Travelling on a busy boulevard in Phnom Penh, an older man pedals his cyclo with a big smile on his face. The 62-year-old Leng Phat waves to a group of people who are waiting for him excitedly, even though the seat of his cyclo is taken up by a special container that leaves no room for passengers.
It might be an unusual response to the arrival of a crowded cyclo, but Leng Phat is not the typical driver.
That’s because his cyclo doesn’t carry passengers, but rather a community pantry established by Local for Local, a broad philanthropic initiative pulled together to aid vulnerable Cambodians during the pandemic. It has been almost three months that Leng Phat has been working for what he calls a ‘’mission to help the poor” in the city as COVID-19 adds to the burden on vulnerable citizens.
‘’I am so excited that I can earn more money to support my living and my family in the province, which is what I always want to do. And I feel proud that I can help others who are facing similar difficulties while I have nothing but this job,” said Phat.
Phat is one of 10 drivers chosen to work on the cyclo community pantry. As cyclos fall out of favor, a trend that has sharply risen due to the economic recession and loss of tourism caused by the pandemic, Phat said he could not be happier with his new role. He said the experience has been life-changing, and he’s no longer worried about waking up with no idea if he’ll be able to earn enough in the day to support himself.
‘’As COVID-19 comes in, everyone, especially those who have such little income like me, are afraid that we do not have enough to afford the three meals in a day,” he said. “There are not so many customers using cyclo for now as there are different choices like PassApp, motodub and tuk-tuk, as well as due to the fear of COVID-19. I could earn only five thousand riels ($1.25) in a day, which is enough for only one meal.”
Hao Taing, the founder of Local for Local, told CamboJA the initiative started this year in Phnom Penh with the aim of helping cyclo drivers and others in need during the COVID-19 pandemic. Local for Local began its work in April and has since worked in partnerships with different organizations to provide food to more than 800 families, including those in the red zones during the previous lockdowns. Taing said the cyclo community pantry was created in June but officially launched on August 28 with the aim of easily connecting people who wish to donate with those who need aid.
‘’We now have 10 cyclo pantries operating in 10 different locations in the city. The main aim of this project is to facilitate those who want to donate food, clothes and other things to help those in need along the streets. As the slogan on the container says, [take what you need, donate what you can],” said Taing.
Besides gathering and distributing supplies, the program is also helping cyclo drivers to generate more income in a time when their livelihoods have plummeted.
Taing said he is planning to extend the cyclo community operation in Phnom Penh as well as in other provinces across Cambodia. He said if COVID-19 cases continue to fall, he will do some exciting events to promote the campaign to larger audiences.
For now, Phat works twice a day driving the mobile pantry, going out once in the morning and again in the afternoon. While driving his cyclo, he receives donations of food, clothes, shoes and items for other basic needs and distributes these goods to people in need.
Phat says Local for Local pays him $22.5 per week and provides other basic supplies as well. With this, he said he could live a better life compared to when he is not working for the project. He said he has been a cyclo driver for more than 25 years and this could be the best moment of his career.
His fellow pantry driver, Hann Sitha, 56, also told CamboJA that the cyclos largely depend on foreign tourists, a scarce sight in Phnom Penh during the pandemic. Due to the economic effects of COVID-19, Sitha said he cannot find any more income. However, as with Phat, the driver Sitha said his own fortunes have changed for the better since joining the philanthropy program.
‘’My colleagues and I are making a better living than before. Even during the COVID-19, with no foreign tourists, we still can earn money to support our family and help others at the same time,” said Sitha.
Those on the other end of the program are also grateful for the experience.
Vorl Oun is a 55-year-old garbage collection worker who told CamboJA she receives food and other basic supplies every day from the cyclo community pantry. She now has enough food to eat in the mornings, unlike her situation before when she needed to skip meals until she arrived home from work.
‘’I wait for the cyclo community pantry drivers every morning and afternoon. When he arrives, he always brings us food as well as other necessary materials. I have enough to eat. I do not have to work while starving like before, and that helps me a lot financially and physically,” Oun said.
Im Sambath is the director of the Cyclo and Career Conservation Association, which counts about 290 members and is partnered with Local for Local. Sambath said the cyclo pantry project not only can help the 10 participating cyclo drivers financially, but also can help them to get involved in charity work and learn how to help others in this critical time.
‘’We are planning to make it bigger than it is now, and we want to inspire everyone to share what they can so that those in need can take it,” said Sambath.