Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Unable to Afford Rent, Thousands of Ride Hailing Drivers Sleep in Their Vehicles in Phnom Penh

Drivers of ride-hailing services sleep in their vehicles, which are covered with mosquito nets, in an empty plot in Boeng Kak in Phnom Penh on June 16, 2024. (CamboJa/ An Vichet)
Drivers of ride-hailing services sleep in their vehicles, which are covered with mosquito nets, in an empty plot in Boeng Kak in Phnom Penh on June 16, 2024. (CamboJa/ An Vichet)

Thousands of ride-hailing drivers in Phnom Penh are forced to live in their vehicles as they cannot afford to rent rooms, many of them expressing despair in life.

However, a government spokesperson remarked that the lives of those who can afford to have a “tuk-tuk”, a three-wheel vehicle used to transport passengers, or taxi cars are “not too miserable”. 

Vorn Pao, president of Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA), said more than 20,000 tuk-tuk and taxi drivers from all over the country are members of the association. In Phnom Penh alone, there are over 15,000 members, where some 30% or 4,500 of them sleep in their vehicles at night, he added.

The trend of drivers sleeping in their vehicles began during the Covid-19 outbreak and has continued since. Some of the members have completely lost their income while others have had their income reduced by half. 

“Their income has seen a dramatic drop, meaning that it is near zero now. The sharp drop makes it very hard for them [to sustain] in terms of daily expenses, including gas and vehicle repairs,” said Pao. 

Yan Phary is a taxi driver who transports passengers between Phnom Penh International Airport and Bavet city. Previously, he stayed in a rented room but over the past two years, he has been sleeping in his car to save on rental and utility bills.

It has been unusually quiet since Khmer New Year, he said, adding that he used to do two trips a day, earning about 200,000 riel (approximately $50) but this month, he has had no passengers for three days in a row. The 39-year-old man said he has not slept well and suffers from a few ailments. 

“I am not very healthy and I fall sick very often these days. I never used to be sick but I’ve had a few health issues such as stomach and intestinal problems, poor eyesight and an increased level of acid in the last few years. I don’t know how high my acid level is now. I feel numb and pain in my arms and legs,” he said. 

Phary has two school going children and has to spend around 30,000 riel a day, and repay a bank loan of $350 every month.

A tuk-tuk driver asleep in a hammock inside his tuk-tuk parked along a street in Boeng Kak area, Phnom Penh, June 16, 2024. (CamboJa/ An Vichet)

Sleeping with cramps and mosquitoes

Chres Sokrann, 44, has been sleeping in his tuk-tuk vehicle in Srah Chak commune, Daun Penh district, Phnom Penh, for three years. Sleeping in the tuk-tuk has helped him save $50 a month from room rent, $30 from monthly parking for his tuk-tuk, as well as utility bills.

From Takeo province, Sokrann said he used to earn between 120,000 riel and 150,000 riel a day. After deducting gas and food expenses, he would take home at least 80,000 riel a day. But, nowadays, he can earn only 40,000 to 50,000 riel a day, saving only 20,000 riel or less after expenses. The drop in income has caused him to overthink, worry about many things and feel hopeless.

The number of drivers sleeping in their vehicle has been rising daily, said Sokrann, adding that he knows around 70% of his colleagues who did that as their lives are in a state of desperation, working hard but hardly making enough to make ends meet.

Sleeping in the tuk-tuk at night has exposed them to risks, such as storms, heavy rain, thefts and disturbance by thugs. Sokrann said he goes to sleep at 11pm or midnight and gets up early to find passengers, sleeping only four or five hours a day. On some nights, he sleeps even less as he is not able to fall asleep, choosing instead to drive around to look for passengers.

Sokrann and his friends suffer from dizziness and pain in their limbs as they do not get proper sleep or food. “We can’t [all] fit [our arms and legs] in the tuk-tuk. At times, we sleep on our side, so we only get one or two hours of sleep, and then we wake up with cramps in our legs. [We] apply some balm and then go back to sleep again,” said Sokrann. 

Another tuk-tuk driver who spends his nights in his vehicle is Soeun Ratana. Three years ago, he stopped renting a room, and started sleeping in his tuk-tuk in a place in Boeng Kak. Since then, more than 30 drivers have joined him there. Despite saving on rent money and consuming less food, his total income still does not cover his household expenses. 

“My income has decreased. It has been very difficult for me and my friends. It is impossible to support our living costs. We used to earn 100,000 riel a day but now we only earn 50,000 riel,” said Soeun Ratana.

Neou Noeun, 50, picks up passengers regularly around the Chroy Changva roundabout. His income started to drop after Covid-19, and reduced even more in June 2024. “It’s so hard now. There are not many passengers. I think the decrease [in income] is more than 30%. In the past, even on a worst day, we could earn 40,000 to 50,000 riel. But now we earn almost nothing,” said Noeun.

Can’t go home despite missing children and family 

In Srah Chak commune, around Boeng Kak area, there are many supermarkets, malls and beer gardens. There are also many tuk-tuk drivers who stay in groups throughout the night. Some groups are small with five tuk-tuks, others are bigger with 10, 20 or 30 tuk-tuks. They park their vehicles on the sidewalks or vacant land where there is no construction yet.

Between 11pm and midnight, the drivers flock the area, ending the day like ants heading back to their mounds at night. They are tired and do not talk much to each other. After getting there, they start unrolling their mosquito nets and setting up their simple bedding. Some fix the mosquito nets inside the tuk-tuk while others cover the entire vehicle. 

Asked how they relieve themselves at night, they said they look for nearby bushes, empty areas or drive to a nearby gas station. They wake up early in the morning and shower at gas stations, wash their clothes and dry them on the tuk-tuk. 

Tuk-tuk vehicles are mobile homes for these drivers. They store their luggage, a mosquito net and a blanket in there. At a glance, it looks like a happy tour, but the reality is somber. The drivers hide their worries from people. Due to their struggles and need to earn a living, sometimes they neglect looking after their health.

Some of the drivers from Kampong Cham, Prey Veng and Takeo provinces, have not visited their families and children for three to four months although they miss them as they cannot afford losing time, which was “better used” to earn money to support household income and repay bank loans. 

The image of drivers sleeping in their vehicles is not only noticeable in Phnom Penh International Airport, Srah Chak commune and Daun Penh district but in other districts and communes in the capital as well, particularly around Doeum Kor, Doeum Thkov and Tuol Tompung markets, and Koh Pich.

A tuk-tuk driver rests in his vehicle along a street in Phnom Penh, June 19, 2024. (CamboJa/ Pring Samrang)

‘It’s not bad for those who have tuk-tuks’ 

Dr. Neam Leang Chhim, a director of a private clinic in Phnom Penh, said people who do not eat or sleep well can suffer from various illnesses and affect their brain too. 

“It’s a condition called brain shrinking. It means that the brain shrinks because it lacks oxygen and blood, causing one to be forgetful or having memory loss. This is a result of insufficient sleep and food,” said Leang Chhim. 

A medical practitioner and businessman, Dr Mengly Quach, explained that one main issue people face is not having a good sleep. It can affect physical and mental health, and may even lead to death.

“Generally speaking, lack of sleep has severe complications. It leads to high blood pressure, and over time, can cause diabetes, heart problems or even stroke due to fat in the brain. These problems occur quite often,” said Mengly. 

Phnom Penh City Hall spokesperson Met Measpheakdey declined to comment, saying that he has “no report” regarding the growth of tuk-tuk drivers sleeping in their vehicles by the roadside.

Tuol Kork district governor Chea Pisey and Sen Sok district governor Mov Manith said “they were busy” after listening to the questions by the journalist. 

Meanwhile, Chamkarmon district governor Keang Leak mentioned that there were not many tuk-tuk drivers sleeping in their vehicles in the district except for those who wait for passengers at NagaWorld Hotel and Casino.

He added that “as far as security is concerned, it has been strengthened recently”. 

“We’ve been cracking down on youth gangs recently, so we ensure [security and order]. It has been quiet. In the past, there were cases of motorbike stunts which were successfully stopped. As far as general security is concerned, we conduct police patrols every night,” said Keang Leak.  

Commenting on people’s livelihoods, he said those engaged in the formal and informal economy in his district are “earning like normal” and there was “no significant impact”. 

Government spokesperson Pen Bona said Cambodia was impacted by the global economic slowdown, following the pandemic and Russia-Ukraine war. But thanks to the government’s efforts, Cambodians were “not severely impacted”, noting that $1.2 billion was allocated for vulnerable families during the pandemic.

Asked about the lives of ride-hailing service providers, Pen Bona said what they were going through was normal as every occupation has difficulties.  

“It’s normal. Every business always has bad and good times, ups and downs. Every business person goes through this. When times are good, people spend more, when times are bad, they spend less. But I believe that it’s not so bad for people who own a tuk-tuk or a taxi car for a living,” he shared.

Economic growth might not be equal

In April, Seasia Stats revealed that Cambodia ranked top in ASEAN and third in Asia for having the highest economic growth rate among 20 countries. A recent report by the government also showed that the GDP per capita in Cambodia has increased from $279 in 1998 to $2,627 in 2024.

The report, however, drew ire on social media as many said the data did not correspond with reality. Many Cambodians said it has been very difficult for them to earn a living contrary to national and international reports which say that the Cambodian economy and people’s income have increased.

Director of the Center for Policy Studies (CPS) Chan Sophal said the economic growth report only looked at “big sectors” such as agriculture, industry and services, which might not economically benefit the general public. 

“If there are many complaints, we wonder if there are indeed more impacts. If so, the economic growth is 5.8% but the growth might only occur in certain business groups that export products in large quantities, so the distribution of economic growth is not equal among individuals,” said Sophal. 

The government led by the Cambodian People’s Party set a goal for Cambodia to become a high middle-income country by 2030 and high-income country or developed country by 2050. However, a World Bank report in June 2024 found that Cambodia might face difficulties achieving the goal because the education system is “not good”. 

Yong Kim Eng, president of the People for Development and Peace Center, urged relevant government institutions to look into the problem and find effective solutions. 

“The government should resolve this issue for them or if they sleep [in their vehicles], a safe place should be provided. This is what the authorities should look into,” he said. 

Despite “positive” responses by government officials, IDEA’s Vorn Pao said people in the informal economic sector including ride-hailing drivers continue to face hardships. He felt that the government should come up with measures to help them. 

“There should be a mechanism to provide loans in any form so that people can continue this job. In addition, there should be arrangements for rental of affordable apartments so that they don’t [have to] sleep in their tuk-tuk or taxis,” he added.

Note: This article was translated from a Khmer article.