With an increasing number of tuk tuks fighting for customers, more metred taxis on the road and the launch of a series of Uber-style apps, the traditional tuk tuk is struggling to survive. Erin Hale finds out more. Photography by Enric Català.

It’s the early hours of the morning and the party is winding down. It’s time to go home but the streets are deserted without a tuk tuk in sight, and then the rain starts to pour.

This is an all-too-common scenario for many living in the capital, along with haggling over fares, which seem to be increasing across the capital, and waking up a driver dozing in a hammock that precariously swings inside his vehicle.

The good news for passengers in Phnom Penh is these days are coming to an end, thanks to a rise in private taxis that operate through the night, coupled with the launch of several app-based taxi and tuk tuks that operate 24/7.

The bad news for traditional tuk tuk drivers is the rise in competition coupled with these factors is leading to a huge oversupply, fierce competition and a struggle to make ends meet.

“There is too much competition today; too many tuk tuks on the road. It is very difficult to make money,” says Tan Sopheap, who has been driving tuk tuks in the capital for the last five years.

Catering mainly to the tourist and Western expat market having enrolled on an English course to boost his potential clientele, the 36-year-old fears his livelihood will be threatened further as more customers turn to services such as EXNET Taxi and EZGo, which provide customers with metred taxis, tuk tuks and SUVs that can be booked through smart phones and rely on GPS to set a pickup and destination point – think Uber and Lyft.

The rise in private hire taxis on the road is also led by demand, with safety, comfort, ease, an escape from the fumes of mounting traffic in the capital and cost all being cited as the reasons many residents opt to use them.

“Some of my customer get taxis because they say at night it is safer,” Tan says. “The roads are more busy with more cars these days, so they also like to be inside with air-conditioning. This worries me because making money is very hard for me now.”

GPS is another major perk that comes with EZGo and EXNET, taking away the often lengthy time spent trying to find locations. Both EXNET and EZGo, known as PassApp Taxi in iTunes and Google Play stores, rely on the same third-party software that can pinpoint locations on Google Maps. The driver’s location and journey can then be tracked using GPS.

Canadian expat Mia Chung, who recently used EXNET for a ride to the city suburbs, says the service was easier than calling a taxi or hailing down a tuk tuk on the street.

“We were looking to go a bit out of town and wanted a reliable method. [EZNET] was recommended to me by a friend, among many options, including a couple of taxi numbers,” Chung says. “This was better because I didn’t have to fuss with bad phone connection, not hearing the other end, translation issues and, because this has a GPS tracker and is location-based, you don’t have any question of accuracy or address miscommunication.”

Taxis and app-organised tuk tuks also come faster than other services, claims Dutch customer Janneke Hoogestraten. When she calls her regular cab driver at night it can take up to 30 minutes for him to arrive. EXNET takes “five minutes” since it works with a fleet of vehicles running 24 hours a day.

Annabelle Hor, who founded EXNET with her husband Daluch, says while they have seen growth since launching in June, they are struggling to court Cambodians, who see the app as potentially more expensive or difficult to use, opting to call taxis or their regular driver instead.

“When we started, it was something very new in Cambodia, so we could see not everyone, especially local Cambodian people, knew how it worked,” Hor says. “What we could see with our study is at least every month it’s growing because more people are getting to how this system works.”

Rates, however, are highly competitive, with a 1,000 riel ($0.25) to 2,000 riel ($0.50) flag-down fee and charge of 1,400 riel ($0.34) to 2,600 riel ($.0.64) per kilometre depending on the vehicle. EXNET has a fleet of 400 metred taxis and SUVs on call, EZGo specialises in small Indian-style metred tuk tuks, and now taxis. 

Hor is thinking of branching into other cities, such as Siem Reap or Sihanoukville. She also says she is considering working with regular tuk tuks to court tourists seeking a more “local” experience than a taxi or SUV ride – which may mean drivers such as Tan can stay in the loop of Cambodia’s transit changes.

Despite the perks of taxis, including air-conditioning and eliminating the fear of late-night bag snatches, there’s still something to be said for personal preference of tuk tuks or the novelty for tourists of riding in one of Southeast Asia’s most iconic vehicles.

“[Tourists] want to feel the typical Cambodian experience,” says Hor. “That’s one thing we are also considering before moving to Siem Reap, because if I am a tourist I would prefer to ride the tuk tuk because I like the style.”