. by not being ripped off and I remind myself I'm lucky if I'm about to get annoyed, for instance when I'm trying to cross the road & all the tuk tuks slow down & fill the gap I was about to use. I'm not perfect but I'm happier making this effort to recognise the situation as more complex than scams & cons.


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